Law in the Internet Society

Continuing the Democratization of Knowledge through eBooks

-- By SylviaDuran - 24 Oct 2011

Just as the printing press was credited with the democratization of knowledge, the electronic book (ebook) has the potential to spread information more efficiently and cost-effectively than ever before. However, publishers’ fear of the Napsterization of their industry has stalled the ebook revolution. This fear is not entirely unreasonable as evidenced by the music industry’s alleged billion dollar losses attributable to peer-to-peer networks. But unlike the music industry, ebook publishers carry an additional responsibility to society – the dissemination of information, which is indispensable to the continued democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, ebook publishers have followed the same broken path laid by the music industry by adopting business strategies that hoard all benefits of this new technology. These strategies include implementing questionable pricing models, ignoring new business opportunities, and failing to support the evolution of libraries.

But a transaction always involves two parties and content users, the other party, have found strength in online numbers and are rejecting these terms. Just as music fans responded to the music industry's slow evolution, the internet society is creating its own rules for ebook dissemination where logic and ethics support peer-to-peer sharing to continue the democratization of knowledge.

The Problem: New Industry, Same Mistakes

Implementing questionable pricing strategies

When the alternative is "free," ebook publishers hasten the retreat to unauthorized sharing by engaging in questionable pricing strategies. Consumers express surprise and sometimes anger at current ebook prices as they often mirror print book prices. Consumers note they cannot donate, sell, or generally lend their purchased copies to other parties. In addition, the marginal cost of producing and distributing ebooks is much lower than print books. Publishers justify current pricing as a result of their fixed costs, such as marketing and editorial costs, which constitute the bulk of their expenses. Yet even assuming publishers' explanations are sincere, the perception that publishers are greedy and prices unfair remains. This perception has gained support from the recent class-action lawsuit against Apple and five major publishers claiming the parties engaged in price fixing. The lawsuit says prices of new ebooks have increased an average of 33 to 50% as a result.

Ignoring new business models

The music industry's answer to peer-to-peer sharing was to force individuals through the legal system. Although these scare tactics worked on some probable offenders, threat of legal sanction did not stop the overall problem - the music industry continued its decline. It has taken ten years for new business models to gain traction, but the industry is finally understanding consumer needs. For example, some copyright owners now allow their content to remain on YouTube and generate revenue from advertising. It is a recognition that traditional revenue models are no longer sufficient in an internet society.

Similarly, traditional approaches to publishing will not survive in the internet society. Publishers appear to understand this evolution in some instances, but ignore it at their convenience. For instance, electronic publishers (e-publishers) restrict ownership rights of ebooks in ways print books are not - one cannot sell, donate, or endlessly lend a purchased ebook. This behavior is a response to the realities of the internet society. However, e-publishers have so far failed to embrace the benefits of the online community. For example, e-publishers point to high editorial costs as a reason for high ebook prices. Yet Wikipedia is a perfect example of an alternative to traditional editorial approaches. This is not to say e-publishers can or should rely on online users to edit their ebooks to cut costs, but if their current costs of ebook publication are the same as for print, e-publishers are not innovating or seeking improved efficiencies as they should be.

Preventing evolution of libraries

Libraries, the original information equalizer, could become a formidable opponent to e-publishers. Earlier this year, Harper Collins Publishers began restricting the use of library ebooks, making them expire after 26 uses (26 library check-outs). Once again, e-publishers restrict traditional ownership rights and the restrictions seem arbitrary. Libraries already adhere to the "one user per copy" rule in order to mirror print book ownership, even though this is a fictitious limitation in the electronic world. Further restrictions are difficult to justify. Publishers argue an e-book cannot have perpetual ownership because print books deteriorate over time, while e-books retain consistent quality. But if any group should benefit from technological advances, should it not be libraries? These are entities promoting literacy and creativity, rather than seeking profits. And with ever-present budget cuts, having to replace "deteriorated" ebooks makes Napsterization a fitting response to an industry preventing the spread of knowledge from traditional channels.

Sharing Electronic Books is Ethical

The law is a temporary solution for regulating behavior. It is temporary because it is constantly evolving. In this sense, the law is neither right nor wrong, it is simply a compromise of adequate solutions. Perhaps in recognizing the law's limitations, consumers are turning to their moral compass and many are finding an acceptance of unauthorized peer-to-peer sharing. For example, the New York Times Magazine ethicist, Randy Cohen, concludes that if a user has already purchased a hardcover book, it is not unethical to obtain an unauthorized electronic copy of this book. Cohen compares it to buying a CD and then copying it to an iPod. Further, although the legality of the Google Digitization Project was suspect from the beginning, the company marched onward until they were legally ordered to halt. Although critics of Google note the company will financially benefit from this project, Google co-founder, Larry Page, is said to strongly advocate that "the world's information should be made available freely."

Final Thoughts

The natural inclination for users to share content they enjoy with others is powerful. Their desire to share is further strengthened by what are viewed as illogical and greedy business decisions of ebook publishers. If ebook publishers continue denying the realities of the internet society, they risk being eliminated from knowledge dissemination altogether.

Definitely an improvement. Now that we have removed the brush, we can see where the gaps really are that you need to fill.

It turns out, in this account, that the book thing is really just "next verse, same as the first," with respect to the arguments you hear from the publishers, and the things you want to say back. But that overlooks the immense differences between recorded music and video, on one hand, and the print stream on the other. The historical and economic differences are greater than they appear, instead of negligible, as your analysis at present seems to indicate. Which accounts for the mystery of timing: given that the filesizes of books are smaller even than music (never mind the crappy forms used by e-book readers: I can give you BOTH the actual images of the book pages as printed, for a 1,000-page text, along with an e-text version automatically made by OCRing the book page that makes the human-readable page images fully searchable, in less than the space taken up by a mid-quality mp3 three-minute pop song), why is the book meltdown occurring a decade after the music one? If you ponder that awhile, you'll see something important.

Something else important is that the Edisonian revolution happened a moment ago, while we have been using writing in order to produce what we call civilization since we've had it. In other words, the market for music and video recordings distributes evanescence, but everything we are is in books. And all books, whether they contain contemporary rubbish that wastes good toilet paper or are Aristotle, and technically the same. There's no DRM for the printed page.

The whole Google books pretend battle assumes that you have to be Google to scan all the books in the world. You don't. You should learn enough about book scanning to understand how easy and cheap it would be FOR YOU to scan, prepare, and distribute as e-books on the Net all the books you own. Each existing book in the world only has to be scanned once, which means anywhere there's a copy, there can be a perfect digital copy that will last forever for everybody. Using any digital camera and software everyone in the world can use, copy, modify and redistribute for free, you can make a perfect copy of any book that everyone in the world can use forever in less than two hours. If you can afford $400 once, and the book copies you are scanning don't have to remain intact, you can cut that time in half.

So Google Books is irrelevant. All the books in the world will be available to everyone everywhere for free, thus making the human mind, for the first time in the history of humanity, everywhere able to learn whatever it wants, within one generation. Publishers are in the final period of play. That affects economic reality and strategic behavior very deeply. You don't write about that because you haven't seen all the way around the subject yet. But you've got a good start here, and you should finish the job.

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r11 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:19 - IanSullivan
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