more on digital content and copyright

There’s an increasing urgency to arguments about the digital revolution and the publishing industry. The Age today concludes a survey of the local uptake of e-books thus:

Sherman Young, acting head of the department of media, music and cultural studies at Macquarie University and author of The Book Is Dead (Long Live the Book), says that this year the e-book has finally begun to move out of “geek territory” and into acceptance as an inevitable publishing development.

But the academic believes that the e-book will not kill the paper book until the experience of reading one is better, cheaper and more convenient. “An entire electronic book ecosystem needs to evolve — involving publishers, retailers and readers,” he says. So far, he says, Amazon’s Kindle store is an early version of that ecosystem, but still confined to the US.

“It will happen in my lifetime,” predicts the 43-year-old, who has the new Sebastian Faulks-penned James Bond novel on his iPhone.

“The paper book will eventually die. Or there will be a repurposing of it. The analogy I like to use is digital photography. Overnight — it took 10 years — nobody has a film camera any more and most people browse their photos on computer. But people still print some photos — and they still get photo albums.

“With books, a similar thing will happen, with most reading done on some sort of electronic device. Then people will turn to print for really nice photo books or gifts.”

Having spent the last week reading books on Stanza on an iPhone, his argument seems to me increasingly convincing. Stanza’s not the perfect reading experience but it’s good enough to be enjoyable and it’s phenomenally convenient. One of the first books I downloaded onto it was Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon (a SF novel set in the Napoleonic wars — but with dragons!), the kind of novel well-suited to the format, since it has a strong narrative without prose that you particularly want to savour. The remarkable achievement of Stanza is that it means that, without carrying anything extra, you can have a library of books wherever you go. If you have a few minutes spare (on a bus, at a break at work, at lunch), you can pick up the novel where you left off. Then, of course, having enjoyed the first of Novik’s novels, you can buy the second one instantly. The extent of the challenge to print books is becoming apparent.

Which brings us back to the question of copyright. The latest NYT reviews a new book by Mark Helprin, one of the staunchest defenders of existing copyright laws. In a previous discussion, I mentioned how the estate of great writers can keep their work locked up for years. A few years back, Helprin wrote a piece explicitly defending that, using a comparison to other forms of property rights.

WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely? This does not happen in our society … to houses. Or to businesses. Were you to have ushered through the many gates of taxation a flour mill, travel agency or newspaper, they would not suffer total confiscation.

Once the state has dipped its enormous beak into the stream of your wealth and possessions they are allowed to flow from one generation to the next. Though they may be divided and diminished by inflation, imperfect investment, a proliferation of descendants and the government taking its share, they are not simply expropriated.

That is, unless you own a copyright. Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.

His new book Digital Barbarism seems like an extension of that argument. The reviewer writes:

Where the critics of copyright perceive the Internet age as a potential Renaissance being blocked by overconsolidated corporations, Helprin worries, plausibly, that the spirit of perpetual acceleration threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds.

Not having read the book, it’s hard to know exactly how the argument runs. But I was struck by this description from the review:

Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

There are all kinds of legitimate concerns about what happens to authors in the new world and how their works can be treated. But an artistocratic contempt for the era and those who inhabit it does not help anyone.

Jeff Sparrow

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

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