The Holy Grail of Digital Publishing

On: October 21, 2010
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About Joris Pekel
I’m a MA. New Media student at the University of Amsterdam. In november 2009 I graduated as a bachelor theater, film and televisionstudies at the University of Utrecht. After that I started an internship at Kennisland where I worked on a project called Images for the Future. My main interests go to: Social media and how they can or can’t be useful, online copyright, Creative Commons and privacy issues. Other than that I’m an improv-theater actor and music lover (check out my famous Dutch eclectic-farmerband “Skitterend Mooi!”)


Digital reading is becoming more and more popular. In 2010, more then 12 million E-readers have been sold and still, this is only the beginning (see for yourself, how many people do you know that own a Kindle or and iPad?). Some people think that E-reading is the end of the paper book, others say that its digital equivalent could never replace the atmosphere of smelling and old book, sitting by the fire with a glass of wine. But right now it is not the question of digital will kill the analog book, the question is; digital books are here, how do we respond on this?

For publishers and authors, digital books are both a blessing and a threat. Publishing digital saves you an incredible amount of money. Paper is no longer needed, the printing press becomes redundant and it is far more easy to publish your book digital, then to send it to different book shops all around the country.
At the same time, books start dealing with the same problem as the music and movie industry: piracy. It is incredibly easy to make a copy of a book and share it with friends, family or complete strangers. The size of a pdf text file is less then one megabyte and can be downloaded millions of times.

Because of these reasons, publishers are looking for the best way to make full profit of the fact that they can publish on a low cost scale and at the same time minimize the illegal copies that are made of their books. They looked at the music industry and came with the solution of Digital Rights Management (DRM). This technology makes sure that the user can’t do anything with the digital file that the publisher does not want them to do. It prevents them from making copies and sharing the file. Proponents argue it is needed by copyright holders to prevent unauthorized duplication of their work, either to maintain artistic integrity or to ensure continued revenue streams.

There has been a lot of critique on DRM from different sides. First of all, there is the argument that DRM violates the rights of the consumer. When you buy something, that product becomes yours. You can do anything you want with it. If I want to write in my book, tear pages out of it, burn the book, sell the book or give away the book, that is entirely my choice. I paid for it so now the book is mine. With DRM this changes. The user can no longer do anything with the book if the publisher does not allow it. For instance, it is quite common that when somebody is done reading the book, he lends it to a friend to read it. This is not possible with DRM protected digital books. The user downloads the book on his or hers E-reading device and it will stay there forever. This means that it is also not possible to sell the book to another person. The publisher will therefore always have control of the book that the user bought, and in that way violating the rights of the consumer. A good example on what influence the publisher can have on books that people bought was in 2009, when Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ off peoples E-readers. There was a lot of controversy about this action because it showed that even if people bought the book, the publisher still has total control of it. This way the user does not own the book, but sort of rents it from the company with a lot of restrictions.

Several writers and scholars have argued against the use of DRM. Lawrence Lessig is probably the most well known. His books about ‘free culture’ try to answer the question of how to deal with copyright in a digital age. He speaks out against these restrictions of the rights of the user and points out how authors can benefit from digital publishing, instead of losing income. He was one of the founders of the Creative Commons organisation which “…is devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.” The organization has released several copyright-licenses known as Creative Commons licenses free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. This license puts the author in control of its own work. He can decide what one can and can not do with his creative work. Where copyright restricts the user of doing anything with the original work, Creative Commons makes it possible to use, mix or freely distribute ones work. Lessig points out that sharing work under a licence can benefit the author. Not only is it far more easy to spread your work online, it allows other people to make use of your work and spread that again, gaining the original author more fame. Like Tim O’Reilly once said: For most authors piracy is not the enemy, obscurity is. By letting people get to know your work for free at first, can get you revenues later on. Like buying a CD, we first want to listen to it and if we like it, we buy it.

An other spokesman of the ‘free’ movement is Cory Doctorow. A science fiction writer and founder of weblog BoingBoing. In his recent talk on the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam he talked about the downsides of DRM as well. He also showed how he makes money by first releasing his work for free, giving people the opportunity to do whatever they want with it, as long as they mention his name. He also gives people the opportunity to buy a hard copy of his work, which generates income for him. This business model works well for him; more people read his books, so he has more potential buyers.

In the end, everybody is looking for that holy grail of digital publishing. On one hand there are the big publishers, who try to make money by restricting the user in as many ways as possible. On the other there are the supporters of the free movement, which can only hope that there are enough people to give them any money for there work. I think that the answer to this problem lies somewhere in the middle. Like for instance selling a lot of creative work for a really low price through micro payments. When an author sells 10000 books for 1 dollar, in stead of 1000 books for 10 dollar, he still makes enough money to pay the rent.

While writing this article a lot more issues came to mind. This shows the difficulty of the problem of publishing in the digital age. And I don’t think that in the end, there is only one solution. One thing is clear though. Publishers, authors, distributors and consumers all need to think together about new ways and business models for the future.

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