Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Turow vs Everyone

According to celebrated author, lawyer, and president of the Author's Guild Scott Turow, the legal and technological erosion of copyright endangers writers. (New York Times, April 7th, 2013) His enemy list is conspiratorial in length and breadth. It includes the Supreme Court, publishers, search engines, the Hathi trust, Google, academics, libraries, and Amazon. Nevertheless, Turow makes compelling arguments that deserve scrutiny.

The Supreme Court decision on re-importation. (Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)
This 6-3 decision merely reaffirmed the first sale doctrine. It is highly unlikely that this will significantly affect book prices in the US. If it does, any US losses will be offset by price increases in foreign markets. More importantly, the impact will be negligible because paper books will soon be a niche market in the US.

Publishers restrict royalties on e-books.
Publishers who manage the technology shift by making minor business adjustments, such as transferring costs to authors, libraries, and consumers, underestimate the nature of current changes. Traditional publishers built their business when disseminating information was difficult. Once they built their dissemination channels, making money was relatively easy. In our current world, building dissemination channels is easy and cheap. Making money is difficult. Authors may need new partners who built their business in the current environment; there are some in his list of enemies.

Search engines make money of referring users to pirate sites.
Turow has a legitimate moral argument. However, politicizing search engines by censoring search results is as wrong as it is ineffective. Pirate sites also spread through social networks. Cutting off pirate sites from advertizing networks, while effective, is difficult to achieve across international borders and requires unacceptable controls on information exchange. iTunes and its competitors have shown it is possible to compete with pirate sites by providing a convenient user interface, speed, reliability, quality, and protection against computer viruses.

The Hathi trust and Google scanned books without authorization.
Hathi and Google were careless. Authors and publishers were rigid. Experimentation gave way to litigation.

Some academics want to curtail copyright.
Scholarly publishers like Elsevier have profit margins that exceed 30%. Yet, Turow claims that “For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable.”

Academics' research is often funded in part by government, and it is always supported by universities. Universities have always been committed to research openness, and they use published research as means for assessment. This is why academics forego royalties when they publish research. The concept of research openness is changing, and many academics are lobbying for the idea that research should be freely available to all. The idea of Open Access was recently embraced by the White House. Open Access applies only to researchers funded by the government and/or employed by participating universities and research labs. It only covers research papers, not books. It does not apply to independent authors. Open Access does not curtail copyright.

Legal academics like Prof. Lawrence Lessig have argued for stricter limits on traditional copyright and alternative copyrights. Pressured by industry lobbyists, Congress has repeatedly increased the length of copyright. If this trend continues, recent works may never enter into the public domain. Legislation must balance authors' intellectual property rights and everyone's (including authors') freedom to produce derivative works, commentaries, parodies, etc.

Amazon patents a scheme to re-sell used e-books.
This patent is a misguided attempt to monetize the human frailty of carrying familiar concepts from old technology senselessly into the new. It is hardly the stuff that made this forward-looking company formidable.

Libraries expand paper lending into digital lending.
Turow demands more money from libraries for digital lending privileges. He is too modest; he should demand their whole budget.

When a paper-based library acquires a book, it permanently increases the value of its collection. This cumulative effect over many years created the world's great collections. When a community spends resources on a digital-lending library, it rents information from publishers and provides a fleeting service for only as long as the licenses last. When the license ends, the information disappears. There is no cumulative effect. That digital-lending library only adds overhead. It will never own or contribute new information. It is an empty shell.

Digital lending is popular with the public. It gives librarians the opportunity to transition gradually into digital space. It continues the libraries' billion-dollar money stream to publishers. Digital lending have a political constituency, but it does not stand up to rational scrutiny. Like Amazon's scheme to resell used e-books, digital-lending programs are desperate attempts to hang on to something that simulates the status quo.

Lending is the wrong paradigm for the digital age. Instead, libraries should use their budgets to accumulate quality open-access information. They should sponsor qualified authors to produce open-access works of interest to the communities they serve. This would give authors a choice. They could either produce their work commercially behind a pay wall, or they could produce library-funded open-access works.