How an e-book is like a treadmill at the gym

How an e-book is like a treadmill at the gym

Note: this is a re-post of an article which originally appeared in this blog on 2013/04/29. I am scheduled for major surgery on January 17th, and I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to write after that. So, to keep the content going, I am pre-scheduling posts. It’s possible conditions have changed since I wrote it, but I’ll try to lightly edit these when that’s necessary for clarity. 

I see a lot of confusion about what it means when you “buy an e-book” in the Kindle store (or from many other online e-tailers).

Some people think it should be the same as when you buy a physical copy of a p-book (paperbook).

Others say, “You are only renting it.”

Neither one really describes the situation very well.

What you buy (which you own, in the same way you own that p-book copy) is a license to read the book, under certain specific conditions to which you agree when you buy that license.

Let’s try a different analogy.

Suppose you get a gym membership.

You then have the right to go in and use a treadmill.

It’s not a specific treadmill…you may even be able to use your “license” at any one of a number of gyms in the same chain.

You pay…the gym’s responsibility is to have a treadmill you can use.

If the treadmills are all down on one day, you can probably get a pro-rated discount on your gym membership that month.

Now, in that situation, would you expect to be able to sell the treadmill to your neighbor?

No, because you don’t own the treadmill…you own the right to use it.

Are you renting the treadmill?

No, that would suggest you take home a specific individual treadmill for a set amount of time. If it has a scratch on it, you are stuck with that scratched one (although you might be able to exchange it).

You are buying the right to use a treadmill at the gym.

To make this analogy work, we need to make the model a bit different from what you most commonly see at a gym.

Most people pay an annual membership, or a monthly membership, and then they don’t pay per machine.

The annual membership is the equivalent of Amazon Prime. Just on the e-book part of it, you don’t pay for each e-book you use from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. [2019 update: Prime Reading instead of the KOLL] You pay an annual fee (which has significant other benefits…shipping, and Prime videos), and then you get to “use” up to one book a month. [2019 update: the terms are much more generous under Prime Reading]

People chafe at that one book limit: the gym doesn’t say you can only use the treadmill once a month (although it might not be available to you at, say, two in the morning).

Prime streaming video works more like your typical gym…unlimited use of the resources (machines/videos) that are in the gym for an annual fee.

However, the e-book system outside of Prime is different.

You pay a licensing fee for an individual book, and then you have access to that one as much as you want. You can think of it as a lifetime gym membership for that one type of machine…you don’t pay $100 a month for the gym, you pay $10 for a lifetime membership for treadmills.

In this analogy, a specific book (say, The Hunger Games) is like the whole class of treadmills…each type of machine (elliptical, stair stepper) is a different “title”.

Do you own the right to read The Hunger Games when you “buy it” in the Kindle store?


Not just to one copy of The Hunger Games…that’s one of the big advantages of e-book licensing. If you bought a treadmill, brought it home, and then through your own negligence, broke it, you are out of luck on it. That copy is yours, and your responsibility.

If you are at the gym and break the treadmill, you can just move to another treadmill.

There are, of course, also disadvantages of e-books compared to p-books.

As I mentioned above, you can’t sell the treadmill you use at the gym to somebody else.

The gym can also determine what rights you have to share your use. They might allow you to bring a guest to the gym on a “day pass”, but might only allow you to do that with that specific individual one time (if you brought Steve Rogers in once as a guest, you can’t use your guest privilege with Steve Rogers again).

They might also say you can only use your guest privileges once…that’s similar to the lending systems we have with e-books with some e-tailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) where you can only lend an e-book once ever.

We also get the equivalent of a family membership at the gym. Typically, up to six devices can license the same e-book at the same time for one download price. You can think of that as your “family membership” letting you bring up to six people to the gym on the same day for your monthly fee. The licensing is actually better than the gym, since the gym typically makes you specify people who are the family members, and the Kindle store licensing doesn’t care who has devices on your account, or if those people are constantly changing.

Not only can’t you sell the treadmill you use, you can’t sell your rights to use the treadmill to somebody else. The gym controls access to the treadmill. You can’t pay $100 a month to use the gym, and then turn around and have somebody pay you $50 for your rights to the gym that month. Your gym card probably has your picture on it, and identifies you as the person who bought the rights.

That’s like DRM (Digital Rights Management).

This analogy also holds up with the question of what happens to your e-books if Amazon goes out of business at some point (knock virtual wood). 😉

It would be like what would happen if you had that lifetime membership to your gym, and it went out of business.

You wouldn’t have access to your books/the treadmills.

It’s possible another gym would honor your card, and then get you to renew with them in some way…somebody could buy the assets of an Amazon that went under, although it would be a big undertaking.

I’m pretty confident that Amazon is going to be around for some time, although of course, I can’t guarantee that.

When you buy an e-book in the Kindle store, you buy the right to read the book, not a copy of the book. You aren’t renting the right to read it (which would suggest there was a limited timeframe). You own the right, not a copy.

You agree to the Terms of Use, just as you would agree to the gym’s rules (no gum, and wipe down the machine after you use it).

I hope that helps clarify it a bit. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

26 Responses to “How an e-book is like a treadmill at the gym”

  1. Brian Jonson Says:

    Bravo! I have wondered about this for some time. Excellent analogy!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brian!

      Yay! I appreciate you telling me that. 🙂 I hadn’t really come up with a good way to put it before, and I think this works…thanks for letting me know that you thought it worked, too. 🙂

  2. liz Says:

    Very good analogy, except for the part where Amazon goes out of business – if you’ve downloaded copies of books to your device, you can read them, even without the presence of Amazon. I do wonder how the Fire would perform without the Cloud, but the RSKs will do just fine. I save backup copies of my Kindle books to my hard drive sometimes – those also could be “sideloaded” to the Kindle if necessary in a post-Amazon world.

    But I certainly hope that never happens! 🙂

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, liz!

      The important thing to realize there is that the copies you are backing up are almost always keyed for a specific device. You’d only have access to them (without stripping the DRM) while the specific device for which you downloaded them lasted.

      I did think about that when I wrote it…I tend to keep only about ten Kindle store books on any of my devices at a time, so I wouldn’t have access to the ones in the Cloud/Archives.

      When a Kindle Fire is deregistered, you lose access to the Kindle store books you have downloaded to it. I don’t know if it would effectively be deregistered if Amazon went out of business. I also suspect that we will end up with that same functionality on RSKs eventually…that downloaded books will become unusuable if you deregister. I haven’t heard anything that suggests that, but it makes sense to me. Otherwise, you start dealing less with licenses and more with copies, which creates some complications.

  3. Connie Almony (@ConnieAlmony) Says:

    This is a great analogy!!!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Connie!

      Thanks for letting me know you thought so. 🙂 I do like the explanation. It even explains a bit the differences in going with Amazon, say, versus Barnes & Noble.

      Just because you have the rights to use a treadmill at one gym chain doesn’t mean that you have it at another. There are a few people who have gym memberships at more than one chain (maybe one has a pool, but the other has a better workout room), but that’s going to be unusual. You might also pick a gym because of the improvements you expect them to make in the future…

  4. Carol B. Says:

    Love this analogy! I will be sharing it when friends come to me with complaints about the ebooks they “bought.”

  5. T. R. Kolbe Says:

    Great analogy! You made it very simple to understand.

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  7. S. Contreras Says:

    Thank you for explaining. There is so much to learn—this helps! I still would rather have a hard copy in my hands, but technology moves on…

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, S.!

      Well, I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I think my Significant Other had the best line. As my SO was reading on a Kindle, someone sort of scornfully said, “I like the feeling of a book in my hand.” My SO said, “I like the feeling of a hundred in mine.” 🙂

      • Allie Says:

        Oh my gosh! I have about 400 books actually downloaded on my kindle (out of a library of approx 1500) and I feel RICH carrying them around with me. I do love books as a tactile experience – especially because I used to go to readings fairly often and so I could get my books signed and then they were even more precious to me (case in point: at a reading in NYC in 1999, David Foster Wallace signing my first printing of the first edition of Infinite Jest, not to mention every other book of his I owned). Now, I have the opportunity to go to an event with TC Boyle -and something happened that had never happened before -even though he is one of my favorite writers, I do not own a physical copy of any of his books. Shall I buy one to bring? I might. There is something that would be missing without going through the line to get something signed – a chance to interact with a writer for just a minute. I don’t know how that would work without having a hard copy to be signed….
        Sorry this goes so far off topic, on an old thread – your comment about hard copies vs. ebooks triggered this line of thought and I didn’t know where else to post it!

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Allie!

        There actually is software that allows the writer to “sign” an e-book, but you can’t count on that being there.

        You could do a couple of things:

        You could have the author sign their Kindle! You would bring your own permanent pen for that, and you might get several authors’ signatures on the device, eventually.

        Another one would be to have a “skin” for the author to sign.

        Since this is a favorite author of yours, though, I think I would go with buying a paper copy…it’s going to be more of a keepsake than for reading, right? If the signing is in a bookstore, the bookstore usually buys extra copies, just for that purpose. That’s part of why they host the authors. If it’s a private event, I still think I’d buy a new one for that reason…that would also benefit the author, and a used one doesn’t directly.

        Have a great time!

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