The many troubles with e-books

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.
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Why piracy matters

Rob O’Hara offers an interesting perspective on piracy.

I agree with him. 20 years ago, copyrighted material offered presence. It was something special.

Computer software was mostly sold in specialty stores. And if you wanted something, the store might or might not have it. There was a bit of a hunt involved. I still have fond memories of going to Dolgin’s, Babbage’s, and other long-gone stores to buy Commodore software. Sure, I pirated some stuff (who didn’t?) but mostly confined myself to out-of-print stuff that you couldn’t otherwise get.

Believe it or not, I took pride in having a shelf of paid-for software.

Music was the same way. Back then, the average record store had a comparable selection to your local Target. If you decided you liked Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy, you had a long road ahead of you to collect all their stuff. Acquiring material that was far off the Top 40 path took time and effort, not just money.

Today it doesn’t matter what you want, you can probably find it in 30 minutes online. Legally, or, in most cases, illegally. Like a friend asked me about 10 years ago when broadband connections became attainable and this stuff started to change, “How can data be rare?”

The solution some people give is touring. That works for musicians, but not so well for everyone else. Book signings aren’t very profitable for most authors. There’s no close equivalent at all for software. Charging for service works for application software, but not at all for games.

The solution is to find other ways to make a living.

The loss? Culture, frankly. Music gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. Record labels can’t (or won’t) take a chance on promising young bands whose first few records don’t sell. Had U2 come on the scene in 1999 instead of 1979, it never would have made it. The Joshua Tree was a huge seller, but who’s ever heard of Boy and October? By today’s standards for first and second albums, they were flops.

The result is we see a lot more acts like Justin Timberlake, who can make a lot of money fast. If they fade from view, it doesn’t matter, because the record companies can always manufacture a replacement. Which leaves little reason to take a chance on someone who does things differently and takes a few years to really burst onto the scene. The environment doesn’t really favor the development of someone like Talking Heads, the Moody Blues, or much of anything else that deviates from the norm today. Or U2, for that matter, who may sound mainstream today, but they sure didn’t in 1980.

I see other arenas suffering too. Name me an innovative video game. There’s been very little innovation since Wolfenstein 3D came into being in 1992. Virtually everything since is just a variation on that same theme: Shoot everything that moves in a 3D environment. Yawn. That wasn’t even very innovative–it’s just that it happened in 3D. There were plenty of shoot-everything-that-moves games out there in the mid/late 1980s for the Nintendo NES. Wolfenstein itself was a remake of a 2D shooter from the early 80s for 8-bit computers called Castle Wolfenstein.

Creative people who want to have a house and a car and a few things to put in it find other ways to make a living. Like writing or doing graphic design for Pizza Today or another trade magazine. It’s steady work. It’s not glamorous and won’t make you famous, but it pays the bills. And it’s niche enough that it’s unlikely to be pirated.

Someone may find a way to make things work in this new reality. Odds are it won’t be someone in Washington. And it probably won’t happen tomorrow. Which is a shame.

Another take on Google’s digital library

CNN has an interesting analysis of Google’s attempts to digitize millions of books.

I still argue this project can only be a good thing.The article quotes Tim O’Reilly, and while anyone who knows me knows O’Reilly and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, he’s right when he says the biggest problem an author faces, by far, is obscurity.

I have a real-world example that I’ve seen firsthand. About 18 months ago, I was introduced to a pair of obscure books written by master modeler Wayne Wesolowski. Today, Wesolowski is best known for hand-building a huge model of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, but an earlier generation knew him as someone who published articles in magazines like Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman on an almost monthly basis.

In the early 1980s, Wesolowski wrote a couple of books. Both were printed twice under different titles, but one dealt with building model railroad cars from scratch and the other dealt with buildings. At the time I was introduced to them, the books were believed to be rare, and it was impossible to find a copy of either of them for any less than $125.

Today, it’s still possible to buy used copies of the books for $125, but if you shop around, you can get them for a lot less. I found a copy of Wesolowski’s ABCs of Building Model Railroad Cars for less than $12 earlier this month. It sold before I could click on the link, but I found another copy for $18. I snapped it up immediately.

Wesolowski’s books may not always be possible to find for less than $30, but it’s pretty easy to find them at or around that price with just a little bit of patience. I believe what’s happening is that people who otherwise would have never known the book existed started looking for it, which in turn caused used booksellers to look for it. In the meantime, the sale of used books online has drummed up a lot of press, including in the New York Times, causing still more copies of the book to come off dusty shelves and into circulation, driving down prices and possibly driving up sales.

If snippets of text from this book were searchable online, as opposed to vague mentions on an obscure Yahoo discussion group, who knows what would happen to these books’ sales? Maybe it still wouldn’t be enough critical mass to ramp up publication again, but it’s possible. At the very least, it’d be a bonanza for used booksellers, whether it’s people who do it for a living or people who are thinning out their personal book collections.

In turn, that extra commerce can only help the economy.

So the Department of Homeland Security is now the copyright police?

The Department of Homeland Security just shut down a Star Wars-hosting Bittorrent site.

What does copyright infringement have to do with terrorism?People downloading the newest installment of Star Wars (or buying bootleg DVDs) is hardly a threat to national security.

Actually I’m kind of wondering if it’s a threat to much of anything. Think about it: The people who grew up with the franchise are going to go see it in the theaters so they can see it on the big screen. I know I went and saw Episodes I and II in the theater twice each. I only go to the movies once every couple of months, so for someone like me to see both of those movies twice is something. Most people my age saw them a lot more than that.

My point is, the people who download Revenge of the Sith or buy an illegal DVD are going to see it in the theater anyway, and they’re probably going to see it a lot of times. And when the legitimate Episode III DVDs come out, they’re going to buy those two. And when the collector’s edition of the trilogy, and the extra-special collector’s edition of both trilogies come out, they’re the people most likely to buy those too. George Lucas is going to get plenty of opportunities to sell this movie thrice.

I know it’s illegal. The ethics are questionable–I have a lot less problem with people copying it if they’re going to buy the legitimate copy anyway once it’s available. But is this going to cause measurable damage to a multi-billion-dollar franchise? No.

And the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement just makes it look more like Homeland Security is more about Big Brother than it is about stopping terrorists.

If Star Wars is a big enough crisis that it shows up on these guys’ radar, then that’s a sign to me that it’s time for the department to be rethinking its relevance. Nobody is going to die because somebody saw Star Wars without paying for it.

The government needs to get its priorities straight.

Hey publishers, get over Google Print already!

I really don’t understand why Google’s plan to digitize the text of thousands of books and make them searchable is controversial.

France didn’t like it because they think it will be U.S.-biased. Get over it, France. Google is a U.S. company. What language do you think they’d do first? Hungarian? But I understand that. That’s just France being anti-American.

Now some U.S. publishers are complaining too, and that’s what I don’t understand. They should be loving this.I’ve got news for copyright holders: Virtually anything that exposes people to your work is good. It’s not possible to tell from just looking at book spines and covers everything that’s mentioned in a book. Making the text of books searchable will let researchers find obscure references to the information they seek in unexpected places.

It will also allow researchers to search books that aren’t in their local libraries. While this will likely lead to them seeking out the book via inter-library loan, it will also potentially lead to (gasp!) sales.

As an author, I believe sales are good. I believe this because I used to get little quarterly statements in the mail that told me that when a copy of my book sold, I got $1.75. The cover price on it was $24.95. That leads me to believe the publisher made some money on the sale too, unless there’s something publishers know that I don’t.

Publishers can’t aggressively market every book. The catalog is just too big. Some books sell themselves, but the majority have to wait for someone to be compelled to pick them up. Google’s search plan amounts to free, highly targetted advertising.

The publishers are also complaining that the web pages containing snippets of book text displayed by Google bear a Google copyright. When a newspaper or a magazine publishes a review of a book containing a snippet of text from the book, who do these geniuses think owns the copyright? It isn’t the book publisher. Again, a review is free, targetted advertising. No problem there.

My publisher actually allowed me to take excerpts of my book and republish them as magazine articles and they didn’t make me or the magazine pay them anything as long as the article mentioned the original book at the end of the text. Why? Again, it was free advertising.

As a writer and researcher, I salivate over the possibility of any kind of book search. I have used’s search inside the book feature for research purposes with some (albeit limited) success. Google’s search will inevitably lead to more books being listed in the bibliographies of new books, which is still more free advertising, and as references in places such as Wikipedia, which is also free advertising.

Publishers should be lobbying for some kind of arrangement between themselves, Google, and a print-on-demand service to offer reprints of out-of-print books that turn up in search results. Publishers and authors would then be able to continue to get revenue for books that no longer have enough interest to justify a print run, and it would allow publishers to gauge the popularity of old books and perhaps unearth a few gems that ought to be re-released. Books go out of print when the publisher can no longer prove a book is popular enough to justify a print run. Google statistics would give a real-world (not theoretical) gauge on the popularity of old books, which is something marketing departments should be clamoring to see. Wouldn’t they love to know every book that gets picked up and read in a bookstore? Metrics from Google would be the next-best thing.

The ability to search the full text of thousands of books could revolutionize the publishing industry. As an author, I can’t wait, and publishers ought to be even more excited than me.

Wikipedia hits half a million entries

Wikipedia made it. Half a million articles. 1.25 gigabytes of raw text.

That’s a lot. I remember when I first read about CD-ROMs, one of the best examples they included to talk about its 600-megabyte capacity–which was unthinkable in the days when 40-gig hard drives were mainstream–was that it was enough to hold a whole encyclopedia with room to spare.

Not this encyclopedia, I guess.It used to bother me that sports figures and entertainers were more likely to have entries than important historical figures. Seeing as my last few entries have been about baseball players–and bench players at that–I guess I’ve mellowed. Academic-style articles will happen eventually. I think Wikipedia’s value is as the people’s encyclopedia, rather than academia’s encyclopedia.

The history that almost nobody will care about in 20 years is being recorded, and I think that’s cool. What bothers me more today is that the history is much richer from 2001 on than pre-2001 will be.

But it’s reached a point where it’s not bad on academic matters either. I remember my first research paper well. It was a horrid assignment. I, along with each of my 8th grade classmates, was given the name of an obscure third-world country. We had to write a minimum 10-page report on the history and politics of the country.

My assigned country was the Central African Republic. I struggled to find any sources that were five pages long. The school library had absolutely nothing. The State Department had some free information. The public library scored me some information too, including what became the backbone of the report–the exploits of dictator and self-styled Napoleon wannabe Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

I note that Wikipedia’s entries on the Central African Republic’s history, politics, and Bokassa are all reasonably long and detailed and very good.

No resource like Wikipedia existed in 1989. I still maintain that assignment was totally inappropriate for an 8th grader–I never had to do anything like it in high school, and while I did some papers that were comparable in length and difficulty when I was in college, I also had twice as long to complete them.

But if any of those teachers are still around and torturing 8th graders today, Wikipedia will make those poor students’ lives much easier.

And did I mention that anyone can freely copy it for their own use, whether personal or commercial? Yeah, that’s pretty cool too.

Hey, score one for copyRIGHTS!

If you haven’t heard of the hilarious JibJab parody of “This Land is Your Land,” starring George W. Bush and John Kerry, click on that link, then come back here when you’re done laughing. I’ll see you in an hour or two.

Well, the supposed owners of the copyright on the original song weren’t amused, so they threatened a lawsuit. But the good guys struck back. Not only is parody permissible (are they gonna sue Weird Al Yankovic next?), but the good guys made a convincing case that “This Land is Your Land” is public domain!This was a case of a publisher trying to stack the deck in its favor to eke out a few extra years of copyright, trying to save 20 bucks, or both. The song was first published in 1945, but the publisher prefers to stick with a 1956 copyright, renewed in 1984.

JibJab’s goal was to protect its own skin, so the publisher is sticking by its 1956 copyright. Someone else will probably have to fight that battle.

Sadly, the way copyright law is now, it’s almost impossible for something to fall into the public domain except by accident, as in this case. But at least we have a demonstrable case of it happening once.

3-2-1 Studios has been sued out of business

3-2-1 Studios, best known for its DVDXCopy software, has been sued out of business by the MPAA lynch mob.

It’s unfortunate. The company had a number of good products, and they were in at least one regard a very cool company.I had some of their products for DVD editing and authoring. I liked them. I also really liked one thing about the company’s policy. Unlike most companies, who make their money by making a piece of software and then selling upgrades to it, 3-2-1 had a policy of free upgrades for life. You could just download the newest version whenever you wanted.

So it’s a shame.

I never bought DVDXCopy, as I had no use for the software. I’ve never looked into copying DVDs, so I can’t judge whether the free alternatives to DVDXCopy are, as alleged on Slashdot, better.

I do regret that it’s legal to make copies of movies for personal use but illegal to provide the tools one would use to exercise that right.

Your Fair Use rights are in danger (again)

In case you haven’t yet, you really need to read about The INDUCE Act. The potential is for any device that could be used to illegally copy copyrighted material to become illegal, and the manufacturers of said devices liable for their use.

This is wrong for so many reasons. Take the example of the crowbar.I can use a crowbar to break into my neighbor’s house. By this logic, a crowbar should be illegal. Never mind that a crowbar is a useful tool. I own two of them. I bought them so I could pry out the rocks that make up my patio so I can put down a weed control mat under them. I hope I’ll never have to use one to free someone from a car whose doors and windows won’t open, but I can. If I use a crowbar to free my neighbor from a car wreck, I’m pretty sure he’ll be glad I had that tool. Even if I could have used it to break into his house.

The main target is P2P networks. But the bill is too broad. Under some interpretations, an iPod would be illegal because you might load CDs that you borrowed from me into it. I suppose a camcorder would be illegal too, because someone might take it into a movie theater. Never mind that 99.999% of camcorder owners use them to shoot home movies. The risk of someone using a camcorder to make an illegal copy of a movie is too great to allow you to preserve family memories.

Is this really the direction we want to head? Do we want to be a dictatorship run by big media conglomerates?

Mr. Hatch, I suppose you believe that when someone uses a firearm to kill someone, the manufacturer of said device should be held liable? I suppose you believe that the risk of consumers using firearms to kill one another is great enough that firearms should be illegal? Am I following your logic correctly?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pinko Commie who doesn’t want to pay for anything. I’m actually a Republican. But real Republicans believe in balance. I respect intellectual property. I’ve written and published a book. A few people even liked it. I really didn’t make enough money off it to make it worth my while–I could have made more working the late shift at a fast-food restaurant. The biggest things I have to show for it are a published book on my shelf with my name on it, and the thrill of having walked in to Borders and seeing it.

So I didn’t make as much money as I would have liked. That’s my problem. I don’t blame photocopiers and scanners for my book not selling 4 million copies. I can blame my publisher for not promoting it and not getting more copies of it into the niche marketplaces where it sold well, and I can blame myself for not promoting it and not sending out news releases saying I got published, and I can even blame myself for not targetting it properly.

If I write a book that people want to read, and my publisher and I do a good job of getting the word out about it, I’ll make money. If I can make more money fixing computers or mowing lawns than writing books, then the answer isn’t to try to manipulate the legal system. The answer is to either figure out how to make money producing intellectual property, or spend that time doing something else.

If my desire to protect my rights starts infringing on your ability to do things you need to do, then it’s gone too far. As my former journalism professor Don Ranly was fond of saying, my constitutional rights end at the tip of your nose.

Why do Orrin Hatch and his buddies cooperate in the creation of what’s essentially a welfare state for large corporations, at the expense of our liberties?

Would you please ask your Congresspeople these questions?

Visiting a movie sneak preview

I attended a sneak preview a couple of weeks ago of a movie that was released last week. The movie title isn’t terribly important–it was a ho-hum flick that no one will remember in six months–but the measures, well, they gave credence to a comment I made recently in a conversation.

When my girlfriend said the United States is a free country, I said that at least when it comes to copyright, it’s not.How ridiculous have things become? Let me tell you. There were four security guards as we stood in line. Cell phones, pagers, and all other recording devices had to be turned off. My girlfriend got special permission for her insulin pump. She had to tell them that no, she couldn’t do without it. Yes, really. Why? If something lights up, the thugs are instructed to assume it’s a recording device and evict you, no questions asked.

"Disney wants you to talk about this movie," the head thug said. "But Disney is equally concerned that nobody makes a copy of it."

Judging from the quality of the film, they’re more concerned about people copying their stuff than they are about making good new stuff. No wonder Disney’s in financial trouble. (The most frustrating thing about this particular film was that it probably could have been pretty good but it was blatantly obvious that the screenwriters didn’t know anything about the world they were trying to portray.)

Once we were seated, when someone came back from the concession stand, I so wanted to ask the person, "You sure there isn’t a recording device hidden in that hot dog?" But I couldn’t remember if they’d told us recording device jokes would not be tolerated–kind of like bomb jokes while standing in line to get on an airplane. I assumed they wouldn’t be tolerated and kept my mouth shut.

This totalitarian atmosphere has a lot to do with what’s wrong today with the music and movie industries. They love pay-per-view because they can control it. You have to fork over a few bucks every time you watch the movie. They’ve made two attempts at disposable DVDs because, again, their lifespan is limited. If you want to watch it again after the disc has self-destructed, you have to pay again.

You think they’re going after 321 Studios just because they don’t want people pirating DVDs? Think again. DVDs do have a finite lifespan, which does give you a legitimate reason to make a copy for your personal use. DVDXCopy is coded to only allow you to make a copy for personal use, though I suppose you could use it to make a copy of a borrowed or rented DVD. What you won’t see is people hawking DVDXCopy-made counterfeits out of the back of a van parked on a busy city street. But that’s OK. Hollywood doesn’t want you to make a copy of your Field of Dreams DVD because they want you to buy another one in six or seven years.

The way the big movie studios got big was by making great films that people wanted to see again and again. Along the way they made lots of bombs too, but that was part of the cost of doing business. Some films took a while to be appreciated–It’s a Wonderful Life being a prime example. Even though now it’s considered a classic, it was initially a flop.

And there are plenty of good films still being made. Time will tell on Secondhand Lions, for instance, but I loved it.

Being a somewhat creative person myself, I can sympathize with these companies. Making something good is hard. Making something that sells is hard. Making something good that sells both today and tomorrow is just about impossible. Even when you have thousands of people working for you, you can’t count on accomplishing that feat even once a year. The factors are beyond your control.

When the goal is increasing profits, it’s much cheaper and easier to buy a few Congressmen and set up a totalitarian state. That’s something you can control.