digital books: when it rains, it pours.

The recent release of David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (see here and here) comes on the heels of increasing controversy in Europe over Helene Hegemann’s literary debut Axolotl Roadkill (see here). Hegemann is already caught up in an intellectual property scandal; we’ll see what happens to Shields. Both books take a recombinant, “remix” approach to writing, cobbling together excerpts of other people’s writing with their own bits of text. How very contemporary. The idea of remixing as a unique mode of cultural production and the attendant issues of intellectual property that always seem to follow it have now made it into the book market.

While consumers read literary mash-ups like last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, media giants like Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble are competing to get the reading public hooked on portable hand-held digital reading devices: Kindle, Reader and Nook. Consequently, the publishing industry is already embroiled in typical efforts to protect corporate property: conflict over ebook file formats and which devices can read which formats, as well as concern over the proliferation of ebooks as a hot commodity for file sharing.

At the same time, but getting less media attention, has been Google’s ongoing commercial/legal negotiation with various publishers, universities and other authorities as they expand the ever-growing Google Books project. The project makes a massive amount of material available to the public, online, much of it for free, but many books and other printed materials are still not fully usable or readable thanks to pressure from publishers.

There are many things that are controversial about Google Books. For one, why should we trust a private corporation with the next generation of media services we would normally expect from public libraries? If Google cuts a deal with publishers, much of the content would likely become pay-to-play – and then, publishers would have some say in the cost and accessibility of their products. Even if Google was committed to keeping user access free and open, other issues might arise, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Jean-Noël Jeanneney and others close to the French National Library have argued that Google books will only speed the trend of cultural globalization as Americanization, and place control of books belonging to France’s national “patrimony” in non-French hands. Other times, their line seems to be pan-European. But whether they argue for a French digital library (like Gallica), or a European Union version (like Europeana), the point is to mount a public, European challenge to American corporate digitization projects like Google’s.

These varied anecdotes suggest that we’re witnessing an interesting moment of transformation in books, and in the ways that people talk about, think about, buy and sell, and fight over, books. With so much intellectual content and so much money at stake, this dialogue, now fairly widespread, will only get hotter.

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2 Comments on “digital books: when it rains, it pours.”

  1. P Says:

    Without knowing much about Gallica or Europeana, I’m assuming that the the question of Google (as a private corporation) owning the news means by which we access books is one of a centralized corporate bureaucracy.

    In the public sphere, whose resources might go toward the production of a public version of GoogleBooks? The Library of Congress could theoretically undertake this kind of project, but that institution does not exist as a public lending library. Municipal lending libraries rely (I assume) more or less exclusively on government funding, and thus would not have the resources to commit to this kind of project independently – though some sort of library-crowd-sourced scanning project might be feasible under the direction of a third party.

    But this leaves the issue of who pays for the servers, who commits the resources toward legal battles with publishers (who will doubtless oppose a public digital library as much as they do GBooks).

    This actually opens up a very interesting question – a public library (presumably) doesn’t have to ask permission from a publisher to include a purchased or donated book in their lending collection. What sorts of permission structures would have to be developed to have a public digital lending library? Would the ebook have to simply include some kind of time-sensitive DRM that would act as a digital “due date” for the book’s “return”?

  2. pizzapelsa Says:

    Great comments!

    I think the concern about Google Books goes beyond “centralized corporate bureaucracy,” ultimately ending at worries about monopoly, because Google could then (a) deliberately bully publishers like Wal-Mart bullies its suppliers, or (b) effectively block certain publishers out of the market if Gbooks becomes the hub of the digital book distribution network/market.

    The French response to Gbooks is also interesting in light of Sarkozy’s recent push to get tough on intellectual property crime, to kick pirates off the net, etc. Sometimes the French anti-google kick seems as much economic and capitalist as it is nationalist. One wonders which communications companies have good relations with the Sarkozy regime. Industry campaigns to protect property can only benefit from government support like this. The US government, MPAA and RIAA provide similar support on our side of the pond.

    Your vision of a public digital library is also interesting. I agree that public libraries are probably the best possible existing organizations for setting up a project of this kind. The real intellectual payout, however, comes with your idea of “permission structures.” Theorizing: changes in media technology (from paper to ebook, e.g.) and changes in institutional or social setting (public/private, non/profit, large/small, etc.) often jar our system of private property enough to compel innovation in creating new permission structures. In this social context, different kinds of innovation are possible. The industry seeks closed permission structures, while we are looking for open, flexible, public, accessible permission structures leading down, in principle, to permission-free fair use.

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