Most people are familiar with Shakespeare’s line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” from Romeo and Juliet. The idea that who or what we are is somehow separate from how we are defined is a swell one, but not one that is always based in reality. This is certainly the case with objects, where how it is defined can have an impact on how much it costs. And that cost, higher or lower, will have an impact on how many people purchase it, how frequently it’s distributed, and any number of other economic considerations.
Books and the book world are not immune to the forces of these definitions, which can be seen in a recent debate over whether eBooks should be considered “goods” or “services.” For example, as Reuters pointed out last week, value-added tax (VAT) is cheaper for print books (considered to be a “good”) than it is for eBooks (considered to be a “service”). Two years ago, the European Commission stated that paper books can have a reduced VAT. France and Luxembourg have been applying these cheaper rates to eBooks anyway, but have recently lost their case. Unless they can convince the EU Commission to either change the definition of eBooks from services to goods, or to simply allow reduced rates for eBooks, it will be more expensive for EU publishers to provide them instead of paper books. While this may be bad news for proponents of the digital format, it’s good news for fans of print.
The book world isn’t alone in debating questions of definition and category in order to have a cheaper price. A similar story can be found in the land of toys, in the case of Toy Biz (a subsidiary of Marvel Comics) v. United States. In the world of action figures, the U.S. charges two different levels of tariffs. One level is for dolls (human figures), and another, lesser, amount for toys (nonhuman creatures). This led to a large debate for Marvel to essentially prove that their action figures were indeed superhuman, and, therefore, should fall within the category with the lower tariff rate.
Only time will tell whether or not the EU will eventually change the VAT for eBooks to be similar to those of print. But it’s worth noting that these definitional debates are impacting whether or not readers have cheap access to stories. So while the story may be the same whether it’s on an eBook or in a print book, it will not cost the same. And this cost doesn’t only vary because of the more obvious reasons of different production costs, supply and demand, etc., but also whether they are considered to be a “good” or a “service;” something that has nothing to do with the quality of work or the medium with which it is consumed.