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The future of electronic publishing and reading

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for an event put on by the Society of Internet Professionals: The Future of E-Publishing and E-Reading. The following is a rough approximation of my presentation.

Digital technology has a disruptive effect on traditional content industries in many ways, but this is especially true when it comes to copyright and the law. We’re at the beginning of a struggle between traditional and new media in the space of electronic publishing, and much like the past decade has been for the record industry and newspapers, the transition from analog to digital isn’t going to be easy.

Patents

First, there’s an unfortunately predictable area of legal conflict for any emerging technology: patents. Winners innovate, losers litigate. We see it again and again, with the most heated battles taking place right now in the mobile computing space between companies like Apple, Nokia and HTC. To mention just a couple of patent lawsuits related to e-books:

  • In March 2009, Apple was sued by a Swiss communications company, MONEC, for distributing digital book reading applications through the iPhone App Store. MONEC believes that Apple violated a 2002 patent, which describes a “light-weight” electronic device with a “touch-screen” LCD-display having the “dimensions such that […] approximately one page of a book can be illustrated at normal size, this display being integrated in a flat, frame-like housing.”
  • That same month, the Discovery Channel sued Amazon claiming that the Kindle violated a patent held by its CEO for technology that “provides for secure distribution of electronic text and graphics to subscribers and secure storage.” When asked whether Discovery would build an e-book reader, the company’s spokeswoman said, “we are only focused on the Kindle at this time.” So, they aren’t interested in making anything, just in suing people who make things.

Even though these broad reaching patents are patently obvious to anyone who understands technology, the lawsuits happen time and time again because they’re profitable. As more companies get involved in the e-reader market, expect more patent lawsuits, just as Apple, Nokia, and HTC have started suing each other over smartphone patents. Because of problems in the patent system, this is the price that innovative technology companies pay to step through a patent thicket and get involved in the market.

Copyright

Copyright law, however, has many more implications for all parties involved when it comes to electronic publishing. The issue is fundamentally about freedom, and the economics of digital goods, as copyright law gets used and abused as a crutch and a hammer.

Economics of Abundance

The problem stems from a misunderstanding of scarcity. As we move from atoms to bits, we also move from scarcity to abundance. Traditional business models are built on scarcity—selling copies, for example. Windowing systems are used to milk money from hardcovers before the paperbacks are released. Basic economics tells us that, in a competitive market, price gets set at the marginal cost of reproduction, at the cost of producing one more copy. When books become digital, the marginal cost of reproduction is essentially zero. And there are no hardcover and softcover e-books. Publishers are terrified by what Napster did to the record industry, worried that consumers won’t want to pay for books, so they’re trying to keep content locked down and with high prices, to keep the audience passive and consuming—and copyright law is often the tool for the job.

Anti-features

How many people are familiar with the Amazon Kindle Big Brother mishap? In its best impersonation of big brother and the most ironic tech event of 2009, Amazon deleted all of the copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from every single Kindle last July because the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition. Just like that, people who legitimately purchased (well, more like “rented”), those books lost them in an instant.

Amazon backtracked on the deletion, restored the books and promised it would never happen again, but why do devices like the Kindle have such a kill switch to begin with? As Andrew Moshirnia from the Citizen Law and Media Project later explained,

Amazon used its power to delete entire volumes, a tactic with all the subtlety of carpet bombing. But this technology could be used like a sniper rifle, replacing small portions of an offending work and leaving the reader none the wiser.

When you buy a physical book, the retailer or publishing doesn’t have the right to enter your home and confiscate it, or rip out a page. Yet, that’s the functionality that’s being built right in to these e-readers.

This is an example of an anti-feature—a “feature” that no user would ever request or desire.

The reason these digital locks are appearing is that many publishers and authors don’t feel that they can protect their copyright interests without them. And, the technology companies often don’t mind the monopoly they wind up with when consumers can’t easily move their content from their device to a competitor’s, as they become the new gatekeepers (e.g. Apple and iTunes), but at other times they’re under intense pressure from publishers and authors to limit the functionality of their devices.

For example, in February 2009, Paul Aitken, as executive director of the Authors’ Guild, made an extraordinary statement when he discovered that the Kindle had an experimental text-to-speech feature. He insisted that it was illegal, claiming,

They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.

Notice that no one, at least no one I’m aware of, would claim that, if you purchase a dead-tree book, you need the publisher’s permission to read it out loud. I don’t believe the Author’s Guild is knocking down on people’s doors for reading to their kid at night. But, the second that process is automated as part of electronic reader, they claim it’s a violation of copyright. Amazon caved, and allowed rights holders the ability to disable the text-to-speech feature, something that would have been useful to many, and even essential for some (such as the blind).

The real concern is audiobook sales. If text-to-speech technology can read a book for you, why would you need an audiobook? This is an instance where authors threatened to use copyright law to shut down a new technology, the sort of feature that would help to transform the book and create it anew in electronic form. The new potential was stifled because it might affect the old sales model.

Mike Masnick of Floor64 describes it as being “like the ‘horseless carriage’ or ‘talking pictures,’ rather than focusing on what the new technology allows, the focus is on bringing the old offerings onto a new platform and assuming it’ll be just like the old…

Here’s an example of a copyright license for an eBook on the Secrets of Digital Photography (admittedly from 6 years ago, but the same fear is present today). It’s presentation in a FAQ format:

Q: Can I sell it?

A: Yes you can, as long as you do four things (five if you sell it in a public forum such as eBay) then you can sell the eBook original with its package intact when you have outgrown it or no longer need it. Here is the list of things you MUST do, otherwise you have not lived up to the law:

  1. (Only if selling it on a public sales site such as, but not limited to, eBay.) Inform the publisher that the sale will be appearing on days x through y. That will alert them of your legal sale and prevent you from looking like a software pirate. You’ll get no hassle from them if you simply let them know what’s going on.

    eBay has had a policy for years of not allowing CDR materials to be sold through their site unless the seller is the original copyright holder. Both eBay and we know that software pirates are plentiful and eBay knows that they cannot legally be a willing party to software piracy. Now eBay allows resale of original material if the seller has permission from the copyright holder to do so.

    Permission costs nothing. Ask first.

  2. Remove every shred of eBook software and files from all of your computers. All of them.
  3. Destroy every hard copy print-out you have made from any and all of the files.
  4. Trash all of your iNovaFX Photoshop actions.
  5. Destroy all traces of the original serial number that you may have kept as a record for upgrades and sidegrade purchases at a discount, and inform the recipient that upgrade privileges do NOT transfer with the transaction. Upgrade and sidegrade privileges only are granted to the original first recipient of each eBook.

And my favourite part was the post-amble:

Copyright in the digital age is evolving. Perhaps some future system can be developed without onerous conditions that would allow you to sell it and not have to live up to today’s conditions.

But for now, our eBooks are the legal equivalent of an object. You can buy a book, then sell it when you’re finished with it. But if you were to run off a copy of it–just for reference, mind–then you could NOT sell the original without destroying your copy. Nor could you sell that copy to a friend.

We endeavor to only expect the same equivalent procedures from buyers of our eBooks. We want you to buy it and enjoy it and learn from it and use its included software and example files to your great benefit.

But we are merciless with people who steal it.

Of course, that isn’t you, so this whole discussion is academic.

There is a fear of the potential for digital books that causes rights holders to treat them like physical objects, to use copyright to impose these restrictions, to impose artificial scarcity. It’s an all stick no carrot approach, and copyright law is the stick.

Anti-circumvention

And rights holders have been pushing for more and more draconian copyright laws. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, a 1998 update to copyright law in the States, contains many troubling expansions to the law, but one of the most troubling has to do with anti-circumvention provisions. The DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent a digital lock, even if what you are doing would otherwise not be considered copyright infringement.

For example, to watch a DVD that you’ve lawfully purchased is not copyright infringement. But, it would be copyright infringement for me to use my laptop to watch a DVD in the US, because DVDs contain digital locks, and with the GNU/Linux operating system I use, my DVD software has to break those digital locks in order to show me my movie. Watching a DVD you own would not normally be copyright infringement, but if you have to break a digital lock to see it, it becomes infringement.

These troubling anti-circumvention provisions essentially allow rights holders to rewrite copyright law with a digital lock. It’s this sort of thing that caused law professor Lawrence Lessig to proclaim that “code is law.” With electronic books that have digital locks, things that might normally be considered fair use—like copying and pasting a couple paragraphs, or transferring an electronic book from one device to another—can become infringement if the action requires breaking a digital lock.

There are no anti-circumvention provisions in Canadian copyright law, but anti-circumvention has been an issue in the last two (failed) copyright bills, and in the copyright consultation conducted by the government last summer. Anti-circumvention provisions are required in order to ratify the WIPO treaties, but there’s flexibility—anti-circumvention could be linked to copyright infringement, so that circumventing a digital lock for something that would be considered fair dealing would not be considered infringement.

The government expects to table a new copyright bill this Spring, and anti-circumvention will certainly be one of the contentious issues. Whether or not it allows rights holders to invent new rights, with a broad ban on circumvention, or whether it protects fair dealing will remain to be seen.

Fair dealing

Fair dealing is another contentious issue. Uses that are considered fair dealing under the copyright act do not require permission from the rights holder. Canadian currently has a limited fair dealing provision that only applies to research, private study, criticism, review, and news reporting. A recent proposal to expand that into a more flexible concept was met with criticism from the Writers’ Union of Canada, which claimed that more flexible fair dealing would “legalize theft.” These debates have been a heated part of Canadian copyright reform.

The Potential for Electronic Reading—When is the future coming?

When faced with a fear that old sources of income will disappear with new technology, people are understandably concerned, but they too often turn to copyright law to prop up old business models and avoid the necessity of exploring new ones. The real tragedy is that the potential of electronic readers is not being met. Consumers are confronted with anti-features—readers that can’t copy/paste, that allow books to be deleted against their will, that prevent an easy transfer from device to device—and rights holders focus on trying to replicate the physical world in the digital.

I don’t think we’ll see the future of electronic publishing anytime soon. So far, we’ve only seen attempts to recreate the scarcity and limitations of the physical word—and then some. With physical books, you can buy them, keep them, mash them up, share, photocopy, as opposed to device-specific rentals, bogged down by digital locks and people who think you need their permission to read a book out loud.

The really exciting things about electronic books are the things you can’t do with paper books. Like, having a text-to-speech feature. Or sharing things you’re reading with others. Or commenting on it. Is there an electronic reader out there yet that can host a conversation thread inside of a book? Because of copyright-related fears, the focus has been on using readers as a sort of broadcast, consumption medium. They’re called “readers.” I personally don’t have any desire for a dedicated electronic device, just for reading a particular kind of text. I read Plato and Aristotle, and Aquinas and JPII, but I also read blogs and news articles and other forms of content online. Why would I want a single device for “books?”

Content comes out of its container when it goes digital, but efforts so far have centred on using copyright law to try and build containers, through locks and legislation. To let text come out of its container would unlock the real opportunities that the technology allows. A paper copy of Brittanica has to be linear; Wikipedia isn’t—it’s hyperlinked. Blog posts are as much about the conversation as they are about the initial “content,” but how many electronic books are being designed with conversation in mind?

Until we get beyond this tendency to impose artificial scarcity and digital locks on electronic books and media, we won’t see the full potential of electronic publishing.

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2 Responses to “The future of electronic publishing and reading”

  1. Hi Blaise,

    It was a pleasure being a fellow panelist with you that evening.

    On a related note, here is a link to my PowerPoint presentation:

    “From Pulp To Pixels: The Changing Landscape of Publishing:
    http://bit.ly/cyv5ql

    Anita

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