The Politics of Copyright

I’ve been wanting to write this all week.  Last Friday, the Republican Study Committee released a phenomenal white paper pushing for some pretty broad reforms in the copyright law. While I myself am not a terribly conservative person, this paper blew me away.  It’s amazing how progressive a statement you can make within the framework of conservative principles, and that’s exactly what they did.  While the RSC rescinded that report within about 24 hours due to “proper review” concerns,* the Electronic Frontier Foundation has the document in full preserved on their website. And you should definitely read it.

I don’t normally write about politics here, but I want to bullet point some of the necessary methods just to illustrate how this document worked.

Strict Constructionism: The first point that they address has to do with the myth of compensating the creator.  Instead the author turns to the language directly in the constitution that copyright is to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  They use that exact language to highlight the fact that the purpose of copyright not solely to compensate the author, but to provide the author a limited time to profit from his creation, so that we, as a nation could promote progress in Science and useful Arts.  Further in the document they talk about how the perpetual extension of copyright hinders innovation.

Laissez Faire Capitalism: The second point has to do with the breadth of the market.  Because copyright is for all intents and purposes indefinite, this creates state sanctioned monopolies on content.  What we see when works go into the public domain is a vast proliferation on that content.  We don’t have to look very far to see that in action.  From The Wizard of Oz we get Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” (and the subsequent musical) the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Tin Man” and innumerable costumes and toys.  From Alice in Wonderland we have dozens of movies, cartoons, miniseries, songs, toys, and reprint after reprint with critical editions and leather bindings and all sorts of things.  If you need a visual then you should look at this chart of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade from the Laissez Faire Blog.  That 1920 line is where Copyright reforms swept in due to Disney trying to protect Steamboat Willey, and it never came back.

Number of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade

From the Laissez Faire blog. We have a huge blindspot, and it’s copyright’s fault.


Tort Reform: On Page 7 when the author starts into the potential policy solutions one of the first things that he looked at was statutory damages reform.  Right now damage for copyright violations and infringement are orders of magnitude beyond the value of the original work.  This disconnect between penalty and reality is what gives us the ludicrous world of the 8 Billion Dollar iPod.  From the paper:

Further, this system creates a serious clogging of the ourts, because copyright holders now recognize that they can accuse anyone of infringemen, and include the threat of $150,000 awards per violation. But in reality, most people then settle for less than that sum, say $3,000.  Scaring a large number of potentially innocent people into settling should not be an effect of copyright law.

Limited Government: As stated above,the perpetual extension of copyright secures the rights of one individual or one company to be the sole entity to profit from a work.  This means that the government is determining who is allowed to profit, and who not, and the resources of government (i.e. the court system) can be used to enforce this regime.  By limiting copyright we limit the government’s role in enforcing copyright.

While the arguments that lead to these conclusions and proposals are definitely conservative base targets, the conclusions and solutions were really the best part.  And Libraries were not left out. Though they reference Project Gutenberg as a digital library initiative, and it is, with the expansion of the public domain there are entire universes of activities that could spring up among public libraries both on their own, through vendors like Overdrive, or coordinated efforts like the Hathi Trust or the Digital Public Library of America.  Expanding the potential for eBook development on a grand coordinated scale can lead the entire world into a new era of research, development, and entertainment.

As we start to look at the future, we’re going to see more disruption in content, and how people engage with it.  It started with music, moved to video, and surprisingly text has been slow to crack.  But with the growing ubiquity of eReading devices, and some fairly well settled ePub standards based on HTML5 this is going to be blowing up, and fast.  And copyright law will either adapt, or be thrown to the wolves on the internet.  Adaptation, and innovation in the sources of funding for limited times will do everyone a service.  The music industry is finally starting to find out how to make this work and it’s taken some pretty bold experimentation among established musicians to do this.  But today the Future of Music group released a pretty amazing checklist of 42 ways you can gain revenue from your work.  This is the kind of exploratory thinking that needs to be happening in the Big Content world, because maintaining perpetual copyright is only going to last so long as you can’t rip the content from a book the way you can rip a CD.  Oh wait, you can now.


*Secretly in my heart of hearts I’m kind of hoping that Derek Khanna, the RSC Staff Contact and Paul Teller posted the document for just long enough, and rescinded it fast enough for the Streisand Effect to take hold and drive the conversation forward. A little too Machiavellian?  Maybe.  But it has certainly been the topic of conversation across the entirety of the tech sector.


EBooks, The Long Tail, and Longevity

This is what we're talking about, without realizing we're talking about it.

Just minutes ago I saw the article come through from Library Renewal on the ever expanding cost and serious problems with libraries buying ebooks, and I couldn’t resist chiming in.  The author makes a few good suggestions like working toward better negotiation for price points and breaking away from letting the vendor also be the digital host.  Those two things would go a long way to making this a better situation for everyone, especially the cash strapped library who has an exponentially increasing demand for digital books.  But there’s a lot more to this story.

The Long Tail

The most valuable asset for any library is its collection, and something that we have known for a very long time is that certain items will trend in popularity during different seasons and during times when society pushes the issues at the heart of that item to the forefront.  An author’s birthday, a 50th anniversary of a classic children’s book, new information on an old story, all of these factors drive people to go back and look for older works.  Where publishers and booksellers capitalize on the new, the library is in it for the long haul.

Chris Anderson wrote “The Long Tail” in 2006, but libraries had known the power of a backlist for centuries.  But what Chris is looking at is how digital trends, and search engine functionality is driving people to rediscover older content more frequently. Case in point, this blog.

I began this blog in June of last year.  And one of the wonderful aspects of WordPress is that they give you some fabulous statistics.  I usually post one article a week, if I’m being good, but I was incredibly busy for the last couple weeks.  And still my blog gets hits, daily.  Just look.

The orange block is the last post I wrote and that was on February 22nd. Note I still have traffic every day, usually about 20 hits.

I know that this isn’t a terribly popular blog.  But traffic is driven to this site every day, usually through some incredibly interesting Google searches.  People search for things, and they get intrigued by the blurb in the search engine results and they come here. Even if I’m not generating new content, that old content is still there, being indexed, searched, and served up to new readers all the time.

But let me show another really important illustration of how the Long Tail really works.  This is my stat chart on the article about which publishing companies supported SOPA.

That first block when I originally wrote the article back in December got 20 hits. On January 18th, during the SOPA blackout protest my article on publishers got over 300 hits, and it slowly ebbed out again. But I still get hits on that article today.

Why do I bring this up?  Because this is the fear that publishers have when they think about libraries buying ebooks.  They look at the long tail and think “OH GOD, they’ll never buy another copy of this book ever again! If people can perennially borrow this book from the library they’ll never buy that book from us!”  There are two glaring flaws in this argument.  1) Publishers don’t want to sell old books and 2) Software changes too rapidly.

Out Of Print

Publishers have never wanted to be in the business of continually reselling every book they ever released.  It’s just way too much hassle, for too little turnover.  The money is in selling new works, at high prices, preferably with enough marketing hype to ensure that they’ll sell multiple printed runs of things.  And once they’ve milked that cow, they kill it.  This is the process of taking a book “out of print.”  The maximum shelf life of most books is a matter of months, at most a year.  If you’re really, really lucky then maybe you have a run for a decade through a hardback, to trade, to mass market paperback success.  But most are not that lucky; those unfortunate works get remaindered and go off to a farm in Virginia to live out their days.

So, libraries and secondhand bookshops have always been there to collect those works that we recognize have a perennial appeal beyond that initial marketing glut.  People want to go back and find those things.  There may be a sale to be had out of it, and good secondhand booksellers know how to work that market.  But what people want to read is not always what people want to buy, and that’s where libraries are king.  For that niche academic work on racial bias in public swimming pools, or that 15th novel in a series that’s 30 books deep, the library is the place to find those things.  For a publisher to assert that libraries are stealing ebook sales is like saying that secondhand bookstores and remainder piles are stealing book sales.  Just because someone finds that book and wants to read it does not equal a lost sale.  Sometimes it is just the reverse, that once they’ve read the library copy they’ll want to go out and buy the book.  I would be curious to see numbers on libraries who do Amazon partner programs and see how reading library books translates into sales.

But there’s something even more serious in this conversation that was just hinted at in the Library Renewal article.

Software Patents and File Formats

EBooks are both a new thing, and an old thing.  They’ve only been around in their current incarnation for about five years.  But there have been attempts for the last 60 years.  Only recently though has there been an active push by the publishing industry to capitalize on ebooks and make a good solid run of it.  But the thing that no one is talking about is the rapidity at which we blow through operating systems, develop new software, the whims of both developers and consumers in what tech they buy.

Here are some important numbers.  Software patents last 20 years.  New operating systems come out from major companies every 3-5 years.  Amazon has released about 8 different models of the Kindle since it originally launched in 2007.  It’s only a matter of time before file formats (.AZW) at Amazon start changing so that they can reset the clock on their software patents.  Apple has released a new iPad every year since 2010.  Now Apple also has its own proprietary ebook format the iBook (.IBA).  This issue of changing file extensions is directly related to the 20 year software patent.  Did you notice that Word documents started to have .docx extensions all of a sudden a few years ago?  Yeah, software patents are about to expire on Word and they pushed out a new proprietary file format that they could turn around and sell for a few hundred bucks a pop.

Now, there is an open standard, .EPUB.  It’s based on HTML5 now and is compatible with all the browsers that matter.  So it doesn’t even need a special ereader device, just a web browser.  But each of these companies is banking on their proprietary format.  And that format will expire, and they’ll build a new one, and then we’re starting to talk about devices that aren’t backward compatible.  Because you know that will happen.

How does a library maintain a back title collection when we are talking about software that may not be relevant in the next five to ten years?  Unless we’re talking about having some kind of agreement for forward compatibility, which is certainly not the direction that these companies are moving, we need to be banking on universal standards like EPUB.  Nothing that we buy outside of that has any guarantee of longevity at all, and even that may be questionable, but at least the standards are known.  And if we’re talking about 20 years for an ebook lasting in a library’s collection, that’s far less time than some of the books we already have in our collections. Academic libraries have books and periodicals going back well over a hundred years.  We can’t even fathom the nature of computing a hundred years from now.

So for a publisher to claim that library ebooks are going to cut into their sales does not understand the function of the library.  We are not here to compete with bookstores.  We are here to primarily supply the back titles for those users who seek works from the long tail.  And if libraries are only focused on getting ebooks, at whatever cost, we’re going to be forever chasing a shadow.  Software changes too rapidly, and tech companies are more interested in maintaining their profit margins than they are ensuring the longevity of products created for devices.  For them everything is ephemeral, and that is not where we should stake a claim.

When I went to the DPLA meeting last year it was my hope that that group, made of some of the finest minds in librarianship and internet culture today, would take a lead in working toward resolving this issue.  It doesn’t appear to be going that way, but I hope that it continues to be raised.  It’s a critical issue, and one that needs to have a powerful advocate from the world of library services who is in a position to make something happen.

Pirates in the House

I think someone in the House needs to have a Crucial Conversation with the IT department.

Today I learned via BoingBoing that Torrent Freak had done some research into what the good folks over at the U.S. House of Representatives have been downloading on BitTorrent.  Yes, that’s right.  While drafting legislation to prevent piracy on the internet, some folks who work there were downloading books, movies, and porn.  Yes, porn.

But I’m not going to talk about the porn.  Much as I would love to get into that.  I want to focus instead on the books again.

The first one that TorrentFreak posted was Crucial Conversations. For those unfamiliar this is a popular business/management book that teaches people how to hold conversations when the stakes are high and they probably need to explain why something is happening that people don’t like.  You could imagine why people in Congress would need this book.

As I mentioned the other day, there are numerous publishers who are backing SOPA.  One of those publishers is McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Crucial Conversations.

Similarly, Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Best Kept Secrets and the How Things Work Encyclopedia were downloaded in the House.  Both of these titles are published by DK Press, a division of Penguin.  Penguin, is also backing SOPA.

Now, I’m not going to spend time going combing through the all the IP addresses of the House of Representatives on, but if anyone else does, and they find more pirated books please let me know.  Especially if those books are from publishing companies that are supporting SOPA.

EPUB 3 Standard Released

Quick on the heels of the Starship Library post comes news about the specs of EPUB 3.  And boy it does not disappoint.  Inclusion of HTML5 compliance, CSS, embeddable video and audio.

So all that stuff I was concerned about being stuck in a single operating system?  Pretty much going out the window.  People are realizing that multimedia books are going to be the thing now, and being able to standardize that is super important.

This has a ton of potential, and could really take things to new levels.  Let’s kind of brainstorm here for a moment.

Publishers are now going to be in the position of acquiring content to create enhanced eBooks.  Whether that be audio, video, or additional texts, the role of the publisher is going to be to bring more to the table than the author can do himself.  The author’s job is to write a text.  The publisher’s job is going to be to make that text sing with special features.

Let’s talk about Shakespeare for a minute.  Wouldn’t it be amazing, and incredibly informative to have a video of a staged performance of something, say Measure for Measure, which is loaded with period specific innuendo, with the text of the play going along beneath it, and highlighted links to articles about words and phrases that provide bonus exegesis on the text?  Sure you could read the play, and click around through the textual analysis, but being able to both watch and read the play as its happening would be a godsend to educators.

Imagine a Criterion Collection of eBooks.  Just think about it.

This is totally going to change the audio book landscape.  With audiobooks incorporated directly into the text we’ll probably see some acquisition of companies like Blackwell and Recorded Books.  Plus, it would make for a fascinating opportunity for the public domain things coming in through LibriVox.  To be able to bundle the audiobook and the ebook together will be a blessing for everyone.  Not only does it mean that you don’t have to choose, you can change between them as you like.  So while you’re on the train you can read the ebook edition, but in the bathtub or cooking dinner you can listen to the audio edition.

This is also going to justify price changes in the ebook marketplace.  Whereas before the user expected something akin to a text file, and wondered why he was paying full price.  Now he can get a whole suite of things in one eBook edition and would be more than happy to pay for the privilege of it.

This also means that eReaders are going to have to grow up and fast.  The technology to create color eInk with a high frame rate is out there.  And with this kind of technology we’re going to need it in next gen eReaders.  Maybe having hybrid eInk and LED/LCD screens is the solution for day and night transitions (and yes it’s possible, it’s how all the One Laptop Per Child devices work).  It also means we’re going to have to talk about space constraints on devices.  Services like Kindle where you can download content and archive it remotely are going to have to become the norm unless we move into seriously high capacity storage on tablets and eReaders.

Oh this makes me very happy indeed.

Enhanced eBooks.

In the last day I think I’ve read a solid half dozen articles about the future of enhanced ebook technology, and what this means for publishing. I think there are some good things happening in this multimedia book future, and there are some other details that still need to be worked out if these are not going to be just blips on the radar screen but rather viable new media environments.

While not the first enhanced thing ever, perhaps the one that actually poked at my brain for a minute was the iPad “app” The Final Hours of Portal 2.  I put “app” in quotes because this isn’t really an “application.”  It’s a kickass piece of writing with some videos and gorgeous full screen pics, but it’s not really an application.  It looks like it could have come straight out of the pages of Wired.  Now, I have only had the iPad for about 3 weeks and I haven’t downloaded this yet.  Part of my reluctance has been, well the iPad isn’t mine.  It actually belongs to the Library, so paying for some kind of awesome content and then having to wipe it if I have to transfer to another location or something is not a great prospect. But I have to say that as a fan of Portal this kind of long form article with special features looks kind of nifty.

I don’t know who told me about Vooks.  Probably I heard about it on Gweek when they were talking about the Portal article mentioned above.  After poking around the Vook website I have come to the conclusion that they are fancy coffee table books.  I don’t buy coffee table books.  Personally I think they’re cheap and often useless.  If I’m buying something to read, I actually want to read it.  Not just look at it cause it’s pretty.

Substance is why I’m actually really turned on to TouchPress and their enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land*.  This is a notoriously difficult poem to understand, as its cobbled together from pop culture things from the dawn of the 20th century, ancient Greek and Latin epigrams, context shifts from scene to scene in mind-bending ways. It’s pretty damn cerebral.  Hence why having tons of enhanced notes and about four different performances of the piece from different actors and poets makes this an incredibly enticing concept.  Not to mention that this kind of textual enhancement would be really fantastic in an educational setting.  My only trip up is that it seems kind of cost prohibitive to hire all these people and sell this app for something like $14.00.  I don’t think of Eliot as a loss leader, but hey, whatever works for Touch Press.

In a very similar vein there is Melville House and their hybrid books with Illuminations.  Here they include supplementary information on the art of dueling to an entire series of novellas about duels embedded in the eBook.  The variation here is that even if you purchase the print editions of the books the publisher provide the link to the additional content available via QR code. It would be interesting to know if the additional enhanced content would be available if library’s purchased the text and people download the additional material in excess of the original purchase. Would the publisher balk at that?  Curious to find out.

Then there was this article in The Atlantic about books with soundtracks.  Now, I’ve seen novels that revolve around music in the text.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Love is a Mix Tape are probably the most obvious. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  This is like writing an entire score for a novel.  That, to me, sounds incredibly awesome.  I mean, could you imagine the Star Wars series of novels with a score by John Williams!  I would totally read the hell out of that.  This reminds me of an issue of McSweeney’s that I found once with an entire interplaying soundtrack by They Might Be Giants.  I can’t think of two more worthy mutants blending together in glorious weirdness.  I probably still have it laying around the house somewhere.  I remember how mind warping it was listening to that CD.  Brilliant.  My big concern is not being able to read fast enough for the music to flow at a pace that I actually read at.  I’m kind of a slow reader, moving at the pace of speaking.  It makes me wonder if the music would be too greatly distorted by slow or fast readers.  That seems like a minor concern for something so awesome, but it’s kind of legit.  With a movie there’s a timestamp that the conductor has to follow.  There’s no such thing for a book, but it seems these Booktrack people have somewhat remedied that.

Now all of this sounds incredibly awesome.  But I’ve got a few of questions.

OS Portability

Lack of portability of many of these enhanced products worries me in general.  What if I decide to go with an Android tablet, or invest in the dead WebOS HP TouchPad? I mean, iPads are the leader now, but they got there mostly from primacy of place.  There’s nothing saying that another more fabulous hardware could overtake it.  Will these be able to be ported over easily to another OS, or do you have to keep that iPad laying around for later?

Media Conversion

If we suddenly develop an amazing new audio and video format will this stuff still be readable?  Will we be able to upgrade our fancy hyperbook to new versions?

Library Editions & DLC

I’m always thinking about library editions, and I mentioned one of my main concerns above.  When the book and the downloadable content are separate, how will the publisher negotiate user access to the DLC?  Is it going to be resalable to a second hand market?

Tablet vs. eReader

Given that the majority of these are designed for the iPad, its clear that the publishers are leaning toward a future where tablet reading is the way to go.  But I think eBook reader technology is going to be on an upswing over the next year or so, and we’ll start to see color e-ink readers coming around with video capabilities to rival the iPad. Will these kinds of technologies be able to integrate themselves into these new environments.  I don’t think the eBook reader is dead, not by a longshot.  Some of these companies ought to keep that in mind.

Even with all these questions I think this stuff is pretty damn cool.  I’m going to try and test drive a few of them sometime soon and may report back about them.

* Incidentally I wrote my college entrance essay on Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” He’s been a favorite of mine for a LONG time now. I’m actually incredibly intrigued to look at this app.


Tonight I finished reading Lev Grossman’s latest novel The Magician King.  Oddly I liked it better than the first novel of the set The Magicians, which just felt like nihilistic jaded assholes in Narnia.  In this latest installment I felt that there was actually character growth, and it left me with a perverse hope for more.  I had hoped for a devastating ending, and while the ending did sting, I wouldn’t call it devastating.

Anyhow, being of a magic mindset I figured I would poke around Kindle and see what I could find.  I went wandering down the usual roads of Thelema and ceremonial magic from the Golden Dawn.  But then it occurred to me that many of these titles are probably in the public domain and I could possibly find them in Google Books.  So I started poking around there as well.

It’s clear that there is no catalog going on with Google Books.  Much like the archives in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind it’s a rather chaotic mess.  Sure you can attempt an author search using “inauthor:” as a prefix, but that doesn’t take into consideration variants in names etc.  Just searching for a name without the “inauthor:” limiter will turn up hundreds of hits across a multitude of things, many of which are simply references.

I started poking through the Crowley books.  It was kind of a bust.  Then I figured Eliphas Levi would be something worth giving a go.  I found a lot of his stuff in the original French, which was kind of cool.  But again, version control revealed that much of what it was were titles that I already had in translation on my bookshelf.  So I poked around A.E. Waite.   Again, a total hodge podge.  So I tried Arthur Edward Waite to see what that brought up.  Interestingly, it brought up volume 47 of Library Journal from January 1922.

Isadore Gilbert Mudge (what a name right there!), Reference Librarian of Columbia University, compiled a bibliography of Some Reference Books of 1921.  It’s pretty scattershot, but covers the bases of different subject areas.  On page 9 in the Sociology reference books she says in a hilariously offhanded manner:

“A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry” by Arthur Edward Waite, should perhaps be mentioned as a recent publication in its field.

I love the “perhaps.”  Lovely dig there Isadore!

Sadly, even though the 1921 New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry may in fact be in the public domain it is not exactly in the free section of Google Books.  There are more recent editions available, but given that freemasonry is only tangential to the kinds of stuff I actually like to read about, I’m not going to buy it.  Even as an eBook.  If it were available for free I might poke around through it, but just to see what was in there.

The thing that killed me about this moment was the accidental convergence between my personal reading and my professional literature.  It didn’t occur to me that someone reviewing reference books in 1921 would be citing authors from the Golden Dawn, but maybe it should have.  I have never just, of an evening, decided to go browsing through historical archives of Library Journal to get caught up on occult lore.  Google Books just kind of threw it up in my lap.  I guess that’s the bonus of fuzzier retrieval systems. Sometimes you find something worthwhile in your piles of crap.

eBooks are Not a Zero Sum Game

There is much hubbub around the “bookless” library, as came through the Time Magazine blog on Monday.  In that article they looked at a couple of engineering libraries where they have forgone book stacks for computer labs.  And yes, as the new Bowker report implies print sales are down, eBook sales are going up.*  This is not news.  But much like the “paperless office” the reality of what eBooks and databases do within libraries is more complex than that.

As a trend in academic libraries, especially those that cater in research in applied sciences I can see how this approach can make sense.  The distribution method is substantially swifter, and reduces duplication of content in print/electronic form. Certainly this was the case when I was in China, where the Wuhan University Libraries were loaded with some of the most prestigious databases in the world, but their physical stacks left a lot to be desired.

But there are two major counterpoints to this proposition.  1) The exorbitant cost of academic publishing and 2) the digital divide.

Academic publishing has been broken for a while, and the gulf has only continued to grow beyond anyone’s ability to staunch the wound.  Academic journals have very low print runs, and thus have extremely high overhead to produce.  So the cost of the information in the first place is high, and only getting higher.  Then the content is resold to an aggregator service who puts that journal content into various databases, which in turn get resold to libraries at ever increasing costs.  In order to maintain access to the extremely useful database content libraries have been sacrificing printed materials budgets to digital budgets.  Hence why libraries may just give up purchasing printed materials altogether.  It’s a product of a monopolistic and ruthless information economy. Slowly attempts have been made to break free from the vicious cycle of academic publishing, but to date it has not been terribly successful.  If libraries are going to be able to maintain any sense of budget, they are going to have to drive academic publishing into a more open information model.

We also cannot forget that there is still a digital divide, and that it is only getting more and more problematic.  Those who do not have the money to afford a computer with an internet connection will continue to lag behind in the information economy.  Public Libraries have been able to help tremendously in that regard.  But there is no way that public library computers can ever provide the continuous access required to read an eBook without creating a madly expensive eReader borrowing service.  No one is going to have the money for that.

Printed copies of books are still going to be necessary in libraries for a long time.  eBooks and databases are a part of the puzzle, but we as a profession need to work collectively to come up with compelling solutions as to how we can serve all of our patrons and not get completely screwed by our electronic collections.

* This from the summary of highlights at Information Today.  Personally I can’t afford to blow a cool grand on this report, no matter how informative it may be.  If anyone out there wants to buy it for me I would graciously accept a copy.