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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-02-08 15:58
Subject: [publishing] Books as licenses - print and ebooks both
Security: Public
Tags:amazonfail, publishing
One thread of the ongoing ebook discussion on the Internet has been the perception of a lot of readers (including, possibly, reporters at Wired) that ebooks have no incremental cost, and therefore should tend to be free. This assumption ignores sunk costs in book acquisition and production, as well as ongoing royalties to authors. It's also based on misperceptions about the value of physical objects versus virtual objects.

I am still chewing on notion that ebooks are a service, and print books are a product, but I'm thinking I've still got it wrong. Yes, ebooks under DRM behave like like a service, but even DRM-free ebooks are presented under a EULA. (Please note, this is not a defense of DRM, just an acknowlegement it exists.) Print books behave like a product in the sense that you purchase a physical object that is yours to use or dispose of largely as you see fit, much as an automobile or a frying pan or an action figure may be used or disposed of largely as you see fit.

The true, underlying product is story. Every delivery mechanism — print books, ebooks, audio — are licenses to that story. Copyright and ultimate ownership still vest with the author (or in the case of work-for-hire, the license holder).

When you purchase a print book, you purchase a single-use, transferable license to that story in the form of the author's copyright. With limited exceptions for Fair Use, you don't have permission to copy or reproduce the print book. You can pass it along to other readers, resell it, or otherwise dispose of the print book, but all that is in terms of the license embedded in the print book itself. License and artefact are difficult to separate, though not impossible. For example, scanning, photocopying or rekeying beyond the bounds of Fair Use would serve to sever license from artefact, and all three are illegal.

When you purchase an ebook, depending on the DRM wrappers on the book, your rights of transferability may vary. Likewise back up copying, resale and so forth can be influenced by both DRM and the EULA associated with your ebook reader and the software compilation that represents the ebook publication itself. But you still don't own the copyright, again, you have only purchased a license to that story in the from of an author's copyright.

Because fundamentally, that's what the author sells to the publisher. A license to reproduce the copyright.

What I'm getting at here is that the whole question of ebooks versus print books is a bit of a red herring. You don't own the book, any more that you own the performance of a song you buy on CD or mp3. I think this differs from purchasing visual art, where you can own the painting, but even then, the artist can reserve reproduction rights.

It all comes down to concepts of intellectual property, which are frankly a bit abstruse for most people who don't need to spend their time worrying about such things. Even if you buy a Braun coffee maker, you don't buy the rights to recreate it in your workshop and sell copies of the coffee maker. Except the process of copying a coffee maker is so tedious, that unless you own a Third World knockoff factory, you're not going to bother.

Copying or scanning a print book is a possible behavior. Copying an ebook is a trivial behavior, at least technically.

But you, the reader, never take full title to the story underneath. You have taken a license to that story, a contract ultimately between you and the author, embedded in the copyright statement in the front matter of the book. And that license has value, whether it's delivered on cellulose and ink, or via an organized compilation of electrons.

If this were more widely understood, would it shift the terms of the ebook debate?

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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2010-02-09 00:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If I'm remembering this correctly, Maya Angelou talked in one of her memoirs about being involved with a stage show as a dancer and, being unhappy with a couple of the musical numbers, collaborated in composing some new songs for the show. When she approached the producer about payment for the songs, the producer responded along the lines of, "Why should I pay for those? You just made them up."

Creative effort is frequently devalued because the work doesn't show. As a matter of fact, the better the work is, the less it shows. I expect this to be an ongoing problem.
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theturbonerd
User: theturbonerd
Date: 2010-02-12 21:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
“When you purchase a print book, you purchase a single-use, transferable license to that story in the form of the author's copyright. With limited exceptions for Fair Use, you don't have permission to copy or reproduce the print book. You can pass it along to other readers, resell it, or otherwise dispose of the print book, but all that is in terms of the license embedded in the print book itself. “

Nope. You are conflating two different ideas here: license and copyright. A license is a specific type of contract between two parties which permits limited use under the terms of the agreement. A copyright is very different. It is a limited monopoly that a government grants to a person allowing them a limited term monopoly to reproduce a given work. As of this moment, there is nothing in the law that turns Copyright into a License To Read.

When I buy a print book or a CD or a DVD, the only contract between me the buyer and you the writer is that I bought this artifact from someone who you licensed to use your right-to-copy to embed your word pattern in it.

From the perspective of a reader, a copyright is not a contract. To the reader it is a legal proscription not to copy. I don't have a contract with you just because I bought your book. What I do have is a government enjoinder not to reproduce it without permission. If I illegally copy your work, then both civil and criminal law kicks-in and (in a fair world) I suffer the penalties of my abuse of your right.

The central problem that makes writers and publishers want to treat books like licenseable objects is the way software is currently handled. Early in the PC era, the powers-that-be decided that software is a written formula-like set of instructions. So,they chose to treat software as a copyrightable item. Great, except that as Bill Gates found when he produced his first Altair Basic interpreter once someone got their hands on one copy, it was trivially easy to make many copies. Years later the solution was to copy protect the software to keep thieving users from making copies. Legitimate users HATED this. The right to back up, etc had to be worked out over years of back and forth. Liability came into play when companies realized that they could be sued if their software physically harmed someone (medical software), or their financial health (via accounting or spreadsheet software), or a myriad of other harms. How did the software companies respond to this convergence of desire to control use and desire to dodge consequences? In a word: Licensing.

Now fast-forward to today. We have this gignormous interconnected copy machine called the Internet. Any valuable bit pattern can be easily copied and sent around the world both quickly and cheaply. Many companies choose to fight back by putting DRM on their copyable bits, thus creating a licensable object. Just like in the bad old PC-only days, customers bitch and moan about copy restrictions on stuff they have bought. As far as they are concerned, anything they pay money for they own. Most treat the software or music or video like a printed book. They might share it, but otherwise they don't violate the copyright.

But then there are others who DO like to copy. They acknowlegde no copyright or simply ignore it as irrelevant. Combine them with the thugs actively copying and selling illegal works and you have a big problem.

Ultimately content producers look at this mess and think “This is mine. I should always control it. Those users should only get a license to my work, just like software.” So we go from readers who can buy a work to users who merely license a chance to experience the work.

Obviously people don't want to be users. They want to be owners. So they act like owners and blow off not only licenses but copyrights as well.

All this prompts content creators to cry, “how can we make a living at this if we can't control copying?”

And that's the real question.



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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2010-02-09 00:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
At this point all I can say to people who think creators should give away their work for free is to ask them why they don't do their own jobs for free.

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Raf: [reading]
User: greatsword
Date: 2010-02-09 00:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:[reading]
I don't quite like the idea that a physical and electronic book are both licenses. To me there is a difference between licensing access to a story through a Kindle account and purchasing a locked single point of access to the story as a physical book.

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. I can't donate my ebook to the library, but I can't redownload the paperback to my phone when I'm stuck in the doctor's waiting room.

I'm willing to pay for each of these, but I do think of them differently. The amount I'm willing to pay is based more on my desire to read the story than on the format it's in. I pay more for hardcovers just to see the story *now*. I guess that's my way of agreeing with you that the story is the main thing, even if I disagree on some of the details.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2010-02-09 00:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I remain convinced that half the problem is, stories are neither products nor services. They're experiences, maybe more akin to a performance than anything else. We could market them as products when story = the book or magazine or whatever that contained it, but once you introduce electronic formats into the equation, that model begins to break down.
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Laurel Amberdine: angels
User: amberdine
Date: 2010-02-09 00:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:angels
I think the "tending to be free" stuff is hyperbole from folks who want to justify their piracy habits. But I may be overly critical. ;)

People might be willing to pay the same for print and digital versions of books, if so much hadn't been made in the past of how costly printing, shipping, book stores, and returns were. Customers happily pay the exact same price for new-release video games, download or boxed disc.

Surely paper books entail some additional cost, and some of that could feasibly be passed on to the ebook consumer? As is, it's like charging shipping and handling for something that doesn't get shipped!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 00:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Surely paper books entail some additional cost, and some of that could feasibly be passed on to the ebook consumer? As is, it's like charging shipping and handling for something that doesn't get shipped!

FYI, for trade releases, that's 10% of cover price or less, some of which is offset by ebook conversion, licensing and infrastructure costs.
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ygolonac
User: ygolonac
Date: 2010-02-09 00:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"If this were more widely understood, would it shift the terms of the ebook debate?"

No.

People are still going to look at the ebook compared to a paper book and think the ebook should be cheaper.

Everybody knows that making a copy of a file is as easy as copy and paste and so they aren't going to want to pay the same amount for that as for a real book.

Authors and publishers can write all the verbiage they want about why ebooks should be worth more but it won't matter.

My girlfriend and I picked up a paper grocery bag full of used books for 5 bucks this weekend. I have stacks of books to-be-read all over my house. If the publishing industry says 'we can't produce ebooks for a significantly lower price than paper books' then my, and many other's response is probably going to be 'then don't'.

There is a huge glut of books out there for people to read already. If no book was ever published again, I would probably be able to keep reading at my current rate till I die and not be bothered too much by the lack of new stuff. There are plenty of other amusements clamoring for our entertainment money also.

Or maybe we'll just have less drek getting published. I pretty much quit buying video games over a decade ago because I had been burned by expensive yet shitty games too many times. Books are rapidly getting to that point now. I have little desire to try a new author when I have to pay $15+ for a taste.
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ygolonac
User: ygolonac
Date: 2010-02-09 00:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An example of me feeling like I got burnt by a book is when I bought Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis.

The book was published by Harper Perennial and was $13.95 for a paper back that was smaller than trade paper back size buy larger than a regular paper back. It was a 'P.S. edition' so it supposedly had supplemental materials in the book. These consisted of a short 'conversation with Warren' and a few pages of recipes from the author. Total bullshit.

I felt pretty ripped off by this book. I enjoyed reading it, but I thought the price was a bit overboard for that paperback. I will be very leery of ever buying anything from Harper Perennial again.
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Michael Curry: minifesto jefferson
User: mcurry
Date: 2010-02-09 00:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:minifesto jefferson
It's not that I entirely disagree with you, but the music industry already went through an attempt to convince consumers that when they bought a CD they were merely buying a license, rather than an object, and therefore didn't have the right to do things like rip the songs so they could play them on their iPod. Ideas like that aren't going to go over any better with book buyers than they did with music buyers.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 01:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not Canute trying to turn back the tide here, merely pointing out the underlying reality. What people *do* with their electronic purchases is another issue entirely. (Though I do think the issues of music and books are parallel but not identical.) Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it does seem to come down to placing value on the delivery mechanism, but not on the work of the content creator.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2010-02-09 01:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am thinking through an analogy here; let's see if it makes sense.

A couple of decades ago, if churches wanted to use contemporary music, they either had to (a) contact the copyright holders individually and obtain permission to use it - with or without cost; or (b) use it without permission and hope nobody noticed. If you were going to use five or six songs every week, it was really cumbersome and chaotic to be legal.

So somebody started a licensing bureau, and now we just send $120 a year or whatever to the bureau and they see that the creators get their money.

The analogy fails at a number of points, but I think most purchasers really do want creators to be rewarded for their efforts and really do want to be legal - if somebody would put together a way to do that which makes sense to them.

Going further: perhaps that was what Amazon was attempting to do. Easy, fast, straightforward, ubiquitous downloads, delivered by your favorite near-monopoly and thus guaranteed to work with no hassle (until Amazonfails 1 & 2).

Still to work out: how much to charge, in order to support creative activity all along the line.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 01:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yep, I think you got it pretty much right.

I don't see Amazon as being so much pro-consumer as pro-Amazon. (Which is not a bad thing per se, they're trying to build a better mousetrap to their own profit, which is as our corporate system works.) Inserting themselves into the publishing rights business, as they did with the existing to-date Kindle agreements, moved them from distribution into direct competition with the publishers. That moved them from being an ally to a threat to the publishers, given Amazon's near-monopoly over ebooks today.
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e_bourne
User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-02-09 02:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just for clarification, you may own a painting, you do not own the right to reproduce that painting. Unless, of course, the painting was done as work for hire, in which case the artist doesn't own the right to reproduce the image (except under fair use).

Selling a painting does not confer copyright ownership of a work of art. Jasper Johns still owns copyright to his works, even thought the MOMA owns the paintings. That's part of the purpose of "signing" a work. Your name, your image. It can't be reproduced by other artists, no matter who owns it, except for the specific rules laid out under fair use. It can't be reproduced by the owner without your permission. They can show it, they can't make prints. If they do, you should be getting a piece of the action.

Only in California is the resale of an artist's work required to pay back some of the money to the artist or his/her heirs. And boy, was there a stink about that! Damned artists, wanting to get some money for their work!

Unfortunately, art work is even less policed than written work, which is less policed than musical works who somehow came up with ASCAP. How did they do that?

So, as someone who has attempted to make a living as a fine artist I find myself reliving the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen skit. You're lucky! We're grateful if we pay someone to use our work, and then they sold it to someone else for more money.

That's a joke, of course, but not that far from the truth.

Sorry for interjecting a little bit of the art world bs in your topic.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 02:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm pretty sure I brought up art. :) Thanks for the clarification.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2010-02-09 02:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The cost of (physically) copying electronic information IS effectively zero.

The cost of creating the information in the first place certainly isn't.

eBooks can to some extent be compared with software. Now there is lot of free software out there, but most people, when they want software that's robust (or at least supported) will pay for it. There's plenty of free games out there (though many operate on a "you get more if you pay!" basis), but there's also a lot of VERY expensive ones out there. I wish all the people who are saying "ebooks should be free because it costs nothing to produce them!" would now go off and say "hey, video games should be free, because it costs nothing to produce them!".

This would not receive much agreement. Everyone knows that video games take a lot of time and effort to produce.

So why do people think books should be free? As already said in this thread... where do these people think books come from?.
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AndyHat
User: andyhat
Date: 2010-02-09 02:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you're missing a critical difference between print books and ebooks. If I buy a print book today, even if I don't get around to reading it right away, I know that I will still be able to read it in 10 years and again in 20 years, and then it will be passed on to whoever inherits my library and they'll be able to read it, too. And if a catastrophe happens (e.g. my house burns down), I have insurance that will buy me replacement copies of all my books.

OTOH, DRM-encumbered ebooks might not be readable next month, much less next year. DRM-free ebooks are more likely to be readable, but will I still have a computer 10 years from now that can read the stuff I've stored today? I have some early ebooks on 5.25" DOS floppies; they're theoretically not DRM'ed, but good luck finding anything that will read them and still run on a modern computer. And, of course, homeowners insurance excludes all virtual products, so if my laptop dies and takes my ebooks with it, noone's going to help me buy replacements. (Sure, amazon may sometimes permit re-downloads of digital purchases, but only so long as amazon still has rights to sell that version; I've lost access to a few ebooks thanks to that, so I certainly won't count on amazon there).

Perhaps I'm a bit atypical in that there can be a lag of several years between my buying a book and actually reading it, so perpetuity of license matters a lot to me, but right now I view ebooks as transient products that aren't worth more than a buck or two, as opposed to the perpetual and insurable license I get with the purchase of a physical book, which I'm willing to pay hardback price for.

Obviously, this should be a fixable problem with some form of online booklocker which guarantees perpetual access to ebook purchases regardless of any current or future squabbles amongst publishers, authors, and retailers, and which can make it easy to move access to my library from device to device over the years. But given the licensing issues, I'm not too hopeful of that happening anytime soon.
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auriaephiala
User: auriaephiala
Date: 2010-02-09 19:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree. The point of buying a book is that it gives you the ability to read that book for the lifetime of the book -- regardless of whether technology changes or you give the book away or you want to read it once or 200 times. You are not dependent on some other organization to find the information or to relive that experience.

The whole e-book thing reminds me of why bibliophiles hate librarians weeding the collection and removing the books they want to reread. It's why a lot of booklovers buy books - so they will always have them there to read when they want to.

The other reason I mistrust e-books is the fact you cannot easily archive them. I have to expect that a reader will be stolen or lost or break -- and I wouldn't want to lose 700-odd books if I do not having a working reader.
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-02-09 03:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"the perception of a lot of readers (including, possibly, reporters at Wired) that ebooks have no incremental cost, and therefore should tend to be free. This assumption ignores sunk costs in book acquisition and production, as well as ongoing royalties to authors."

In terms of intuitive and counter-intuitive, I think you're hurting your own case here, by seeming to conflate 'sunk costs', authors' royalties, and (presumably) cost of distribution of e-copies.

Paying the author a royalty on every e-copy is intuitively fair: some amount in line with what the author gets for each mmpb copy (or more). But the sunk costs -- are presumably already being covered by the dead tree editions; so the only way the sunk costs count into the ebook price, would be if the dead tree editions come down in price because the ebook price takes up the slack. This seems unlikely. And to say that the distribution cost of a download of each e-copy is comparable to the cost of a mmbp (or early hardback) printed, stored, and shipped -- is just absurd. If and when it's believed -- the perception would be that there must be something very wrong with that publisher's ebook distribution.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 13:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But the sunk costs -- are presumably already being covered by the dead tree editions;

Why do you assume that? That's poor accounting in any product development process. Costs are allocated across all iterations. This becomes even more important as ebook marketshare rises, not less so.

And yes, you're right, allocating costs to ebooks ought to drive down overall per unit costs over time. (I think.) But that's over time, not right now.
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hal_duncan
User: hal_duncan
Date: 2010-02-09 04:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The way I've been punting it for a while, the narrative is a service and what is purchased -- physical or digital book -- is a *ticket*. It's like a ticket for a gig, the only difference being this ticket is reusable; every time you decide to use the ticket, the gig kicks off just for you.

It's kinda like a lifetime membership card for a mental gym, in fact -- but better, because as well as being able to go into the narrative and exercise you mind in it, you can lend your ticket to a friend and allow them to try out your favourite gym, or sell it on to someone else when you're done with it; whereas most gyms would go apeshit at the thought of you transferring your membership.

The limitations of these aspects with ebooks (rightly, I think) leaves people feeling like that ticket is not wholly in their hand, so to speak. It's worst with the Kindle, where the buying-a-license paradigm says, "No, we'll just put that here for you, dear. Thank you. You come and ask us when you want to use it." I think "license" carries bad connotations in that respect, because it sounds a bit too much like... the dispensation of an authority who doesn't want to let you forget who's in charge. I'd tend to avoid it for that reason. "Ticket" on the other hand... when you buy a ticket that's a square deal between equals.
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hal_duncan
User: hal_duncan
Date: 2010-02-09 04:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oops, just realised how unclear that parenthetical in the last paragraph is. I mean, they're right to feel uncomfortable, *not* that the limitations are right.
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vicki_rae: ZZZ - I think the word fiasco would be g
User: vicki_rae
Date: 2010-02-09 11:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:ZZZ - I think the word fiasco would be g
But you, the reader, never take full title to the story underneath. You have taken a license to that story, a contract ultimately between you and the author, embedded in the copyright statement in the front matter of the book. And that license has value, whether it's delivered on cellulose and ink, or via an organized compilation of electrons.

If this were more widely understood, would it shift the terms of the ebook debate?


I think it probably would not make a difference. The real problem here is the perceived value of an ebook edition. The Kindle forum at Amazon makes it very clear that battle has already been lost.

Hardcovers are priced what they are because enough people are willing to pay the higher price for perceived value, but ebooks, not so much. An ebook isn't a limited edition that a publisher can charge more for. It's a convenience and the price point is going to significantly effects sales.

Buying a physical book doesn't confer ownership of the words, but it does to the container holding the words. I can do whatever I want to with that container. My oldest book has been on my shelves for more than 45 years and is still readable.

Full disclosure here, I own a Kindle & an iPod Touch that share 700+ ebooks. I fully understand why DRM exists and I agree that it needs to exist. I'm an accountant who understands cost acounting and the financial realities of writers and publishers, and I have friends who are full time writers.

The average ebook customer isn't going to pay a premium for an ebook even without DRM. And even less so for a story container that has a fairly decent chance of being unreadable in a very few years.

I've bought quite a few ebooks at Amazon for $9.99, and I've paid more than that for a very small number of ebooks. Adding up what I used to pay for physical books ...

Small number of hardcovers + large numbere of paperbacks = average cost per book.

What I've paid for a large number of ebooks in the mostly $8 to $10 per ebook range with a very few higher, actually comes to a higher average book cost.

If ebooks are going to start out out at $15, I'll pretty much end up waiting for the ebook to drop to or below the price of a paperbank. The bottom line here, is that while publishers are patting themselves on the back for "winning" this mess, I'm going to end up spending less for the same number of ebooks I'm currently buying. How is this a win for anyone?

Publishers want to price ebooks based on how much money they need to make per unit, instead of based on what poeple are willing to pay. This is sorta like sellers who don't understand why their house has been on the market for two years. I think the long term result is going to be that the hardcover/paperback costing method is essentially done, for most books anyway. I think it's going to be much harder for writers AND publishers to make money.



Edited at 2010-02-09 12:20 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-09 13:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Publishers want to price ebooks based on how much money they need to make per unit, instead of based on what poeple are willing to pay. This is sorta like sellers who don't understand why their house has been on the market for two years

I take your analogy, but I think it's flawed. If publishers don't cover cost cost of production (what they need to make per unit), they ultimately go out of business. You can't make up in volume what you lose by selling below cost.
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barry_king
User: barry_king
Date: 2010-02-09 15:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One thing you haven't been addressing (and I wish you would) is how the entire concept of ebook does not fit into the "copy"right world.

Technically (and legal courts are nothing but technical) the first copy of the ebook occurs when the item is uploaded to the ebook store.

Amazon, for example, is a clustered network riding on top of a akamai-style proxy system. Several hundred copies are made before the very first copy is downloaded.

And if you download through a proxy, you need to consider that the proxy is caching a copy, let alone all the ephemeral partial copies that exist on routers assembling TCP sequences.

I'm not going to say DRM is yea or nay in the moral landscape, but DRM is one of the only ways in this network that the obsolete idea of "copy" can be legally enforced in an actual court with actual jury and actual judge. This is the real nightmare—aligning the legal recourse to copyright with the digital age.

So, consequently, DRM follows the contractual law model. You agree (probably without reading the contract) to be bound by the model that says "this book is a service" as a SUBSTITUTE for copyright law. It is not, and I repeat, NOT, a continuation of copyright law. It is a half-measure designed to enforce access to revenue-streams, not to take into consideration traditional law.

Without reconciling that elephant in the living room, copyright law and DRM are both in legal limbo. From the Google settlement, one thing I think we can all agree on, authors, publishers, distributers, Internet portals, and pirates, is that we don't want this settled in court. Legislation is ultimately the only answer, and in a global network, who is legislator? the WIPO, which is simply a global enforcer of contractual law?

No, this is indeed a Brave New World. Braver and Newer than I think major publishers want to admit.
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