Everything Old Is Unavailable Again: How Copyright Has Ebooks Operating In The 1800s

from the one-step-forward,-two-steps-back dept

Nothing sucks more than a great new technology with old-world thinking attached to it. Such has been the case with ebooks, unfortunately, with antiquated views on DRM, pricing, and storefront protectionism resulting in pissed off customers and libraries hollering from the nearest rooftop. What we’re left with is a platform that could do much to spread knowledge and the practice of reading among entire populations being stifled by those that still think the world should operate based on analog philosophies.

Reader zip writes in about a nice write up detailing how cyclical this has made reading, with protectionist policies regarding ebooks cutting the benefit of the technology right out from underneath it.

Today, the situation has come full circle. If a student in Freiburg wants to read the hard-copy version of a book from the university library in Basel, he or she can simply order it via an interlibrary loan. But if only an electronic version is available, interlibrary loans are generally not an option. The student has no choice but to climb into a train and head to Switzerland to read the book on a university computer.

It is a paradox: Books that traveled around the world via interlibrary loan in the 20th century paper era are safeguarded locally in the Internet age. Indeed, it is the sheer ease with which electronic publications can be sent around the world that is now resulting in their being locked up behind digital bars. The book doesn’t go to the reader, the reader comes to the book — just like in the 19th century.

If that doesn’t strike you as absurd, you’re likely missing some significant sections of your brain. The very benefit the entire digital experience has brought most other marketplaces and forms of communication and learning in the past thirty years is being blocked by a trumped-up policy born out of fear. Just think about that for a moment: the same book I can get on loan from a far-off library is unavailable to me in ebook format, even though the transfer of that ebook is easier, cheaper, and quicker. That, friends, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

But it gets more stupid. This doesn’t simply apply to fictional entertainment, but to true knowledge platforms as well, and the willingness to be wasteful is astounding.

The issue is the core of the knowledge economy: essays, articles and books from researchers. “We have thousands of e-books that we could make available to our users via the Internet,” says Harald Müller, head librarian at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. “Be we often aren’t allowed to because licenses are so restrictive.”

Copyright laws often lead to “delightful absurdities,” says Müller. If, for example, he wants to read an essay from an American library via interlibrary loan, “they will print it out on paper and send it over by fax — and I will then scan it into our computers here.” Sending it as an email attachement is forbidden.

In other words, everyone ends up in the exact same place they would if ebook lending was opened up, except it’s slower, less efficient, costlier, and requires physical resources that nobody is actually interested in using. This is the epitome of inefficiency, and it’s the answer to whether or not the originators of copyright law would support this kind of application: no they damn well wouldn’t. Imagine Thomas Jefferson being showed how copyright was being used to limit knowledge and that imagining had better end with Jefferson punching everyone involved.

So, who’s fault is it? The answer is the combination of governments unwilling to consider change and, of course, publishers. Most egregious are the academic publishers.

In many cases, it is the readers themselves who, through their taxes, pay the university authors whose studies they are then unable to access. It is also likely that many professors themselves cannot even afford a subscription to the journal in which their work is published. Subscription rates of up to €15,000 ($20,633) per year are hardly a rarity. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, for example, comes with a price tag of more than €20,000 annually. Authors who publish their works in such a journal usually don’t see a single cent for their labors. Publishing companies such as Reed Elsevier, by contrast, regularly achieve pre-tax profit margins of over 25 percent.

“Publishers of scientific journals make so much money because they collect their product for free from taxpayers and then sell it back at inflated prices,” says Günter M. Ziegler, a distinguished mathematician at Berlin’s Free University.

And the suppression of knowledge is the result of all this protectionist nonsense. When we’ve reached the point where the researchers aren’t being paid and the public can’t access their papers, things need to change.

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Comments on “Everything Old Is Unavailable Again: How Copyright Has Ebooks Operating In The 1800s”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Depends on the VPN, some are torrent and privacy friendly.


I went with PrivateInternetAccess for those reasons, and just ordered a VPN enabled Tomato based FlashRouter/firewall to let me get my Roku on my network, properly, among other things.

Rikuo (profile) says:

“The Journal of Comparative Neurology, for example, comes with a price tag of more than ?20,000 annually.”

For what it’s worth, I googled the average salary of a neurologist
My first link
lists “from a low of $209,394 to a high of $380,275” as of 2012
Another link
“The average neurosurgeon salary is $368,000 without bonuses. With bonuses, the average salary is just over $500,000.”

So while $20,000 for a journal subscription sounds like a lot, the people who would be the journal’s primary market can easily afford it.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

My annual income is a little more than 20k?, and I consider myself well paid. Doctors in Hungary earn ~1/3 of my salary.

So this is the price for research material paid for by taxpayer money, submitted free of charge (or even the submitter paid a fee).

I still think it would be more cost effective and better usable if we simply dumped all journals on an ftp server…

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That price isn’t aimed at individuals. It’s aimed at research libraries, which is the only customer for many of these journals, which is why the price is so high.

And whether a person can pay for it or not, all that $20,000 is paying for is to make it so you can read the results of research that has already been paid for.

It’s not paying for the research. It’s just paying to to look at the research.

eBook Reader says:

Re: Re: Re:

To be fair, it’s paying to look at the vetted research. However, often the people reviewing the research don’t see much of that $20,000 either, and often do their vetting for free. Which raises the question: if the data is digital, and the general public is paying for the initial research and the external review, where exactly is all this money going?

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Proofreading, layout, and database indexing, none of which should cost $20,000 unless they’re doing it all for customer.

The only thing these journals have to offer to make it worth more is their prestige, and only because it’s recognized in the academic community that getting published by one of these journals makes you important enough to justify your $200K income.

It has nothing to do with that actual cost of making this research available to the public, which is next to nothing and can be included as part of the grant to the researcher (and sometimes is as part of a publishing fee).

Sunhawk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

In Computer Science (I can’t speak for other fields), submission is in the form of a LaTex file that has what is effectively a stylesheet specific to the journal included.

So the layout of articles is negligible cost. The indexing can be automated – a LaTeX file or a bibTeX file can be parsed to extract the relevant fields for the paper itself, the references (which the uploading application can cross-reference to the existing database to get hyperlinks to the references), the abstract, the authors and so on.

Proof-reading is again generally done by the peer reviewers. Typos are caught with a spellchecker.

In short, the cost for an online journal is: bandwidth (small; PDFs created from text with an image or two are fairly cheap on the space), storage space (see previous), domain registration… and salaries, which is the only big one.

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Journal prices

Most of those who read such journals are not MDs or other highly paid individuals. But rather techs, nurses, engineers, and so on. They can only read them if the institution that they work for subscribes. And of course when they retire, they likely no longer have any significant access.

But the real bone of contention here is the double or triple payment to the publishers. Sometimes the researchers have to pay by the page, their work is usually funded at least in part by the tax payer, and then by the subscriber.

The days of paid publishers are drawing to an end. With the ‘net, information will be free or at a reasonable cost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Journal prices

and then by the subscriber.

Little or none of the subscriptions to academic journals flows back to the researchers, mostly, they provide unpaid editorial and review services, pay for publication, and pay to read. And the get take-down notices if they put a copy of their work on their own sites.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Virtual Ownership

I’m strictly a desktop user, NEVER buy e-books, DON’T own a Kindle (or Kindle AP for my PC). Any files I purchase are either MP3 music, or PDF reading material. The instant I get the files they get stored offline in multiple places. No company has managed to figure out how to get into my stash to “recall” even one file.

I DO appreciate Amazon’s policy of allowing online viewing of purchased movies, online listening to purchased music, and providing MP3 copies of purchased music CDs. Sorta handy, and obviates the need to rip them. Plus, the MP3s are usually pretty good (320KB/S).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Protectionism, the road to no jobs

Christine Legarde, head of the IMF, was interviewed the other day on PBS Newshour. In response to a question about improving the economy she said:

“It means eliminating barriers, allowing and enabling entrepreneurs to set up their business without barriers, with bureaucracy, without hurdles on the way.

It means reforming the job market, so that people who can access the job market, who want to get a job and work can actually do that. And that applies to men and women. There are lots of women, not in this country, but across the planet, that would like to access the job market that could create and deliver value that cannot do it. To liberate that access would certainly improve the situation.

Those are two examples of areas where removing the barriers, removing the hurdles will actually unleash the potential. Other than that, you have monetary policy, you have fiscal policies that also need to be adjusted to facilitate growth.”


I wonder if she was talking directly to the USTR?

The continuation and/or expansion of this and other types of protectionism will continue to hurt the overall economy, as well as make the spread of culture and knowledge more difficult.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Protectionism, the road to no jobs

It’s much worse than that, I’m afraid. As long as multinational corporations exist, and as long as they are allowed to achieve the financial and economic size and power they, even now, possess, The situation will never change. Remember, they have only one overriding goal – increasing profit at all costs. Nothing else matters. The USTR is just a symptom, not the cause, of our economic fiasco.

In how many countries do they virtually OWN the government? Most, I’m afraid. What needs to happen is a size limit on corporations, and that they be limited to their country of origin. Let the governments worry about the international trade problems, not the corporations themselves. Too much opportunity for criminal activity behind the scenes.

This won’t happen without a major financial crisis and probably a World War to eliminate them and start over. They have just too much economic power for it to happen now.

mattshow (profile) says:

In my last year of law school I took a seminar class on copyright law. (Seminar classes are kind of less structured classes where we all just sat around in a group and talked about interesting copyright law issues, and then at the end of the semester everyone had to write a paper).

I chose to write a paper on a similar topic to this post: how the increasing use of electronic resources was in some cases making it harder to get access to works, and how our generation would leave behind a less complete record than the generations before us, since all our cultural artifacts would be wrapped up in DRM.

There was a book I wanted to use to write my paper. My school didn’t have it but another school had an electronic copy. I ran into exactly the issue described above: if it had been a paper copy, I could have got it through inter-library loan. But since it was an e-book, that wasn’t allowed. Anytime I wanted to reference that book, I had to take a bus over to the other school, get one of the librarians to log me into a computer (since I wasn’t a student at that school), and then copy any information I wanted from the book down by hand (the DRM on the book forbade printing or copy and pasting). The irony of the fact that I was trying to write a paper on THAT EXACT PROBLEM was not lost on me. (The upside was that I was able to use my own experience as a case study. )

Zos (profile) says:

Amen. Awhile back, some random people and i on a forum, managed to reconstruct an entire series that had been printed in the 70’s, like 5 books, over the course of 6 months, in .txt files .pdf’s and other wierdness, were hosted, and shared, and spread widely enough to insure that they’d never be lost again.

And at the end we felt damned good. We felt like archivists, who had preserved something awesome, and made sure that it would be there for someone to stumble across down the road. It made the jump from tree to data, and will be remembered. I don’t feel like a thief, it was a labor of love.

Anonymous Coward says:

now that certain industries can fund particular people and political parties to the tune of millions of dollars, there’s no chance of there ever being any sense used over copyright. we see this from what happened over net neutrality in the USA compared to the EU, where it is now the (and the best) way forward. as courts are more concerned with what can be stopped than what can be improved and how, it shows how the USA is being run by companies, with law enforcement/makers in their pockets and not likely to come to any sort of sense. perhaps the advantage the EU has is it is comprised of a lot of countries, not just one. that surely means that the views have to be taken into account, not just the biggest member state. what a shame the USA is now far more concerned in becoming a Police State, with industry heads throwing out the orders. what a shame the people of the USA has allowed this to happen!

Anonymous Coward says:

The wall builders only stand to lose in the long run.

Ironically what this situation and others like it create, is the dissemination of ideas and knowledge that may even be opposite to the knowledge hidden behind digital walls. Just like the news, information is not a zero-sum game, people will just move to other less restricted ideas and authors that respect their readers. So while your ‘genius’ book has big walls around it to ‘protect’ it from the filthy peasants, some other writer who has opened his knowledge to the masses will become the one people will know and remember.

Anonymous Coward says:

Non-Free Publication Problem

This Ebook problem is an example of a general problem in education, the “Non-Free Publication Problem”. Luckily, it is a self-correcting problem.

Academic publishers have turned into bunches of abusive lawyers. Smart people do not willingly associate themselves with abusive lawyers. Therefore, the academic publishers will soon find themselves only publishing the dummies. The smart people will have moved to open access. Smart people do not want to read the output of dummies. Then the smart people will conclude that the quality of the academic publishers’ output has declined enough. Then they will cancel their subscriptions. Then the academic publishers go broke.

Problem solved. There are probably a few PhDs in properly documenting this process.

JohnDonohue (profile) says:

Thou protests way too much

So this article, and all comments, maintains high disdain and hatred of this tiny problem. Have at it, take your best shots, get your venom going.

Meanwhile, can you all state that other than this tiny issue of academic access of e-versions, you all support tremendous support for actual copyright ownership of intellectual property and denounce all piracy?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Thou protests way too much

Actually academic publishing is an abuse of copyright because the academic community produces, edit and review the work at no cost to the publisher. They often have to pay page costs to have their work published. They, or their institution then subscribe to the journals, plus paying copying costs for any copies they need to make use of the paper (they are charged for making paper and electronic copies of papers). Traditional publishers of film/video, literature and music are not much better, they keep as much of the income from a work as creative accounting allows them to. (Only the big stars of the screen get filthy rich, because they can demand a huge fee up front)

Pragmatic says:

Re: Thou protests way too much

@JohnDonohue, you really, truly don’t get it, do you?

1. This is not a tiny issue. We pay for it, we own it. Wait…

2. You all support tremendous support for actual copyright ownership of intellectual property and denounce all piracy?

I presume that by this you mean, “If you’re not maximalists to the max, you’re nothing but a bunch of filthy pirate thieves!”

That’s your problem. According to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, “Congress shall have power… to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

See what the problem is? There’s nothing about ownership in there. Copyright is a TEMPORARY MONOPOLY on distribution, etc., of writings and discoveries. It was NEVER about ownership. That’s why, as loyal Americans, we CAN’T “support tremendous support for actual copyright ownership of intellectual property.” Constitutionally, it doesn’t exist. Maximalists made it up because they didn’t want to change their business models.

Your problem is with the Constitution, not with us. Now imagine copyright limits of 1787 being in place today. A Pirate can dream…

leichter (profile) says:

The publishers of DRM’ed textual material are about to come to a very painful choice point. Up until recently, scanning a book or journal was an annoying manual procedure, and the results were not very clean. The book scanners used by libraries and by other professionals – with such features as automatic page detection so you could scan a pair of pages together, automatic de-skewing so you didn’t have to get the book configured exactly right, automatic digital page smoothing to compensate for the curve of the pages – cost tens of thousands of dollars.

No more. You can get all these features – plus others, like automatic removal of images of stray fingers and conversion from image to searchable text – for a few hundred dollars. The current leader on price – if not necessarily functionality – is available on Amazon for $272 – http://www.amazon.com/piQx-Xcanex-Portable-Document-Scanner/dp/B00DFWCCXS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1396735497&sr=8-2&keywords=book+scanner

Look around a bit and you can find many similar devices at reasonable prices. The only thing that’s still quite expensive is automatic page turning – but you can probably live without that. And the prices are only going to drop further, and the software will only get better.

The result of this is that publication in paper form will be likely publishing music on a CD: Soon, huge numbers of people will be able to make a DRM-free “eBook” version with very little time, money, or effort expended – and it’ll probably look better than most eBook versions. The files involved are small – you could probably scan every book published in English over a year onto a USB stick.

An obvious response will be to try to stop publishing on paper. But that won’t work – an eBook reader’s screen is, if anything, easier to scan than a paper book. Just push the next page button. There may be calls to put artificial limits on how fast the page button can be pushed, but given that people skim books to look for material, the reader makers will resist. Maybe readers with LCD screens can be set up to make it hard on the scanners, though I have my doubts. For the e-paper readers – no hope, the screens are just passive displays almost all the time; try to play games like having the letters move around all the bit all the time and the battery will give out quickly.

These publishers are the walking dead. They just don’t know it yet.

— Jerry

Anonymous Coward says:

I was talking to a researcher the other week, and he was lamenting this problem as well;

they write the articles (you know, the biggest part of the actual work), they submit it (and the copy’rights’!) to a journal, they do the reviews (the other big part of the actual work), and THEN they have to pay for the privilege to read the articles. So they are paying 3 times. With our money.

It is completely insane. So of course my first question was ‘then why on earth do you do it?’, and the answer was “because self-published articles don’t count as publications”.

they really need to form some massive protest there. Let copyright reform start with scientific works.

AC says:

Nice racket.

I always love seeing research, paid for with public funds – in whole or in part – locked behind a corporate paywall so a group of utterly worthless parasites can derive a sizable income off the work and taxes of others. The fact that they hold back scientific advancement for the whole of humanity is an added bonus.

Research papers from public institutions, of funded with government grants, must be defined as being in the public domain by law.

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