more on copyright, e-books and the rest of it

One of the more controversial sessions at the SWF was Lynn Spender’s CAL-Meanjin lecture on copyright, a presentation of an essay that appears in the latest Meanjin. I didn’t hear the lecture but in the essay Lynn discusses the Google book digitalisation project and makes what seems to me the fairly sensible point that current copyright laws simply cannot cope with the new online reality. In that context, it’s worth reading Seth Freedman’s piece in the Guardian, a fairly strident defence of the status quo. He writes:

It is no secret that the moment the music business sold its soul to the compact disc devil, the industry was in serious trouble. CDs, followed by MP3s, meant that the listening public now had access to high quality files of their favourite music, and could pirate copies at will, should their desire to save money prove more compelling than their sense of ethics.

The music industry went into near-terminal decline in the Napster years, thanks to an inability to keep control over, or make money from, the copyrighted material for which the record companies had paid through the nose. The lure of forcing consumers to “upgrade” from vinyl to CD, then from CD to MP3, was financially expedient in the short term, but in the long term was a modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray’s fateful pact.

The publishing world is teetering on the brink of a similarly suicidal drop today. With the advent of the Kindle, along with all manner of related new royalty systems and e-publishing deals, the industry is being lured into a trap from which it might never escape – and it’s easy to see why they’re tempted. Borders’ latest financial results showed a 12% decline in revenue at its bookshops, largely due to the impact of the credit crisis, and in a climate where the public has less disposal money to spend, low-cost models such as e-book publications are seen as a natural way for publishers to ride out the economic storm.

With resistance weakening towards the concept of e-books, Amazon reported a 24% increase in earnings in the first quarter of this year, driven in no small parts by sales of its Kindle e-reader. “Kindle sales have exceeded our most optimistic expectations,” Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos declared, and with endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey ringing in the ears of the book-reading public, the e-explosion looks set to continue apace, sucking in both consumers and publishers alike.

However, while in its embryonic stage there seems every reason for publishers to scramble aboard the e-book bandwagon, it won’t be long before the same pirates who ransacked the music industry will do the same to the book world. As inevitable as night following day, so too criminals flock to the site of any money-making operation, exploiting every available technological loophole to steal copyrighted material and bleed much-needed revenue from the affected industry.

Some people oppose the Kindle and its competitors on the grounds of purist, elitist snobbery, claiming that nothing compares to the touch, smell and familiarity of a printed book when it comes to reading for pleasure. But, just as the vinyl Luddites have been left to all but rot by the music industry’s wayside, so too in time will the anti-e-book establishment.

If the bulk of the consumer market is happy to embrace progress and make use of more convenient systems of reading, or listening to music, then their money will talk far louder to the salesmen than the faint complaints of those refusing to move with the times.

Those opposed to the Kindle’s inexorable march are right, but for the wrong reasons. If the publishing industry were to suffer a similar affliction as the music industry’s recent malaise, then the lack of money available to publishers would seriously stymie their ability to nurture new talent in the writing world – and that’s far more serious a problem than the format in which manuscripts are read by the consumer.

Authors, myself included, also have a responsibility to put the industry’s long-term health above short-term financial gain. E-book royalty percentages are far higher than those made from traditional books; but if the net result of the e-book transition is to mortally wound the publishing industry, then the next generation of up-and-coming writers will have no one to blame for their plight than those who came before them.

Sitting on the bus and considering the way in which I employ technology to save both effort and money when accessing text, I was aware how swiftly one can become blinded by the dazzle of short-term gain, but the onus of responsibility is on us to see past such a stance.

Until the right safeguards have been put in place by the publishing industry to protect their work (and they certainly haven’t been to date), then ushering in an e-book era could sound the death knell for the whole publishing enterprise. The lessons of recent history spell it out loud and clear, and we would all be wise not to doom ourselves to repeat them.

What’s most striking about the piece is how well it actually makes the argument about the need for a revision of copyright law. That is, even if you accept Freedman’s assessment, his prescription is entirely utopian. Essentially, he’s arguing for authors to mount a collective boycott of e-books — and everyone knows that’s simply not going to happen. Once the remaining technical problems are sold and the price of e-readers comes down, they will be part of the new reality for publishing and we’ll all have to deal with it.

Freedman’s argument also depends on an implicit trickle-down effect, in which writers need to protect the interests of publishing companies, in order that publishers might ‘nurture new talent in the writing world’. But of course publishing houses are businesses and running a business means that you direct your resources where they will make you money. There’s no necessary correlation between financial success and the nurturing of new talent.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem in the transition to new technology is the free market itself. It’s an old story: we have now the ability to do utterly wondrous things (and, as Spender’s essay makes clear, the digitalisation of the world’s books into a searchable archive is pretty damn cool), yet the perversity of the market means that our new capabilities are just as likely to denude the culture (by impoverishing writers) as to enrich it. In response, we need to start thinking outside the narrow box of what’s currently economically possible. I’ve argued before that the crisis in the newspaper industry might require a state-run outlet for quality journalism: a newspaper equivalent (whether in print or online) of ABC radio or ABC TV. Maybe the same thing could be said about the production of literature — that we need to move to an entirely new system for supporting literary writers, one that doesn’t depend on an antiquated copyright system but instead relies on an altogether different mechanism, and thus can embrace technical possibilities rather than seeking to shut them down.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I think you’re absolutely right about this Jeff, some form of socialisation of funding the work of writing etc. is worth fighting for. I think the cat is already well out of the bag on e-books; you can already find a huge array of pdfs if you know where to look, and the whole thing has a just-before-napster feel to it. The more popular the book the more likely you are to be able to find it online. It’s not quite as great for the reader as when you could easily get around the Google Books page-rationer (which you could for a few months), but there’s really no stopping things once someone uploads a pdf.

    The economist Dean Baker has made the point for patented drugs that public funding for research and development combined with zero IP-protection would be much more efficient than the patent system. The same logic applies to cultural production. The problem of who gets funded to write/make music etc. is a problem, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be made more democratic than it is under the market – individuals could ‘vote’ credits to authors/publishers they like, with some reserved for newcomers, unpopular but important work, etc. Writers on the system would get a comfortable stipend, no need for the extravagant incomes a very few superstars get.

  2. Love that bloke’s rhetoric “forcing consumers to “upgrade””. I like this post too. If I had a new model, should I give it away in the comment box so that everyone could pirate it, the market gets swamped with inferior copies and it doesn’t work anymore? Or should I just hint that I had one and everybody has to race over and try to figure out what it is? Do you read Seth Godin’s blog? It’s funny how when these old blokes talk about the damage the internet is doing to publishing, they try to make out that literary writers used to make a living and now that is threatened. There are more opportunities now for writers to make a living than ever before, fewer for publishers though.

  3. Hi Mike,
    Yes, I think you are exactly right. The problem is that the political horizons are so low about these things and there’s such a lack of imagination in the solutions. One of the points that Spender makes in her Meanjin essay is how relatively recent copyright is as a funding mode.
    The other thing about allocating funding through some kind of democratic approach is that it would foster more involvement in the arts. Artists would need to explain their particular projects to the people who would then make some kind of collective judgement.

  4. I find Clay Shirky very compelling on this subject. In this <… article 'Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable' he argues that basically we're living through a revolution – one that can't be contained. We just have to figure out how to deal. I find his lifting of the argument out of the realm of right/wrong good/bad quite refreshing.

  5. Two of the stories on the NYT book pages today relate to e-readers — there's another account of getting used to the Kindle and a story about a rival product from a different company. To me, the most interesting passage in the KIndle story is this: 'its surprising how easily you succumb to convenience, and how little you miss, once theyre gone, all the niceties of typography and design that you used to value so much. Those things still matter, and I dont think that books will ever disappear newspapers and magazines are another matter but it may be that in the future we will keep them around as fond relics, reminders of what reading used to be like.'

    It's another iteration of the point that new technologies don't need to replicate all the features of that which they supplant. They just need to be good enough. Mp3 files sound significantly worse than vinyl records but for most of us their convenience outweighs everthting else. So too with the e-readers.

    Like it or not, an entirely new way of dealing with books is coming and we need to prepare for it.

  6. putting aside the various vested interests.. be they publisher, author or retailer the key to the future is control over conrtent. Uncle Rupert realises this in his futile attempt to re-moneteraise his flagging print news empire. God Bless the benign business interests of the oligopoly,

    Publishing all over the western world is controlled by less than 10 companies and the business models of these will see them fight figorously to protect copyright.

    The breaking of the music companies stranglehold on westen markets was made possible by the innate digital nature of their product. Books aren't quite there yet, and the oligopoloy will fight vigorously to protect that.

    This countries copyright battle sees strange bedfellows with the rehtoric of the big players on both sides catching up independent and authentic australian voices to support what in essence is overseas control of our publishing industry. that isn't to pass judgement on those arguments but the focus on the smaller interests seems to mask the control of the multi=national publishers and a possible dominance of larger retailer.

    Much as I'd love for the new way to sweep our shores the complete lack of ebooks in this country makes me very pessimistic that we will get anything other than a larger market solution through amazon, google or a conglomeration of multi-national publishers.

    do we really think we'll get a local ebook and epublishing industry up and running before we get swamped?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *