Friday, August 06, 2010
soul stealing: contemplating book "liberation"
(video courtesy BookLiberator on youTube)
Over at the Question Copyright website (one of the many anti-copyright resource sites listed on anticopyright.org), you can now place advance orders for your very own BookLiberator – hailed as an “affordable personal book digitizer.” A wood and glass framed construction – what carpenters might call a jig – the BookLiberator utilizes twin digital cameras and a separate v-shaped book nest to make it possible for anyone (with around $350 USD – and a few free e-booking programs) to make a new digital original from any standard bound-paper format book.
Forbes magazine opens its report on the BL thusly:
“Remember the sense of liberation that came from digitizing your CDs and then chucking a decade or two’s accumulation of archaic plastic? James Vasile and Ian Sullivan want to give you that gratification again–this time from rendering into bits your hundreds of pounds of dead trees.”
Ah yes, the glorious freedom of removing essence from a pesky skin container. What else do we call that?
Forbes is canny enough to realize the slight legal hitch in the whole “liberation” scheme, so they include a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more disclaimer in their headline:
BookLiberator Lets You Make E-Books Cheaply (And Is Definitely Not Intended For Copyright Violation!)
Now, before this blog posting devolves into one of those endless comment streams, let’s get a few Degen opinion facts out of the way
1) I don’t hate the Book Liberator
2) I actually, kind of, think it’s beautiful.
That said, I think we need to examine more closely just exactly what it is the Liberator is liberating.
What is a book?
So, an author sits down for a few years of spirit-battering toil and produces… what? A book?
Well, not really. What an author produces is a work (also known as a text). The book comes after the work, and is the result of the work. The book, in fact, is a copy of the work.
That’s what a book is. It’s a copy. One, single copy – offered for sale as such; bought as such; collected as such; lent as such; resold as such.
A book is, by its very nature, secondary to the work itself. That’s why before anyone makes books from a work, our author and her publisher, and a printer, and a bookseller all sit down (not always in the same room) and sign agreements. They negotiate rights. They argue (mostly politely) about prices and payment structures. They come to an agreement about just what to do with:
1) the work; and
2) the books that result from the work.
Now, the printer and bookseller generally have nothing to do with the work itself. They’re interested in the books – the copies; how many of them will there be, how costly will they be to produce, how many should go in the store, and at what price-point? By the time a book gets to the bookstore shelf or window display (lucky book!), the work itself (the text) is back with the author. In fact, thanks to copyright law, the work need never leave the author. They get to stay best friends for life (plus 50 years).
Why is a text not the same as a book?
A book is extremely limited. As we’ve noted, it’s a single copy. If you drop it in the lake, it will dry horribly and be unusable. If you drop it in a fire, it will not survive. Be somewhat careful with the book you’ve purchased and you can reasonably expect to own that copy for life and pass it on to your kids (if they want it). Eventually though, that copy will degrade and disappear. Such is life (alas).
But here’s something that keeps every censor and dictator up at night. The text behind that book is untouchable. Destroy every copy of a created work and you still have not destroyed the work itself. That’s the great beauty of creation. It is irreversible. You can’t uncreate a work.
Censors and dictators hate the idea of an untouchable text. Foolishly, they try to get at text through its various copies. Seeing that the text has survived the fire that destroyed its copies, many dictators then attack the author. Lock her away, they say; or even, kill her. But once the text has left the mind of the author it can’t be imprisoned or killed. And that is why censorship is such a horrible idea – it causes untold horror and doesn’t work.
Text is virtually limitless. I like to think of a text as a semi-magical thing – the platonic ideal behind the many copies and versions of a given book. Dare I say, text is the soul of a book?
And a soul, damn it, should have rights.
The rights to a text belong to the author. Humanity has agreed on this. We wrote it down over at the UN (article 27, paragraph 2).
By universally agreed-upon right, everything that springs from the original work after it is created is controlled by the author. That author may choose to sell the right to make a certain number of copies of the text to a publisher. That publisher then contracts a printer to produce the copies and then sells a number of them to a bookseller (hoping to not have them returned, shopworn and sad in a year’s time).
The author may also choose to sell to the publisher further rights attached to the work – the right to further editions; the right to transform the work in certain ways – audiobooks, e-books, multimedia extravaganza book-like things; the right to generate foreign editions, translations, etc. and so on. There are so many different rights attached to that original text, the author, if she is fortunate, may be spending a lot of her post-creation time selling those rights here and there in order to make a living.
And why shouldn’t she make a living from the work? People want to read it. Film-makers want to adapt it for the screen. Audiences will want to watch the film. There is demand. Why should the author not be allowed to supply the demand for that work? – after all, it’s her work, her text.
In the Question Copyright article on the BookLiberator, the developers predict their device will produce:
“a culture of text that is fully participatory.”
Can text be fully participatory?
Well, almost. An author authorizes copies of her text, and those copies go out into the world and lots of people get a copy. That’s pretty participatory. That same author agrees to license her work to schools and universities and governments, etc so it can be further copied and used by even more people. That’s extremely participatory. That same author later on decides to release the work into the public domain where it can be copied freely and endlessly. That’s extraordinarily participatory. Eventually the work would enter the public domain anyway. That’s as participatory as one can imagine.
But fully participatory? No.
Fully participatory would mean that anyone owning a copy of the text before it entered the public domain could make decisions about what to do with that text; and as we’ve already noted, that right belongs, by worldwide agreement, to only one person – the author.
Why I don’t hate the TextLiberator
Bring on new technology, I say, and always have. I want my works copied digitally. I want to be able to take advantage of the speed and spread and freedom of the internet.
But I also want to keep my soul.
The BookLiberator should be a very attractive tool for publishers large and small currently looking at the immense project of digitizing their backlist. It should be an attractive tool for Google-shy small libraries wanting to digitize their public domain works (and even their copyright protected works under license). It could provide extended work and income to many publishing interns. And if you can get past the price-point, the BookLiberator should even be attractive to the average book owner who for whatever reason feels he absolutely must have a digital copy of his own public domain works (one he can’t already find at Project Gutenberg or elsewhere).
But what the BookLiberator should not be used for is making unauthorized, unlicensed copies of copyright protected works; because when it’s used for that purpose, it is used to steal the souls of books.
And, unfortunately, despite all disclaimers, that is exactly what the developers of the BookLiberator are encouraging. Make no mistake – this tool is being marketed as a way to avoid paying authors for the rights they’ve earned. On the BookLiberator blog, we see this short list of great reasons to own one of these things:
1. Technology has made it possible
2. It’s cheaper than buying an e-book.
3. It gives you control over the text.
4. It guarantees the accuracy of the work.
5. If you love your books, you should scan them yourself.
I can’t argue with point number 1 (there it is), and I won’t argue with number 5 (because it’s slightly creepy). Number 4 is noble enough – there are lots of free e-book scans out there with horrible production quality, so this reason appeals to my DIY perfectionist sensibility.
Number 2 is deeply problematic.
The copyright protected book you bought did not come with the right to a free e-book version. That would be nice, and may be the kind of thing publishers start offering in the competitive marketplace (after paying the author for e-book rights), but I certainly haven’t heard of it happening yet. Retroactively claiming you should have gotten more than you paid for is generally not a successful tactic. I believe the car I bought ten years ago should have come with a satellite radio, but strangely Toyota will not install one for free.
That copy being encouraged is unauthorized, and the justification – save some money, dude – doesn’t excuse the trespass. If BookLiberator is serious when they warn against infringing copyright, they need to re-address reason number 2.
Number 3 is terrific… if you’re the author
If you’re not the author, you have no right to control the text. Remember those sleepless censors? Controlling text is what they want to do. Don’t be like them.
Text control belongs to the author. Remember how we all agreed to that? It can be licensed, sold, rented, lent and/or given away; but it is not to be taken, for any reason.
BookLiberator reason number 3 needs to be off the table altogether, otherwise this great new tool is broken.
How to fix your BookLiberator:
Well, firstly, stop encouraging people to do things with it they aren’t authorized to do. That’s a good start. Public domain works – go crazy. Copyright protected works – get permission.
After that, welcome to the seemingly never-ending copyright debate.
My sincere hope is that the more people genuinely understand the difference between a work and a copy, between the text and the book, the less debate there will be.