Buy Rotting Bits, Or Else: The War on Libraries.

In the past, I predicted that publishers will inevitably declare war on book-lending:

“Let’s pretend that a Nook book (or any similar DRM’d ebook) could be lent in exactly the same manner as a physical book: to whomever you like, whenever you like, for as long as you like – with the added benefit of instantaneous, guaranteed, and toll-free shipping in both directions. This suggests that one could set up a library – a perfectly legal thing to do with physical books. The library (let’s call it Cranny) would consist of an online service which automates the process of requesting a Nook book from anyone who owns a copy but isn’t reading it at the moment. It would also allow you to send a request to recover any of the books you have lent out, with the same speed and ease. Consider: how many of the physical books on your shelves are you currently reading? In the course of any given hour? day? week? month? There is no reason to suppose that this situation would be any different for electronic books. The result: once a Nook book has been purchased by some critical number of Cranny users, just about all future readers would be able to enjoy it for free, with the aid of a vast global library. In fact, the entire process of pretending that a limited number of copies of a work exist (with the resulting need to ration access) becomes a farce. The Cranny scenario is clearly unacceptable to B&N, and (unsurprisingly) they have crippled the Nook’s lending mechanism to prevent it – just as I predicted upon first hearing of the device…. …publishers understand that the freedoms traditionally enjoyed by book owners (such as the freedom to lend without restriction) will ultimately lead to the collapse of their business model.”

“The Nook, the Cranny, and the Lend Me Not.” (yours truly, October 21 2009.)

Unfortunately, my prediction appears to be coming true:

“Imagine the perfect library book. Its pages don’t tear. Its spine is unbreakable. It can be checked out from home. And it can never get lost. The value of this magically convenient library book — otherwise known as an e-book — is the subject of a fresh and furious debate in the publishing world. For years, public libraries building their e-book collections have typically done so with the agreement from publishers that once a library buys an e-book, it can lend it out, one reader at a time, an unlimited number of times. Last week, that agreement was upended by HarperCollins Publishers when it began enforcing new restrictions on its e-books, requiring that books be checked out only 26 times before they expire. Assuming a two-week checkout period, that is long enough for a book to last at least one year.HarperCollins, in its defense, pointed out that its policy for libraries was a decade old, made long before e-books were as popular as they are today. The new policy applies to newly acquired books. “We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors,” the company said in a statement.

“Publisher Limits Shelf Life for Library E-Books.” (The New York Times; March 14, 2011.)

Surprised?  Don’t be.  The copyright cartels must behave this way, or perish, because:

The notion that one can “lend” a string of bits is an Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity.

More and more people are realizing that they are buying infinitely-copyable information rather than dead trees or plastic disks.  And many have come to the conclusion that publishing houses are, by and large, parasitic middlemen.  The parasites understand that if this trend continues, their days are numbered.  And so, they try to turn back the clock by encasing e-books in various nonsensical scarcity emulators. (Let’s popularize this term!)  They hope that consumers will eventually make peace with artificial scarcity.  Endless variations on the tired, old theme of “these bits live in hardware which you own, but you can’t view/flip them” will be tried.

Expect scarcity emulators to grow many new “bells and whistles” in the near future.  Some of them will draw inspiration from the limitations of traditional media.  Others – like the Nook’s crippled (once-in-a-lifetime) “lending” – will be new and daring forays into radical anti-featuredom.

But wait!  There are so many “useful” aspects of dead trees still waiting to be copied!  Eagerly await the following exciting “features” from your favorite e-book vendor:

  • Digitally-simulated coffee spills.
  • Frequently-flipped pages suddenly vanishing, to simulate pages falling out of shoddy dead-tree bindings.
  • Entire book suddenly vanishes, to simulate the loss of a dead-tree book on public transportation or to burglars.
This entry was written by Stanislav , posted on Tuesday March 15 2011 , filed under Books, Copyright, Distractions, NonLoper, Predictions . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Buy Rotting Bits, Or Else: The War on Libraries.”

  • dmbarbour says:

    I laughed aloud at your ‘new features’ list. Something that borders on genuinely useful: allow pages to be marked by its readers (highlights, pen marks, doodles) and preserve them forever (just like a real book).

    I wouldn’t mind paying for an e-book with restricted transferability. There really are ’scarce’ resources at the other end of whatever pipe is providing my book: human time, human effort, human expertise. So the issue isn’t “artificial” scarcity; rather, the challenge is to accommodate this “real” scarcity within our distribution model. (If artists don’t get paid, we won’t have artists.)

    With technology undermining copyright as a basis for commoditizing information rights, perhaps we should pursue a new distribution model. But, while I have plenty of ideas, I’m not convinced that any of them are much better than the license-based ’scarcity emulators’ we have today.

  • Dennis Crawford says:

    Dear Stanislav,

    I notice that PLT Scheme (now known as ‘Racket’) is not on your list of non-broken programming systems. Do you have specific complaints with that platform, or is it that you are simply unfamiliar with it?

    (Irrelevant to this specific post)

    Best regards,
    Dennis Crawford

  • “Scarcity emulator” is excellent.

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