Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Libraries Not Dead Yet

My summary for 2010 was titled "Libraries are still screwed". And then in 2011, the ebook wars broke out. It was like "Attack of the Clones". Despite the collapse of the Border worlds in the face of the trade federation's robot armies, the Jedi Knights of the Reading Republic seemed to have the situation in hand. But when you see Senator Padmé Amidala, Representative of the people of Naboo, clasp Anakin's cold metallic mechno-hand, thinking they could live happily ever after, everyone in the theater is thinking "she is sooooo screwed."

It was September of 2011 that Amazon made a play for the affections of the library world, making a deal with Overdrive to make Kindles compatible with ebooks sold to libraries.  Somehow the library world was so flattered by the attention of this youthful, rebellious suitor that it failed to see the dark side of the force. Just two months later, Amazon introduced the Kindle Lending Library, demonstrating the too-inviting vitality of the lending business model for ebooks.  All of a sudden, getting an ebook from a library involved paying a tribute of personal information. People started wondering why we still needed libraries when Amazon would lend us books and Google was giving us everything else.

A more appropriate cinematic analogy for the library world in 2012 was Revenge of the Sith. The publisher trade federation, having thrown in with the Dark Lord of Cupertino, began to secede from the reading republic. Then it was Penguin, expressing anger over Amazon's dalliance with libraries by withdrawing from the Overdrive lending program. Random House took its turn soon after. While expressing deep love for libraries, it began to empty their pockets thrice for every ebook they would buy. Hachette piled on.

Many layers of ambiguity shrouded this conflict. Was Apple the leader of a trade federation conspiracy, or was it Amazon and the Department of Justice that had the republic's best interests at heart? Was the delegation from the senate a hopelessly naive and powerless waste of time, or did it contain the germ of a new hope?

Amazon almost crushed like a Federation transport on a clumsy Gungan, but it bounced back like a booma full of plasma.

Meanwhile, a pirate queen, E. L. James, slithered her way across the best-seller lists like a Hutt, leaving a trail of treasure for the dungeon-masters at Random.

In other corners of the internet, people were starting to speak of revolutions. From his cantina of independent writers and other odd characters, Mark Coker smashed words and landed unlikely books from worlds beyond the reach of the trade federation into the hands of everyday readers. And his quiet overtures to libraries may turn out to be seeds of a much greater rebellion.

Libraries themselves faced threats from all sides. In some cases, librarians were sacrificed before the  altar of apparent change, but most of the people saw them as bastions of hope in difficult times. Even when hundreds of thousands of website clamor for eyeballs, people still look to libraries for guidance and shelter. Though "reference" in public libraries is declining, overall library usage has actually increased. Maybe it's because so many bookstores have closed, and libraries remain a last refuge of the book lover. Maybe it's the free internet without the incessant Starbucks music. Maybe it's the author at the next table that nobody's ever heard of.

Meanwhile the flight away from printed books has slowed. I'll admit it- the last few books I've read have been books I last read in college, and I still have them. They're old friends with yellowed pages and a musty smell. Science fiction by Asimov and Niven, written decades before George Lucas ever had the nightmare of Jar Jar Binks.

And even the trade federation seemed to soften. Penguin returned to library lending with a new partner, 3M. Macmillan said that it too would begin a library lending program. And meetings with a delegation from ALA's Jedi Council seemed promising.

Jeff Bezos is not the Dark Lord and he's unlikely to issue Order 66 to his army of Kindles. The Random Penguin is not erecting an impenetrable ebook blockade around libraries. But the times ahead will see many more institutions fall into irrelevance and decay, and will see others find new and greater purposes. For 2013, we can't rely on high midi-chlorian counts or light sabers. We have to build up some new things. That Death Star isn't going away all by itself.
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Einstein's Never-Ending Copyright

Photo by Miroslav Duchacek CC-BY-SA-3.0 
In my post on Quantum Copyright, I promised, in my following post, to cover the impact of Special Relativity on Copyright. I was joking. I had no intention of putting words in Einstein's mouth about our copyright laws. How silly would that be?

Have you ever tried NOT THINKING ABOUT GIRAFFES? It's just hopeless. So here you go:

In special relativity, the passage of time depends on your frame of reference. Time is relative, and simultaneity of events can't be defined except relative to their respective reference frames.

So suppose I take a book with me on a spaceship that moves at 99.99% the speed of light relative to your reference frame. Then every day that elapses for me is about 71 days for you. In two years or so, the book goes out of copyright, and the next planet I visit, I can make copies for every sentient being I can find.

Seems a lot of trouble when I can just put it on BitTorrent.

Ah, but imagine that I'm a world-famous trillionaire author, and I'm worried about the day when my best-selling novel goes out of copyright, and everyone can just rip me off? All I have to do is buy myself a spaceship and go for a vacation. Since my copyright won't expire till 70 years after my death, my hypervelocity excursion will dilate my copyright term for a long, long time. When I get back a year from now (in my reference frame), 71 years will have elapsed on earth, and with the royalties I'll have earned (plus interest) I can probably acquire every other book on the planet. And both houses of Congress. I won't have aged much, so I'll just go on another interstellar jaunt. Rinse and repeat.

Start saving up, Jo Rowling.

For the rest of us, the bright side of this is that we can be pretty sure that copyright law will get be updated at least before interstellar drives are perfected.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Heisenberg's Uncertain Copyright

If you participate in LinkedIn, you've been recently deluged with requests to endorse the skills of people in your network. I decided to have some fun with that, and listed "Quantum Copyright" as one of my skills. To cement my claim to be the world's foremost expert in quantum copyright, I decided to examine the microscopic question of where copies occur. The closer you look, the more uncertain the location of the copying becomes!

It turns out that where a copy is made has consequences. Consider Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. A recent LibraryCity blog post by David Rothman suggested that Bill Gates should use a tiny bit of his fortune to buy out the remaining copyright of Gatsby, supposedly one of Gates' favorites. On, 70 ungluers share the sentiment that The Great Gatsby should join Huckleberry Finn as a great American novel that belongs to all of us in the public commons.

Funny thing is, The Great Gatsby already belongs to every Australian, in the sense that Australians have the right to read and copy it for free without anybody's permission. In the US, it belongs to the CBS Corporation, and if you want to read it on Kindle, it'll cost you $7.80.

If you copy Gatsby in Australia, no problem, it's cool, because Gatsby has entered the public domain. There's an excellent version available from Project Gutenberg Australia. If you do it in the US without permission from CBS, it constitutes copyright infringement and is punishable with jail time and statutory damages up to $150,000 per incidence of infringement. So it really matters where the copying occurs.
click to beam

But we live in an era where books can be transported from one location to another without one of those Star Trek machines which turn goofy aliens and crewmen into particle beams. It's no longer obvious where copying occurs.

Suppose you have a book sitting on a computer in Australia. The computer breaks the book into thousands of UDP packets and sends them into the Internet. Copying can't have occurred yet, because the packets aren't fixed in any form. For copyright purposes,
“Copies” are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term “copies” includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed.
Now suppose the packets are reassembled on my hard drive in New Jersey. A copy of "The Great Gatsby" has materialized. Has a copyright been infringed? If I was in Australia and the source of the packets was in the US, would the answer be different?

click to beam

I don't know the answer; I am not a lawyer. But I'm an engineer and I can read and I understand the communication processes that have occurred in the book transporter. I'm pretty sure that copying has occurred, and that part of the copying process occurs in a location where no copyright attaches to The Great Gatsby.

Maybe it doesn't even matter where the copying occurs. Maybe it depends on who's in control of the copying. In the age of quantum copyright, action at a distance is not at all a problem. Here's what US Copyright law says:
The owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize ... to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
You could read that as saying only that nobody other than the copyright owner and subject to the jurisdiction of the statute is allowed to reproduce the copyrighted work regardless of where reproduction occurs. So if the person doing the copying is in Australia, maybe it doesn't matter where the copying actually occurs.

So we have 8 different quantum copyright location scenarios; 6 have uncertainty as to the fact of infringement:
  1. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in US. (US law controls!)
  2. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in Australia. (Australia law controls!)
  3. Person copying and copy source in US, copy destination in Australia.
  4. Person copying and copy source in Australia, copy destination in US.
  5. Person copying and copy destination in US, copy source in Australia.
  6. Person copying and copy destination in Australia, copy source in US.
  7. Person copying in US, copy source and copy destination in Australia.
  8. Person copying in Australia, copy source and copy destination in US.
You could also be a cynic and say the only thing that matters is where the judge is sitting. But really, this whole situation with territorial copyright variation is ludicrous and prehistoric and we really should be spending our time and money curing malaria instead.

Next week: copyright and special relativity. In what frame of reference do copyright terms exist?