Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Scan This! Why copies don't count anymore

I usually avoid NY Times articles like the plague, largely because you have to register for them - it's free mind you, but something about this free doesn't seem to fit right. But this morning, an old colleague of mine sent a link to Kevin Kelly's new article. He's a former editor of Wired and wrote what has to be one of the best books that I ever used in my undergrad courses - Out of Control (yes the entire book is online for free). I'm starting this post (and it seems like it's going to be a long one) out this way because the article that Kevin just wrote deals with scanning books, and how print may never be the same. Here is a summary of the article with snippets: Anyone who has ever scanned documents knows why it's a pain - you have to flip pages. Kelly notes this as one of the reasons why there are currently very few books scanned - unless they are converted from their electronic sources I would assume. Other media seem to lend themselves very well to digitization, but books don't, at least not without help: Technology accelerates the migration of all we know into the universal form of digital bits. Nikon will soon quit making film cameras for consumers, and Minolta already has: better think digital photos from now on. Nearly 100 percent of all contemporary recorded music has already been digitized, much of it by fans. About one-tenth of the 500,000 or so movies listed on the Internet Movie Database are now digitized on DVD. But because of copyright issues and the physical fact of the need to turn pages, the digitization of books has proceeded at a relative crawl. At most, one book in 20 has moved from analog to digital. So far, the universal library is a library without many books. One of the advantages for creating the digital library is that it will make texts available to the developing world at a fraction of the cost (assuming that there is no massive copyright money grab) to the developing world. They won't be able to heft a volume and flip the pages, but they will have the content there when they want it: The idea is to seed the bookless developing world with easily available texts. Superstar sells copies of books it scans back to the same university libraries it scans from. A university can expand a typical 60,000-volume library into a 1.3 million-volume one overnight. At about 50 cents per digital book acquired, it's a cheap way for a library to increase its collection. Bill McCoy, the general manager of Adobe's e-publishing business, says: "Some of us have thousands of books at home, can walk to wonderful big-box bookstores and well-stocked libraries and can get Amazon.com to deliver next day. The most dramatic effect of digital libraries will be not on us, the well-booked, but on the billions of people worldwide who are underserved by ordinary paper books." It is these underbooked — students in Mali, scientists in Kazakhstan, elderly people in Peru — whose lives will be transformed when even the simplest unadorned version of the universal library is placed in their hands. Once the books are all online, they can be "remixed" just as any other digital media has been already. And this is where the old static media will finally meet hypermedia and a change will occur: So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things: First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. Far out in the "long tail" of the distribution curve — that extended place of low-to-no sales where most of the books in the world live — digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric. Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don't know. The white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine. Remixing is possible because it is convenient but it runs into the wall that is modern copyright. In the US - That ancient economics of creation was overturned at the dawn of the industrial age by the technologies of mass production. Suddenly, the cost of duplication was lower than the cost of appropriation. With the advent of the printing press, it was now cheaper to print thousands of exact copies of a manuscript than to alter one by hand. Copy makers could profit more than creators. This imbalance led to the technology of copyright, which established a new order. Copyright bestowed upon the creator of a work a temporary monopoly — for 14 years, in the United States — over any copies of the work. The idea was to encourage authors and artists to create yet more works that could be cheaply copied and thus fill the culture with public works. Of course we know that now this is being abused by corporations that have lobbied to extend copyright protection beyond the biological life of the creator, and beyond (arguably) it's usefulness. In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. In most cases, the original publisher simply doesn't find it profitable to keep these books in print. In other cases, the publishing company doesn't know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent of all books in the world's libraries are orphaned. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain. A luckier 10 percent are still in print. The rest, the bulk of our universal library, is dark. Scanning books is now seemingly as much about saving the millions of books left orphaned by copyright as it is about sharing with the world, but as with Big Music, Big Print wants all this flotsam and jetsam to be a source of revenue for them and them alone - even though it's sitting on the shelf not doing anything for anyone right now. They tried to sue Google for doing what Google does anyway: Google argues that it is nearly impossible to track down copyright holders of orphan works, and so, it says, it must scan those books first and only afterward honor any legitimate requests to remove the scan. In this way, Google follows the protocol of the Internet. Google scans all Web pages; if it's on the Web, it's scanned. Web pages, by default, are born copyrighted. Google, therefore, regularly copies billions of copyrighted pages into its index for the public to search. Media in it's various forms is suffering the same wasting disease that the telcos are in terms of the base for their business model. More data flows on the telco networks of the world today than do voice calls, but the industry still bases things on minutes (cell carriers are likely going to be awoken to this fact as new hardware will make data transmission much cheaper than it is right now - wifi vs EDGE). As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the "discovery tool" that markets these other intangible valuables. But selling things-that-cannot-be-copied is far from ideal for many creative people. The new model is rife with problems (or opportunities). For one thing, the laws governing creating and rewarding creators still revolve around the now-fragile model of valuable copies. ... In science, there is a natural duty to make what is known searchable. No one argues that scientists should be paid when someone finds or duplicates their results. Instead, we have devised other ways to compensate them for their vital work. They are rewarded for the degree that their work is cited, shared, linked and connected in their publications, which they do not own. They are financed with extremely short-term (20-year) patent monopolies for their ideas, short enough to truly inspire them to invent more, sooner. To a large degree, they make their living by giving away copies of their intellectual property in one fashion or another. I'll try to post a response to the article in general soon, and in so doing, performing the act that Kelly says will change the world - make links that will increase the value of a work. Technorati Tags: ,