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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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Problematic Language: Intellectual Property Rights

Language is important. It shapes our view, our thinking. It’s necessary for our expression and understanding. It’s important to pay attention to the terms we choose.

The commonly used phrase “intellectual property rights” is loaded and problematic.

Intellectual property rights: Ambiguous; it lumps copyright, patent and trademark law all under the same banner while there are completely separate areas of law.

Intellectual property rights: This assumes what needs to be proven. The notion that ideas should be treated as property is entirely unnatural, wholly artificial. Even if we treat them as property, it’s in a fundamentally different way (example) than we treat traditional property. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently spoke (found via Techdirt):

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Intellectual property rights: I find this often gives people the impression that artists have some sort of natural rights over their works that need to be defended. There are no natural rights at stake here. The types of laws in question are artificial structures established with the (original) intent of encouraging the creation of works for the good of society. The fact that it’s artificial doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong or bad, but to suggest it’s a natural right is to discourage critical examination, hiding behind a misconception of fairness and a protection of rights. That’s not necessary from the use of the term ‘rights’, but an over focus on the term often leads to the ‘natural’ part seeming implied.

If we avoid the term “intellectual property”, as Richard Stallman suggests, what other term are we to use it its place? Mike Masnick lists a bunch of alternatives (including Stallman’s suggestion to refer to copyright, patent and trademark law separately), but concludes that they all have their own problems and that a more cautious use of “intellectual property” is the answer since it’s a convenient shorthand for the general category.

Personally, I tend to agree with the GNU Project on this one and try to avoid the term at all costs. When I do use it, I try to put it in quotes and explain – even just briefly – why it’s inadequate and misleading.

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Boycott Trend Micro

Boycott? I’m down.

The proprietary software company Trend Micro has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Barracuda Systems. They claim that Barracuda is violating their patent by distributing the free software antivirus program ClamAV.

Pamela Jones of Groklaw writes:

I think it’s another attempt to attack the FOSS development model and force those using such software to pay the proprietary dudes a tax. That’s the same dream that SCO started with, and Microsoft shares the dream. A lot of proprietary software folks realize the sun is setting on their business model, and they would like a piece of what is replacing it…. If ClamAV is not successfully defended, I think there may be an avalanche of this kind of attack, proprietary vendors looking for some silver to cross their palms from anyone using FOSS software.

More on the story here.

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Software patents from a musician’s perspective

A GNU/Linux patent lawsuit has been filed against Red Hat/Novell, marking the first patent suit against the operating system.

If you dig through the slashdot link, you’ll see that there was a lawsuit filed against Apple a few months ago on the same patent, that the patent is a bit vague and that there is evidence of prior art.

Lots of other people with more knowledge about the legal issues involving have been posting about this. Mark Shuttleworth, of Ubuntu fame, responds to recent Microsoft fear mongering about GNU/Linux patent suits by pointing out that Microsoft itself is also a victim of the current patent system. I don’t feel that I have the knowledge or feel the need to make any specific commentary, but I would like to share my view on software patents in general, for whatever its worth.

I was recently reading a transcript of a speech [here’s a similar transcript] given by Richard Stallman on software patents. To me, the most compelling argument against software patents is based on the fact that software involves combining mathematical objects, rather than physical objects.

“The result is that software is really different from other fields, because when we are working with mathematical stuff, designing something is far, far easier. The result is that we regularly make systems which are much, much larger… we are in a system where one product involves many, many ideas that could be patented already.”

This is contrasted to the “one product, one patent” notion which corresponds to physical objects. Software developers don’t have to push atoms, but chemists, for example, do. So with pharmaceuticals, when a given chemical formula is patented, the patent only ever covers one product. Software is on the opposite end of the spectrum, where a single program can intersect with many patents.

To take the example of music, patenting an instrument would be more like patenting a drug – a physical object. A patent for a violin (if it were a new invention) would cover attributes like the number of strings, the dimensions, etc. However, patenting software is much, much more like patenting chord sequences or melodies. Chord sequences and melodies are immaterial, mathematical (in a sense) objects, like the ideas contained within software patents. Any single song contains many different chord sequences, melodies and harmonies which have probably been used many, many times before. But since songwriting does not involve music atoms, it’s much easier to create something that is very, very complex and as a result, is the combination of tens or hundreds of smaller ideas. Just like writing software.

Chord sequences are the fundamental building blocks of music, just as algorithms are to computer science. You study music theory and learn that certain chord sequences and cadences can be used to evoke certain emotions or have a certain musical effect, in the same way that algorithms that yield a certain result or have a certain effect on the input. To grant patents for chord sequences or algorithms is to deny musicians and programmers the ability to use fundamental theoretical ideas in their respective fields.

That argument resonated the most with me (pun intended). To me, it is patently obvious (sorry, I’ll stop) that things like melodies and chord sequences should not be patented. As a result, other similar mathematical ideas (ie. algorithms, software features), should also not be patented. Patents may be effective when one patent corresponds with one invention, like when you are dealing with material things. Its efficacy is questionable at best when dealing with algorithms or chord sequences.

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