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, 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.

Soul 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.

Bookmark and Share


Karl Fogel said...

If "humanity has agreed" about copyright, then why is the copyright debate "seemingly never-ending"?

John said...

Thanks for the comment, Karl, and good question... one I ask myself all the time.

I think the 'agreement' is on essentials and the 'debate' is on details. Unfortunately, for many, the details carry over into the essentials. That's nothing new for political debate, but it is almost always as uncomfortable for someone as the current climate of anti-copyright is for working artists.

Jorge Cruz Rodriguez said...

I don't believe there is agreement on the essentials. The idea of property is a social construction and whether and to what extent it applies to texts, pictures, ideas and so forth is a political issue, not some kind of absolute law of physics or the like, as you seem to imagine.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the disconnect floats around the concept of owning an idea or expression. There is a deep general understanding that an idea can never be owned. You can create it, or you can copy it, but you cannot own it.

This is where copyright and patent structures comes in, with the stated intent of advancing the arts and science for the benefit of all, encouraging creation through limiting of copying. As long as it accomplishes this purpose you will have agreement. When it no longer seems to do so, disagreements arise.

We live in fast advancing and interesting times. Sometimes overwhelming. Fast, worldwide communications. Widespread publication by the general public.

Ideas, and even expressions, might be created simultaneously and independently by many people. If it's an idea whose "time has come", the structures can impede instead of advance.

Technology creates new tools, which can can change the point where the details of copyright and patent structures no longer encourage creation, but start to stifle it.

I think nearly everyone will agree on the concept and purpose behind copyright and patent law. But the structures we have, no longer properly reflect these purposes.

Karl Fogel said...

Well, I'm not so sure that "nearly everyone will agree". Was copyright really invented to advance the arts and sciences? (It long predates the U.S. Constitution, if that's what you're thinking of.)

As far as I can tell, it was a printing industry regulation designed to promote sustainable business practices among publishers in the days of the printing press. It's not clear to me that it makes much sense in the Internet age; it's certainly not the case that everyone agrees it's a good idea.

For what it's worth: I'm an author, and I release my books under free licenses, and not only have I made money, but it's gotten me more audience and enabled my books to be translated a LOT more than many far more deserving books are. I have yet to see how restricting the spread of my own works via copyright would have helped me.

But I'm not exactly saying it should be the author's choice, either. If I had chosen to restrict my works, I would be making that choice for everyone else in the world too, and why should I be the one who gets to decide? Just because I wrote it? That seems kind of random to me. If I don't want them to spread, I can simply not release them at all. But to release them and at the same time withhold them... that's strange, to me. I'm not sure why I'd want to do that.

I'm just trying to say that there are deep issues about freedom of information and of communication here. It's not as simple as "I wrote it so I should be able to control it". That wasn't exactly a cultural norm before the invention of the printing press, and I'm not sure it will be anymore now that information travels on the Internet. It only worked during the printing interregnum because there was a strong economic interest (for publishers, and to some degree for all of us) in having a control structure to make printing sustainable. That incentive is no longer there, and meanwhile the restrictions cost us more and more (because the "opportunity cost" is so much greater -- you can do much more sharing with an Internet than you can with a press).

Anonymous said...

Advancement of the arts and science is really for the patent structure, not copyright. Sorry, I should have separated them more clearly.
The fundamental social concept behind a balance between creation and copying is still valid for both copyright and patent, no matter what the original roots were for the specific structures.

But the disconnect still exists based on the concept of ownership of an idea or expression.

It's a natural idea, and general agreement, that if you create or build a chair you own it. Both the creator and the person using that chair will agree. Property concepts apply, it can be bought and sold.

This doesn't naturally extend into the realm of ideas and expressions. The concept of ownership doesn't really apply. We are now dealing with the essence of human communication and the building blocks of societies. It's fundamental to the way people are, the way they think and interact. There is something that should be attributed to the creator, but it isn't ownership. That's part of the purpose behind social agreements like copyright and patent structures.

Modern technology and the internet changes a lot of the details behind these structures. Your experience with your created works is a possible preview of the future. General self publishing of your own created works used to be only available to the indulgent wealthy. Now anyone can do it, easily and daily. The concepts behind copyright are still valid, which is why licenses like CC and GPL are popular.

John said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks. I agree that we are talking about social constructs; but I think as long as we continue to live in a market-based economy, and as long as "texts" as I have defined them have value, copyright is a valid and useful connective tissue between creativity and the market.

I also believe that even while copyright may have been referenced here and there to restrict freedom of expression, it more often serves to ensure that freedom. Integrity of individual expression is key to the freedom of expression, and key concepts in copyright guard that integrity.

I know I don't believe that an idea can be owned or protected by copyright. Ideas are even more ephemeral than texts. Copyright exists to regulate copying, not creation, inspiration or influence.

I need to refer again to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I understand that property concerns around copyright are highly poitical; but political solutions predicated on ignoring an established human right make me very nervous.

Karl, I have also released a copy of one of my books for free re-distribution over the internet. I absolutely understand the Doctorow theory of obscurity-avoidance. But, it is an overly simplistic theory that does not cover every aspect of text-creation and ownership. Without ever admitting it (perhaps without ever even realizing it), Doctorow is one of this age's most successful intellectual property owners. He benefits enormously from established rules under copyright, and from the distinction between "text" and "book."

Anonymous said...

Not withstanding your comments John, they are valid observations. But I think you might be splitting hairs.

My remarks are within the context of the question asked in the first comment posted here.

A text is really nothing more than the expression of an idea. There are many ways to express an idea or series of ideas, some more poignant or appropriate than others. The social frameworks that have evolved surrounding the pure idea and the text might be different, but the acknowledgment defined by these constructs has a similar basis.

I believe the concept of ownership of either the idea or even the text is deeply contradictory to human nature. On the other hand, there is also a very real acknowledgment that something should be attributed to the creator. From that we get social constructs like copyright and patent.

The exact details of what that something should be, is where the conflicts arise. Add in the constant changes in society engendered by movable type, digital storage and transfer, and now the BookLiberator, this something is a dynamic rather than a static factor.

Social constructs are nearly always a compromise of some sort. Subject to change as society evolves. There is no absolute right or wrong, simply fair and equitable in a general way. There will always be specifics on either end of a general social construct, even if it is dynamically adjusted on a timely basis.

The debate truly will be "never-ending".

John said...

I don't mind splitting hairs. Why let lawyers have all the fun?

You can't own your own expression in much the same way you can't own the air in your exhalations. But everyone has the right to breathe (which involves creating individually unique exhalations).

That's nowhere near as flip as it sounds. What I mean is... sure, ownership concepts are social constructs; but so is the economy; so are all our laws (except for biblical literalists).

As long as content has tangible value - and in our market economy it surely does - we need to allow creators and rightsholders some constructed from of limited ownership (if they want it).

Stieg Larsson is dead right now and he's making millions, which is a very nice legacy he has left for his family. Copies of his texts are available in every form imaginable, and I see no good economic or political reason to offer any of those copies for free. People are more than happy to pay for them, and I don't hear anyone complaining that they are unduly restricted from the text.

Anonymous said...

Splitting hairs can be fun. But it can also be an attempt to separate or distract from the core of the discussion. Sorry if I didn't recognize the way you meant it.

The concept of ownership far predates the concepts of Copyright or Patent. Owning is far deeper rooted than our more recent social constructs. We may have social constructs that reflect this precept, but this does not automatically translate to the concept of ownership, limited or otherwise, of an idea or expression of an idea.

Nobody owns the economy, and there are no specialized rights within it. Money is an element of the economy, but even if we went back to a barter basis an "economy" would still exist. Any natural understanding of "economy" really doesn't apply to the specialized class of attribution that a creator is in. The only relation is the ongoing discussion of how much of the something should be directly translatable to a means of barter. Certainly important, but more often a point of dispute than a basis for understanding by modern society.

I appreciate that you see the dichotomy between owning a copyright, and of owning the work.
But the wording in your last paragraph seems to conceptually place the work itself into the same class as owned and inherited property. And that comes smack up against the point I have been trying to make all through these remarks.
Ownership of ideas and words isn't something that is a natural concept. Quite the opposite. The something that is attributable to the creator, doesn't seem to naturally extend into the concept of property and inheritance via copyright.

And from that disconnect, you get debate about appropriate copyright terms. At what point is it fair and equitable for people to follow their natural inclinations? To copy and perhaps build upon, what has already been created? These same inclinations formed the building blocks of our modern society, and eventually the definition of copyright structures. The roots of the "never-ending" debate around the social structure we call copyright are much deeper than simple economics.

Ian Sullivan said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the discussion about BookLiberator. I hope I can add a couple new points to what's been said.

The BookLiberator is about allowing book lovers to better preserve and access the books that mean something to them. When I first started trying to digitize my books, more than 3/4 of the works on my bookcase were not available in ebook format from any publisher. That fact is still true today, because publishers focus mostly on new releases and not on the miscellaneous books that have stuck with me through life. I wanted the ability to carry my library in my pocket and to search through the text of my old materials from school. Computers make that trivial, but only if you have digital versions.

What the BookLiberator does is no different than the VCR, or a USB turntable for vinyl records. This is not about wresting control of a platonic "work" from an author, it is about allowing people to capture digital representations of the objects they own. There is no control lost here. People have always been free to take pictures of their paintings, or to tear the page out of books and make them into works of visual art. The "works" are no more harmed by people photographing their books than they were by these earlier transformations. And if people start making digital collages or interactive installation pieces for playing with the actual text of their own books, that "work" will remain just as unharmed.

I'm not talking about world-wide distribution of my library, I'm talking about restoring the yellowed paperbacks on my shelf to crisp and readable text on my computer screen or ebook reader. If you want to maintain that this is illegal and immoral copying activity, that is your privilege, but there is no worldwide agreement on the point.

Karl Fogel said...

What Ian said, re the BookLiberator, fwiw.

My comments on copyright were not related the BookLiberator, but rather were about copyright's history and the fact that it *is* controversial (unless we want to just say there's controversy around the question of whether or not it's controversial, but that would be getting a bit too meta :-) ).

Cory Doctorow does not distribute under free licenses. He's well aware that he depends on copyright, and what he's doing is very different from the kind of distribution I was talking about (and that I do with my books).

John said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for commenting. And since you are one of the designers of the BookLiberator, let me just stress again that I think you've made a very beautiful object/tool. I hope you caught the compliment when I referred to it as a jig. There's nothing more perfect than a really simple, elegant jig, is there?

I understand everything you say about the BL as VCR, but I have learned from long, painful experience in the copyright debate that we must be extremely accurate in what we say. I don't accept digital scanning as "transformative" in the same way using pages in visual art might be.

The BL turns books into e-books not to create a transformatively new expression, but to create a new copy of the original text. That's an act regulated by copyright. There's just no way around it. In my post-grad days, way back in 1992, I was involved in scanning entire books for computerized textual analysis to aid in literary criticism. Groundbreaking stuff at the University of Toronto, all in the service of education. But, we asked permission of the copyright holders.

As I said in my post, your original paper book purchase did not come with a license to make a digital copy. Legally, you need to seek permission to do that.

At the moment publishers are, in good faith, putting a lot of sweat equity into renegotiating old contracts with writers in order to get older books still under copyright into digital form. They are working hard, within copyright law to satisfy the desires of consumers, the rights of writers and the market they serve. If a publishing corp. went ahead and digitized books without asking permission from the author, there'd be a hue and cry, and rightfully so. While this differs on scale, it is essentially the same problem.

Are you an ogre for having built this tool? Not at all. You are an artist, IMO.

Someone who uses the BL to scan an old book they love (and can't find the official e-book for) is not a criminal in my opinion; but that person IS most definitely infringing the author's copyright.

If there was a mass-scale private digitization of books as there was with music, the incentive for honourable publishers to complete their own digitization would be lost, and the authors of those books you love would lose established rights (recognized by the UN), and real income.

Honestly, I like the honour system for tools like yours, but I'd be a lot more comfortable with it if your promotion of the BookLiberator took a tougher stance on intentional piracy. The link between BL and anti-copyright advocacy is explicit. That sends a harmful message, IMO.

John said...

Sorry about the repeated comments, folks. My computer went mad for a bit there.

Karl, I'm confused. My understanding is that all Cory's works are simultaneously for sale as hard copy and available for free download under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. That sounds like free distribution to me.

He is making the calculation - based on his extremely high profile - that hard copy sales will come despite the free digital dist. This simply does not play out the same way for lower profile authors. There is a profile spike, no doubt, but it has yet to be shown to be at all sustainable or industry changing.

Good for Cory, I've always said,; now where's the model for everyone else?

Karl Fogel said...

The "non-commercial" clause in the license means it's not free online distribution. It's "non-free" online distribution, if you will: people are not free to build further commercial value on those works, though they can do certain other things without asking permission first. So there is a restriction on certain kinds of use.

Using just a plain Creative Commons Attribution, or Attribution-ShareAlike, license would be truly free distribution. (The latter is what I usually distribute under, fwiw. That means you could sell copies, if you want -- you don't need my permission first.)

This does not go into whether it's good, bad, better for authors, worse for authors, etc. That's a complex question. (Note that there is not much evidence that restrictive distribution works for authors, either, except when we narrowly define "author" as "someone for whom restrictive distribution has worked".) I just wanted to explain how Cory Doctorow's books are not distributed under free licenses, although you can download them, and even modify them, for non-commercial purposes. Cory himself would be the first to acknowledge this; it was a deliberate decision on his part.

Ian Sullivan said...

Hi John,

Thank you, I do appreciate the compliment about the BookLiberator's design, and the very polite tone of this discussion.

My second reply grew too long for Blogger's comment character limit so I posted it as a standalone piece over at