May 15, 2006

"Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much."

Read this article, by Kevin Kelly of Wired. It's long, but well worth the read. Key passage:
What is the technology telling us? That copies don't count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library. Soon a book outside the library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.
Kelly takes the extreme position that copyright holders will have to give up on the outmoded practice of making money from selling copies. No matter how much they've been able to get their needs served by legislators, the sheer force of technology will defeat them in the end.
[T]he economic model built on [copies] 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.
How painful it must be to the average author -- an introvert -- to hear that the new way of making money will be selling personal access to you.

Kelly is very good at getting us excited about how great it will be to have all of humanity's writing in position for infinite linking, but way too blithe about the burden to be inflicted on writers. In his technology triumphalism, he goes so far as to say:
Having searchable works is good for culture. It is so good, in fact, that we can now state a new covenant: Copyrights must be counterbalanced by copyduties. In exchange for public protection of a work's copies (what we call copyright), a creator has an obligation to allow that work to be searched. No search, no copyright.
So Kelly would not even permit the author with a highly saleable book to opt out of being scanned into the system. That's harsh. Maybe it's a bargaining chip for the legal dealing that is going on. But he's very convincing when he talks about the benefits to most authors, whose works go out of print and lose economic potential. For them, moving from oblivion into a lively system of linkage is a great benefit.


Dave said...

The New York Times Magazine has a similar article.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave, that's the article I've linked to!

Timothy K. Morris said...

For an excellent example of self-marketing via the web, see John Scalzi's blog at

You may have to dig around a bit to see just what he does in terms of book marketing. This is because he's marketing John Scalzi as much as any one book, so explict examples of how he promotes his, and his friends', work are interwoven with comments/comentary on any number of things.

John(classic) said...

"Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work."

Last night I happened on a link to a newly discovered fragment of an Archilochos poem. I had not read Archilochos' poetry in decades. I proceeded to spend a happy hour or so comparing different translations on the web, even found one of his poems set to music in a supposed classical style.

Kelly is right. It is the indexing and the links that make the author well read, not the publication.

"The good-natured need no cutlery
In their vocabulary." Archilochos


Sean said...

Funnily, the law seems to be moving the other way, with increased protection for copyright holders. Try selling copies of Mickey Mouse. I'm very skeptical about claims that technical progress can somehow resist the power of the state: just to take a few examples, the imperial Chinese government was able to suppress seafaring, metallurgy etc. for quite a few centuries; and the Soviet government managed to keep photocopiers under control. Modern Western states are more democratic, but not less powerful on that account.

Ann Althouse said...

Sean: There's a lot of discussion in the article about that legislative trend. Kelly believes tecnology is stronger than that retrograde legislation. He makes a great argument that these long copyright terms hurt many more authors than they help, because the books become unavailable as paper copies within only a few years.

Dave said...

Sorry, I saw "of Wired" and assumed that the article was from Wired magazine.

gj said...

What are the implications for the practice of plagiarism in this ultra-linked world where, ala blogs, the best works are a pastiche of direct references intertwined with the author's original thoughts?

Will plagiarism (reuse without attribution) become much less common as it becomes easier, and more legitimate, to reference other works with proper attribution?

John R Henry said...

I read the article, as well as many articles and podcasts on this s8ubject over the past couple years.

One of the points I think you missed about protection of copyright is that Google and the other indexes do not make books available without copyright holder permission.

What they do is make the book searchable. So I can search the DaVinci Code for every reference to Mary Magdalene. All it will give me is the sentence or two around each instance. I still have to buy the book if I find this interesting.

One area he talked about is, IMHO, a real problem and that is orphaned books. That is, book that are out of print and there is no way to find who holds copyright. I agree with Google's bringing them back into print and then letting the copyright owners object.

It is a legal kludge but the alternative is that they all be lost and gone forever.

I think we have gone too far overboard on copyright. I think 15-20 years for initial copyright is about right. Then, if the holder, like Disney, wants to extend it I have no objection to them positively doing so. They should register the work in a central location (LOC? Google?) so anyone can find out who owns it.

John Henry

Balfegor said...

Re: GJ
it becomes easier, and more legitimate, to reference other works with proper attribution?

By the same token, though, in a fully linked, Google-enabled world, won't it also be much easier to locate the original sources, whether there is a formal reference or not? If there's a particular phrase, you just type it in, and the search engine greps for it, no? This won't help with mere references (as opposed to outright borrowings/plagiarism), but mere references often slip by without specific reference anyhow, outside of the academic world.

Ann Althouse said...

gj: I assume that when all the books are scanned in, we will discover a lot of plagiarism, since it will become so much easier to find things that match. There must be a few well-recognized authors who are terrified of some obscure book getting scanned into the system.

Mark said...

Without having read the guy's article, he sounds to me like another one of these people who gets excited about an idea and then decides that the glorious way of the future is to get the government to force his way on everyone. The "duty" to share, for example...we don't need anyone declaring that everyone has a duty to share and that copyright should be banned; just let the free market continue to evolve in this area. It's been evolving just fine without this guy and his grandiose declarations of "duties" and "rights".

Robert Burnham said...

Gaining online access to materials that are buried at present in Kelly's gray area -- between public domain and currently in print and promoted -- would be very good for everyone in the business.

Kelly nails it when he says that the extension of copyright to 70 years after the originator's death is simply protection for an increasingly out of date buisiness model. (Cf, recording industry.)

However, I'm still skeptical about his technological imperative. People like him have been prophesying the "death of the book" for a long ,long time, and greater numbers of them get published every year.

(OK, nevermind quality -- but then that's always been an issue.) As even Kelly acknowledges, the traditional ink-on-paper book has a durability and a low-tech usability that is unlikely to disappear.

Frankly, reading text on a screen is harder than on a page, and screen-reading also encourages authors to repackage their material in shorter bursts. (Like these shortie blog grafs, for example!)

What effect will this have on scholarship, subtlety of ideas, complex arguments, and the like? I don't know. But I'm dead certain it will have an effect -- and probably a host of unintended consequences as well.

HaloJonesFan said...

"Kelly nails it when he says that the extension of copyright to 70 years after the originator's death is simply protection for an increasingly out of date buisiness model. (Cf, recording industry.)"

Right. And that whole onwership-of-land thing is simply protection for an increasingly out-of-date business model (Cf. farming.) I mean, how many people do you know who grow food or raise meat animals? We should nationalize all property and just pay rental fees to the Government Bureau Of Land Management. After all, how can you say that you own dirt? It was just lying there on the ground, and you came along and found it!

Balfegor said...

We should nationalize all property and just pay rental fees to the Government Bureau Of Land Management.

Those are called property taxes.

Old Dad said...

Kelly has a point, but I think he overstates it.

I think that many, perhaps, most of us will continue to read books that we hold in or hands.

Books aren't blog posts, or newspapers, or magazines. I think we want them to be finished, not in constant flux. We want to digest them thoughtfully.

No doubt, the digital revolution has broadened the ways that we can learn and discuss, but there will always be an important place for a book in the hand.

John R Henry said...

halojonesfan said:

Right. And that whole onwership-of-land thing is simply protection for an increasingly out-of-date business model (Cf. farming.)

Your analogy to land is well taken but misconstrued. In the case of land that is abandoned, we have a process where it reverts to the state which can then resell it and put it back into circulation.

With orphaned or abandoned copyrights, we need a way to do that. It might be something like posting a notice at LOC that I want to use a work then waiting a period of time to see if the owner appears. If not, I can then use it.

If they appear later, there could be some way, (fixed percentage of profits perhaps?) that I can compensate the righful owner without either of us being screwed or having to resort to lawyers and courts.

To continue with the land analogy, if I want to know who owns a piece of property, it is relatively easy to find out. We need something similar for copyright.

John Henry

Freeman Hunt said...

I think Kelly is right that texts will be digitized, connected, and searchable, but I think he's wrong about how the economic will work.

Richard Dolan said...

I enjoyed Kelly's piece. Lawyers are already familiar with a subset of the phenomenon he is talking about. All key legal texts, and almost all significant secondary sources, are available on line, where one can find not only the complete text but a searchable text. Westlaw and Lexis revolutionized the practice of law, the way in which lawyers search for relevant materials, and even the way they set up an office. Many smaller, and not so small firms, no longer keep extensive book-based law libraries. The real estate is expensive, as are the books; Westlaw and Lexis are, in comparison, cheap and they're available rignt from your desk or whatever other place today may find you.

So it's not as if Kelly is writing about something that doesn't already exist, at least for specific fields and specialized users such as law. The medical profession, too, has its versions of these databases that function in the same way as Westlaw and Lexis for lawyers.

The copyright problems in the legal field obviously don't apply to the basic legal texts -- court decisions or govermental publications (statutes, legislative or agency reports, filings by private parties with courts, legislatures or agencies, etc.). For secondary sources, it's clear that some kind of deal has been worked out, since all major law reviews and legal treatises are accessible, and that material is typically copyrighted.

It would have been interesting to get Kelly's take on the experience with existing versions of the "universal digital library," as it relates to his larger theses. The enormous size of the universal legal library -- it grows by thousands upon thousands of pages of American materials alone daily -- makes it impossible for anyone to read more than a tiny fraction. The searchable quality of the database (if one is any good in framing search criteria) makes it possible to hone in on a more manageable subset of the available resources. All of that works where the object is clearly defined, as it typically is when one is researching or writing a legal paper - whether intended for submission to a court or other governmental agency, or for research. But unlike a book-based library, it's not the kind of place where one goes browsing for pleasure.

The sheer vastness of the universal library Kelly describes means that its utility will turn on one's ability to hone in on very small parts of it. In the legal context, it's possible to do that because, in a sense, legal literature is so homogenous. FOr example, one can very quickly scan a court decision, or the portions of it using the words or phrases that one was searching for, to see if it is of any interest to one's current project. That's much harder to do with books. For one thing, legal decisions and related texts tend to be shorter and more focused, and generally follow a familiar format; books, particularly non-technical materials, take much more time to skim. And often their interest lies as much in style and literary art as it does in "content." Unless one is looking for all the instances of moon imagery in Shakespeare's comedies, for example, the "text searchable" feature won't really be all that interesting. But if moon imagery is your thing -- the general reader's equivalent of finding useful precedents discussing the "takings clause," for example -- then searchable text will be a real boon. In short, the universal library and searchable text is a tool, and a fabulous one if you are doing the kind of carpentry for which that tool is just the right thing. But don't get carried away will all the millenialism here.

The sheer vastness of the "universal library" will make it as hard to use, in its way, as the card catalogs of old. I remember trying to search for useful materials as an undergraduate at Yale before computerization had arrived at the library -- it was frustrating and took a long time partly because the library was so vast and the potentially relevant materials were so many. A digital universal library may mean that you don't have to take notes and then trudge through the stacks (I actually enjoyed wandering through the stacks at Sterling, so "trudge" here doesn't really reflect how I felt about it). But, unless one's interest is as specific as a practicing lawyer's (or a specialist's in moon imagery), the real constraint will still be the shortless of time, and ultimately the shortness of life.

Kelly's comments about the importance of the univeral library in extending its availability to everyone, even his villager in Mali, is exactly right. Electronic technology is a great democratic leveler, and the universal library will be even more so. He doesn't give any significance to the pleasure of a well-made book as an object, or the tactile joy one can get from it. Those are reasons why digitial libraries will never replace books, but they don't really call into question Kelly's larger point that, for most purposes, the digital library will replace book-based ones.

One comment by Kelly struck me as counterfactual: "The argument about sharing revenue is not about the three or four million books that publishers care about and keep in print, because Google is sharing revenues for those books with publishers." Three or four million? I can't believe that there are so many books that "publishers care about and keep in print."

Richard Fagin said...

Time for all to dust off that old copy (!) of the story of the Charles River Bridge case, "Privilege and Creative Destruction."

P. Froward said...

Not long ago I found myself looking vainly for the "Find" command in Gravity's Rainbow. Bit of a shock when I realized there wasn't one. Electronic text can't possibly happen too fast.

Nevertheless, electronic text is unreadable in bulk. You can't beat electronic search for looking things up, but there will be no actual reading without paper until we see affordable reflective displays at resolutions greater than 300 dpi or so. We're not quite there yet. The Sony unit is small, expensive, and seems to be aggressively user-hostile (apparently it insists on PDFs or something else equally retarded), but it's early days yet.

Pogo said...

Certain printed items will be headed for extiction in hard copy, especially medical/legal journals and textbooks. Neither is even useful as fish wrap once past its read-by date.

Romance novels? Maybe. After a long long transition. But I expect both electronic and paper formats to remain for quite a long time.

Despite the breathless excitement, the PC screen is cumbersome compared with a book. Ugly, too. Once just-in-time printing comes available, both needs can be met by simultaneous hard and e-copy availability.

And 'give it away' might work for razor blade makers and the shaver, but when the product is the text itself, well, I won't hold my breath.

Balfegor said...

but there will be no actual reading without paper until we see affordable reflective displays at resolutions greater than 300 dpi or so.

Since the mid-90's, when I was in middle and high school, I done probably half of my leisure reading -- novels, etc. -- on the computer. The first thing I read entirely on-screen was probably The Phantom of the Opera. Since then, the Project Gutenberg library has offered me hours on hours of enjoyment, and illegal copyright-infringing fanfiction hours more. I've also read original works posted online -- above, Scalzi's page got linked. I read his online novel too, before it got published (and enjoyed it -- a pleasant, light read). The resolution and image quality are not really a problem.

The only problem is that my laptop is too bulky to carry around and has terrible battery life. That, and the screen is nigh invisible in sunlight. Otherwise, I'd already be reading almost everything digitally. I'm waiting for the Sony Reader to come out (finally) in this country, so I can read the Forsyte Saga on it.

Finn Kristiansen said...

This article is slightly annoying, because it is essentially suggesting that people need to give up the theoretical certainty of economic gain derived by copyright, for the greater uncertainty of a rather ill defined economic model where one "sells performances, access to the creator, personalization, add on info, sponsorships, etc".

That is just profoundly stupid.

Take sponsors: What sponsor is going to sponsor something that can be copied and dupiclated, repackaged and manipulated? Sponsors pay to be exclusive.

Until they come up with a truly viable way to make money while giving a creative effort away for free to others, much of this won't float.

The broader idea of a searchable database of everything is inevitable and worthwhile, but the book talk--and what to do about copyrights--is absurd.
(His suggestion that a paragraph from a book can be yanked from its foundation and "reimagined" ought to be horrifying. I don't necessarily want my writing tossed into a context I did not create for it. Why bother creating when I can be turned into a type of internet madlibs)

Oh, and I like how these wonderful new ideas are always introduced by people who stand inside the fort, ass protected. The author says:

I have divided loyalties in the case. The current publisher of my books is suing Google to protect my earnings as an author. At the same time, I earn income from Google Adsense ads placed on my blog.

I wonder which source of income pays his mortgage, and will continue to pay it for years to come while he hyperventilates over free access to everything.

Didn't we read enough of this wired-style hype during the internet boom in the '90's, where everyone got the economics totally wrong, and in such a profound way that the economy went into recession when all the companies had to come back to earth, fire everyone they overhired, and resume thinking in a rational way.

Balfegor said...

the theoretical certainty of economic gain derived by copyright

Haha. Well. "Theoretical" is the key qualifier here, I suppose.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think an iTunes type model is much more likely. You sign into your account and pay as your access material.

Want to see the text referred to in the footnote for $0.15? Want to download the symphony referred to here for $0.99? Would you like to buy Walter E. Williams annotations to Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics for $13.99?

This makes more sense to me.

I agree with Finn about taking an author's work out of context. I don't see that as something that would be a positive development.

Freeman Hunt said...

pay as your access material.

Or you could even pay as you access material. I'm being awfully heavy on the typos today.

/staggers towards the coffee maker

bill said...

Kelly is a very intriguing writer and I highly recommend his "Out of Control, The Bew Biology of machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Go ahead, it's available online at his website for free.

If you're interested in the "universal library" idea, then just skip to Chapter 14, In the Library of Form.

Sigivald said...

"It's a book. It's a non-volatile storage medium. It's very rare. You should 'ave one."

sonicfrog said...

Kelly has some good points, but this reminds me too much of the dire predictions of the demise of the "brick and mortar" book stores due to the rise of internet book sellers such as during the late 90's.

Ann Althouse said...

Two comments:

1. I thought I greatly preferred reading printed paper to reading on screen, but lately, I find it hard to stop reading the screen, and when I'm reading paper, I feel I need to get back to the screen. This has something to do with being a blogger, however.

2. I used to go to bookstores constantly, but these days, I feel frustrated by the static shelving and the inability to check reviews and various links.

I feel that my brain has been fundamentally altered!

Tom Grey said...

Your brain has been altered!

Your picture has been included in Blogs with a Face (I think because I sent him a link, not sure -- you're welcome to look at my blog, two to your left).

"Intellectual property" doesn't exist. Books do, but they're copies of ideas. Socialism could work on information: "to each according to his need (er, desire)" -- info sharing/ copying is positive sum, not zero sum.

The gov't needs more prizes to induce more innovation -- not protection of "intellectual monopoly".

Ann, have you tried for music? Quite cool.

I like your American Idol stuff; since I like the Slovak Searches for a Superstar copy.

Maxine Weiss said...

1. I thought I greatly preferred reading printed paper to reading on screen, but lately, I find it hard to stop reading the screen, and when I'm reading paper, I feel I need to get back to the screen. This has something to do with being a blogger, however.

2. I used to go to bookstores constantly, but these days, I feel frustrated by the static shelving and the inability to check reviews and various links.

Not me. It's just the opposite with me. It doesn't feel natural. Looking at the world through a screen. If anything, being online feel too filtered.

I like the tactile sensation of holding a book in my hands. The smell of new print. Remember in the old days when we'd get high off the sniffing of ink, er, other people would---I'd just watch.

I used to love the smell of freshly mimeographed "dittos".

There will always be a market for rare books, and the cachet of exclusive leather bound volumes.

I don't believe technology is healthy. I'm a big believer in the low-tech movement. Reducing your reliance on tech.

The simple act of reading a traditionallly bound book, holding it in your hands and knowing you are engaging in the very same thing that people did hundreds of years ago.....inscribed books. How do you inscribe something online? Ancient manuscripts. The weathered parchment paper inscribed by your ancestors. You think anything online can replace that?

Peace, Maxine

Ann Althouse said...

Tom: I blogged about Pandora a while back.

Blogs with a Face? My main reaction: my photo is distorted.

Seven Machos said...

I'm late to the party and I'm sure someone brought this up already but who paid the author for his piece? How?

It all reminds me of Karl Marx, writing about a new classless system while keeping a maid.