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.

Reader Comments

The First Word

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  1. icon
    leichter (profile), 5 Apr 2014 @ 3:29pm

    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

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