Monday, April 25, 2005

Dangerous digits?

Google, it seems, has a Cunning Plan. It wants to digitise all the information in the world -- or at any rate such of it as is contained in books -- and make it universally available.

There is a department of Google known as Google Print, which is hard at work bringing about this state of affairs (which you are probably right in thinking will take some time). But a voice of caution has been raised.

In Publishing News (via, Nigel Newton, the CEO of Bloomsbury, is quoted as issuing a warning to the UK Publishers Association conference. He fears that mass digitisation might lead to people reading things for free, and copying books wholesale, and printing them off at home. And all like that.

Oh my God! Clutches heart and staggers backwards. How will humanity survive? Or, more specifically, how will folk like Nigel Newton survive?

Mark Le Fanu, head man of the UK Society of Authors, is also worried, and expresses doubts as to whether the standard publisher's contract actually gives publishers the right to allow the full text of their authors' books to be digitised.

Well, this one will run and run. Personally I agree with Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School. Lessig has said somewhere that, while it is true that everything written is governed by copyright, it is also true that 90% of copyright material (at least) has the same commercial value as a pitcher of warm spit. (Lessig didn't actually use the warm spit simile; I did. I borrowed it from an old-time American politician of decades ago. Lyndon Johnson once sought advice from the old-timer as to whether he should seek the Vice Presidency. 'Lyndon,' said the old-timer, 'the Vice Presidency ain't worth...' Mind you, Lyndon took the VP and ended up President. But I digress.)

Yes, if you are the publisher of a textbook on chemistry which is required reading in 1400 colleges and universities, you will wish to prevent piracy. And ditto if you publish Harry Potter, as Nigel Newton does. Some of us, however (Lessig for one), believe in posting free copies of our stuff on the internet, for several reasons.

First, it gets the information to the people who need it (if they bother to look), and why write something if you don't want readers? And second, if you've written something which proves really valuable to a particular reader, he is much more likely to go out and buy a copy of the book which he has already dipped into for free. It seems to me that, by and large, if you are likely to refer to a book again, or to re-read the entire thing, you need a printed copy rather than a digital file.

Michael Cader, author of the invaluable Publishers Lunch newsletter, also noticed the Newton speech, and found it distressingly negative and backward-looking. Here's an extract:

Of course we find it much more devastating that the music industry didn't learn from Napster--closed in 2001--that fans wanted digital music and had no legitimate, well-run source to turn to as music companies sat on the sidelines. Another company from outside their industry, Apple, had to prove the lesson again. As a result, sales of the device (iPod) are exponentially larger than revenues from the downloads, Apple has significant control over the marketplace, and traditional higher-priced "albums" are being forsaken for smaller slices--individual songs. The "music industry" has no choice but to follow, consolidating companies and laying off employees.

There are many prudent and even cautious ways of approaching Google Print and the unstoppable content explosion of the Internet, but sitting on the sidelines and declaring Pandora's Box will be the most devastating of all. We just keep hearing Tom Peters' line from the other week: "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

Meanwhile, over at Cornell University, Professor Tarleton Gillespie has been giving the students a clear, straightforward explanation of some of the issues. Big companies, he suggests, are trying to use technology, rather than the law, to safeguard their sources of income. In other words, digital rights management (DRM) is being used to control who may read, watch, or listen to what, and for what price. The DRM designers are 'welding the hood shut.'

This circumstance, plus a variety of similar hassles, have infuriated quite a high proportion music lovers. OK, so the music business has caught on, at last, to the fact that people want to be able to download stuff, but the companies concerned still have some way to go before they have happy customers. See yesterday's Sunday Times article for details.

Well, I used to mix with students a great deal, and one thing is for sure. If you present a technology student with a 'hood welded shut', or some other technological feature which he finds deeply unsatisfactory, then the first thing that cunning little feller is going to do is figure out a way to unzip the hood, get in there, and get what he wants. And then he will tell all his friends how to do it. So anyone in commerce who thinks that DRM is the answer to anything is in for a nasty shock.

As I say, you ain't heard the last of this one. I don't pretend to be able to predict the future -- ten year ago, who could have predicted what we have today? But I do think that Nigel Newton and those who think like him are being a trifle Luddite.

By the way, if you are tewwibly tewwibly concerned about the protection of your precious stuff from those who would copy it and pass it on, just remember that publishers have a rough rule of thumb. Some manuscripts are submitted to them with a notice on the front cover which says: COPYRIGHT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MS MUST NOT BE XEROXED. And so forth.

The publishers' rule of thumb is this: the bigger and more prominent the warning about copyright, the bigger the heap of crap the ms is likely to be.


Bob Liter said...

So far as I can tell, no one wants to steal anything I have written.
Bob Liter

Jenny D said...

This is an excellent post. I couldn't agree with you more. I was just checking out Google Print by looking at pages of my own book, published by Cambridge UP at a price of $75. A book like this sells 300-500 copies, can be found mostly in university libraries & is simply too expensive for most people to buy. I am very pleased that people can take a look into it online and then go and search out a library copy if they like.

Andrew said...

Libraries should be burned to the ground, every one, for allowing people to read things for free.

Kim said...

Brilliant post! And, crack me up. Great comment.

Peter L. Winkler said...

John Nance Garner was vice president under FDR for FDR's first two terms. Garner once told Lyndon Johnson that the vice-presidency "wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit," because "the Vice President is just a waiting boy, waiting just in case something happens to the President." Actually, he said something less polite, but the press cleaned it up before quoting him.

viagra online said...

haha wow that's a good plan, it's just like when they catch ip's trying to making marketing on the blogs and things like that, in each case it's diferent deppends of how many links they have.
Thanks for sharing.