Alexandria Online

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Publication and Protection: Copying and Copyrighting: Greed and Fear

To publish something is to make it public. People post blogs, publish web pages and instantly everyone can read them. But established print publishers need to brake the traffic of information to the public to protect their profits.

Publishers want protection: copyright protection. They want money for content. Matt Lake, a free-lance writer who has published in a variety of paid contexts, once said to me, "information wants to be free, but writers want to get paid." I would add: publishers want to post a quarterly profit too.

Sometimes the issue of copyright protection explodes. In recent episodes, Amazon surreptitiously "disappeared" a copy of 1984 from Kindles because of a copyright issue, and MacMillan products disappeared from the amazon store because of a pricing dispute. More often, the issue is simply an ever-present, but seismic pressure between protecting and publishing.

In a previous blog post, I describe how a teacher asked a publisher to continue to produce a specific edition of a textbook for him and the publisher refused. That refusal resulted in the teacher writing his own textbook and posting it for free as a "flexbook" on

An anonymous program director and consultant in disability services and an American university filmed and produced this video, in which Svetlana, a blind student, is shown going through the process of dealing with a textbook that has not been translated into braille. The spine of the book is cut off; the pages are scanned; optical character recognition software ("OCR") is run on it to convert it into text; the digital file is proofed and formatted and the braille version is then printed. So the book goes from digital to print to digital to braille. Perhaps the most chilling scene in the video is the one of the spines being lopped off the back of the books by a huge knife. Content unbound!

This administrator requested that the name of the university not be mentioned because the law is so muddy on this issue. On one hand, the institution has an obligation to fulfill under the Americans with Disabilities Act; on the other hand, it has an obligation to uphold copyright law. While publishers have materials to give universities, those materials fall short of this institution's standards for supporting blind students.

Why don't all publishers provide the digital file to the university so that they can print it on the brailler without going through the incredibly tedious and expensive process of converting it back to digital?
Is it fear or laziness?

Are publishers afraid they will lose control over the digital file containing their copyrighted content? Why not? The digitization of music overturned the old business model of that industry, taking away jobs and reducing profits significantly. Are they afraid that the digital file will be posted somewhere and everyone will download it for free? Say all the blind college students who are taking that particular course and using that particular textbook decide to email it to each other. Consider those odds. Organic Chemistry in Braille is not Justin Timberlake.

The publishers could insist that this blind student, Svetlana, buy a hardcopy of the text as a ritual acknowledgement of copyright protection -- and then get the digital file. It would involve no extra work on the part of the publisher, because the university would still print the text on their own brailler.
When publishers obstruct publication, even for a small population of individualistic physics teachers or blind students, they risk creating an environment in which competing business models may take root, thrive, grow, and eventually compete with traditional publishers.

Enter, an online self-publication company. This is not just a "vanity" press, for people who want their poems published whether the book will sell or not. John Edgar Wideman, a distinguished, established author, published his most recent collection of short stories through Lulu. (Interestingly, it is only available in print, not digital form.) If you go to buy his book on Amazon, you'll get it from Lulu. Plenty of people have done just that.

Why did Wideman go with Lulu? Tired of working with traditional publishers. And he's not the only one, according to a recent NPR piece. More money and more control are leading incentives for these authors, and traditional publishers no longer have the budgets to court writers with plush advances and generous publicity.

Then there is the open source side of the paradigm shift. Because of the needs of people like Svetlana in the video, a nonprofit organization for the visually impaired, Bookshare,, collects and distributes braille, audio and large-print copies of books. If you can prove officially that your vision is impaired, then you can have access to these texts legally, through an exception to copyright law. This includes 3,847 textbooks as of this reading of the site. Some texts are donated by people who have already digitized the content, but Bookshare also maintains a staff of volunteers who scan, proof and convert texts on demand.

The big publishers are blocking the door and demanding a cover charge for entry while others are propping open the fire escape and sneaking into the show. Free digital textbooks are appearing for the able-bodied on, and accessible, digital texts are being provided for the disabled, courtesy of MollyS and her colleagues at University of *******.

The Red River Dam diverts the Mississippi River away from its natural, shortest channel toward the Gulf of Mexico so that it continues to flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans. If the river should someday overwhelm the dam, those cities will literally turn into backwaters, sitting on a huge, stagnant, unnavigable bayou. Some experts say it is a question of Whether; some say it is a question of When.

When or whether will the dam break between readers and writers?

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