Tag Archive for digital rights

The Right to Read

My blogging has fallen off seriously in the last few weeks.  This is due mainly to my finishing up an essay I’ve been working on called “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, it’s done now (at least a solid draft of it), and so I’m back to posting on The Late Age of Print. And in the spirit of the essay, I thought I’d say a few words about the “right to read.”

It’s an idea that, as far as I can tell, was introduced back in 1994 by law professor Jessica Litman, who published an essay in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  Her piece was followed three years later by another one, a story by free software pioneer Richard Stallman, called “The Right to Read.”  Law professor Julie Cohen gave the concept its fullest treatment in “The Right to Read Anonymously,” a marvelous work that she published in 1996 in the Connecticut Law Review.

The crux of the argument, articulated most clearly by Cohen, is this: “the content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.”  Reading thus is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression; the one simply cannot exist without the other.

I’m rather taken with the idea of a right to read given the ways in which new e-book systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, tether reading to corporate custodians who in turn mine the machines for intimate details about how people read.  As these devices become more prevalent, I worry about the effects they might have on how people practice and conceive of reading.  Until now it was relatively difficult to monitor closely how and what people read.  What will become of reading, and people’s relationship to it, once that freedom is definitively diminished?  Indeed, a right to read seems to me of paramount importance in a context where someone is looking over your shoulder every time that you open an electronic book or periodical.

This of course begs the more difficult question, how should a right to read be implemented?  Cohen’s work is brilliant in that it locates a right to read quite convincingly in the penumbra of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, deriving it from existing case law.  The trouble with this approach, though, comes from the current mood of the U.S. court system.  Jeffrey Toobin’s recent piece in the New Yorker, on the legal backlash against “judicial activism,” suggests that the courts as a whole — and the Supreme Court in particular — are for the most part unwilling to expand rights in precisely the way that Cohen is calling for.

So perhaps a right to read could be established legislatively — maybe even as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  I like this approach in theory, but cannot imagine how it would ever happen in practice.  After all, we’re talking about a Congress that passed the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act unanimously.  This is also a Congress that listens closely to cultural producers such as Disney and lobbying groups like the MPAA, who in all likelihood would oppose a right to read on the grounds that it would force them to give up some measure of control over their intellectual properties (to which I would respond, “exactly!”).

Is there a third way?  I sure hope so, and I suspect if there were it would have to begin at the grassroots.  I’m thinking here of something like a counterpart to the Creative Commons, a nonprofit that gives cultural producers licensing options beyond the more traditional — and traditionally restrictive — terms of copyright.  Would it be possible to begin architecting legal and digital rights similarly — that is, to allow people to read anonymously or at least under their own terms?

This is the question I’m left with having completed my piece on the Kindle, and indeed I believe it’s urgent that we respond to it.  It’s a question that, if I’m right, the future of liberal societies may well hinge on.


Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.

with thanks to p.


Bezos Apologizes

Just a quick follow-up on the whole Amazon/1984 incident, about which you can read more by checking out my post, below.  Yesterday Amazon.com Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos apologized for the series of unfortunate events on the Kindle Community Forum, which is hosted on the company website. The statement reads:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

Thanks and kudos for the stand-up move.  And here’s hoping that Amazon never, ever repeats the mistake.


Oh Brave New World…

Courtesy of José Afonso Furtado’s Twitter feed comes a blog post by PersonaNonData (PND) called, “Book Insurance.”  Don’t let the snoozer of a title turn you off.  It’s an offbeat but nonetheless thought-provoking piece on the future of electronic reading.  And it’s a future in which you better make sure your coverage is up to scratch.

PND opens by noting the book industry’s accelerating journey down the path of digital rights management (DRM) — this despite the recording industry’s growing realization that locking down content may not be the best long term survival plan.  She or he then goes on to discuss a significant problem stemming from publishing’s recent turn to DRM.  The latter not only forestalls illicit file-sharing, but it also “places limits on interoperability.”

So while I may have legally purchased Toni Morrison’s Beloved for my Amazon Kindle, there’s no hope of my ever reading it on whatever e-reader I may have purchased in the past or may one day purchase in the future — short of my hacking the e-book, of course, which is illegal under 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

PND poses a novel solution to the problem of interoperability.  She/he suggests creating an ancillary or derivative market for e-book insurance.  That way you can pay to cover yourself and your library should you ever decide that it’s time to switch e-reading platforms, or in the event that the model you’ve purchased gets discontinued.

It’s as brilliant an idea as it is chilling.

It’s enough that the marginal costs of producing e-books are next to nothing.  But now imagine adding on, say, a few cents per title — maybe more, as you can never anticipate just how deep the greed runs — to make sure that your content remains accessible to you in perpetuity.  Essentially you’d be paying for the privilege of retaining access to what is already yours.  Sadly, I suspect that many and perhaps most e-book readers would accept this type of arrangement, since micro-payments are astonishingly easy to swallow.  What’s a few pennies here or there?

The costs of the physical hardware notwithstanding, the benefit of e-books is that they are cheap (at least in theory).  But that’s now.  You can be sure that down the road, the business-savvy book industry or perhaps some outside entrepreneur will figure out some creative way to gouge e-book prices — book insurance or otherwise.