BEACHED WHALES AND PUBLISHERS
The question is, is there any significant difference between them? They are both indulging in self-destructive behavior that may endanger the continued existence of the species. And while I care in the abstract about whales, I care specifically and passionately about free access to information.
The problem is that publishers have been bought out by corporate monoliths that value publishing only insofar as it generates immediate profit. In their view, the only people who should get to read a book are the people who bought the book. That's why, after coexisting peacefully with libraries for over a hundred years, newly corporatized publishers who are now expected to return 20 percent on investment have suddenly become deeply concerned that libraries circulate books and magazines to multiple users but pay for them only once. They've discovered interlibrary loan and fear that only one library will need to buy any given title and will simply copy it at will for every other library -- I guess they're unaware that we're among the strongest defenders of copyright, as long as fair use is preserved. They've begun to experiment with electronic encoding for digital products that will make it impossible for users to copy passages from them for discussion or research, or copy quotes into a document. Notice the wording of the permissions list on the Adobe Glassbook edition of Alice in Wonderland:
No text selections can be copied from this book to the clipboard. No printing is permitted on this book. This book cannot be lent or given to someone else. This book cannot be given to someone else. This book cannot be read aloud.
When Slashdot readers raised a ruckus about this, Adobe was swift to say that "read aloud" did not MEAN "read aloud" -- they had merely disabled the mechanical read-aloud feature because the rights to audio had been sold, and furthermore, "lent" and "given" referred only to digital means of temporary or permanent transfer.
That doesn't matter. Law goes by the written word, and the written word here explicitly takes away rights buyers have always had to use and dispose of their property as they see fit. We have always passed on favorite books to our friends; we have long made mixed tapes to introduce our friends to our favorite music; libraries have always circulated copies of books to multiple users.
In the process we have created new audiences for writers and bands and film-makers. Studies of library users always shows an enormous overlap between those who borrow books from libraries and those who buy books. Does this mean that when we borrow from libraries, we are depriving publishers of sales? No, it means that the library allows us to sample -- most of us can't afford to buy every book that seems interesting, but when we find something we love, we will buy it. I became a Stephen King fan in the library, and then began to buy his books as soon as they were released. Moreover, many of us don't stop at buying one copy for ourselves -- having discovered the work of Barbara Holland and Sue Hubbell in the library, for instance, I bought more than a dozen copies of their books to give to friends and relatives last Christmas.
Recording companies believe people who sample music on the net, or make mixed tapes for friends, cut into their revenues, because people won't buy what they've copied or sampled. But that isn't how most music fans behave. My son and his friends are far more likely to buy a CD a friend has sent them sample tracks from -- before they fork over $15 or more per CD, they want to know for sure that they like the music. The more mixed tapes my son gets, the more CDs he buys, so that his music budget now averages over $100 a month (yes, mercifully, he is self-supporting). If recording companies digitally encode copying protections, they will cut off a substantial portion of their market AND they will make their prime market so enraged that they will NEVER buy music from companies that have done that.
Considering that librarians are a prime market for publishers -- indeed, for certain types of books and videos, the ONLY market -- it's remarkable that they're so willing to antagonize us. Not only do we buy their new offerings, we sustain their markets for books and videos over time. Bookstores, music stores and video rental operations won't offer much floor space to backlist titles, but in libraries, users have a chance to discover them long after they've left the bestseller list.
Libraries also keep a market for mid-level serious fiction alive not just with our collections but with our reading lists and book discussion groups and other readers' advisory services. With our children's rooms and story hours and summer reading programs, we create new readers. In a time when relatively few young people read well and willingly, who do the publishers think will create their future readers? It does not make sense for publishers to attack the goose while it's in the process of laying a golden egg.
But even beyond the self-destructiveness of these tactics is the damage publishers may do to the information environment. They simply do not understand how the free flow of information creates new knowledge -- researchers and artists and writers learn from each other, pick up bits and pieces of ideas and put them together with their own ideas to arrive at new ideas, techniques and theories. If you place a timeline of technologies that speeded up the exchange of ideas (the printing press, telegraph, railroad, Xerox, Internet, etc.) side by side with a timeline of key advances in the arts and sciences you would see a direct correlation: speed the flow of information and you speed the production of knowledge.
The only thing that may save publishing from the lemming-like behavior of the corporate monoliths is the fact that new technologies make it financially feasible for small publishers to spring up. They may operate on a shoestring, and only bring out a few books a year, but they publish because they care about books, about serious fiction, about the advancement of knowledge, about contributing to the dialogue of the human mind. People who don't have to maximize return on investment CAN care about those things, and about building good long-term relationships with the people who buy their products.
Librarians may not be powerful, but there are things we can do. We can warn our representatives and senators about the consequences of choking off the free flow of information. We can form alliances with groups with similar interests -- scientists, scholars, small publishers, even libertarians. We can read our licensing agreements carefully, and tell publishers we will NEVER buy products that come with onerous restrictions. We can barrage Pat Schroeder, now president of the American Association of Publishers, with e-mail explaining to her how suicidal the publishers' current course of action is ().
Why do we need to do this? Because we owe it to our own libraries and customers and we owe it to the world. We are the disinterested custodians and facilitators of human knowledge. If WE won't go to battle on its behalf, who will?
* * * * *
Now dawns the celebrated information age, itself something of a misnomer except insofar as information has become the coin of the realm, a proprietary asset ever more jealously guarded and restricted. Commerce, the state, privacy, patent, fair trial, and a long list of other interests compete and conflict with the public's right to know. Some of those restrictions are legitimate and deserving of special attention. But many of us in the press, in public-interest groups, and in academe have come to see that the burden of proof falls upon us, as proxies for the public, to constantly justify why information should be disseminated. And those whom we petition for information that affects our lives, our health, our understanding of the past and present, force us to run a debilitating gantlet.
Ted Gup. "Our Nation of Secrets" The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 13, 2000 .
* * * * *
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.