net.wars: Selling by the page

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 November 2005

The much complained-about recent $100 DVD release of the first 80 years of The New Yorker (February 1925 to February 2005) is giving me a severe case of Copyright-Related Fragmented Personality Disorder.

Wendy M Grossman

As a consumer with many copies of the magazine on my shelves, I want to buy the whole thing on DVD at a reasonable price and throw most of the magazines away – they take up too much space. As a writer and computer user, I want to be able to search across all issues, copy and paste quotations into my own work (automatically tagged with the correct attribution), and print out cartoons to post on my wall next to the favourites I cut out as a child. As a freelance, I want my fellow freelances to be paid for their work if someone is profiting from it. As a former publisher, I want to sell the magazines, then sell the same content again on DVD, not pay the freelances any extra, and block copying and reuse. I don't want people printing out cartoons, I want them to buy from the http://www.cartoonbank.com Cartoon Bank.

No copyright theory or practice can reconcile all these conflicts. Nor can Google Print. Both Google and Amazon separately want to make the innards of books available electronically. Amazon is working with publishers; Google is being sued by them.

The two projects have a lot of common factors: both rely on scanning in huge numbers of books to create a giant database of texts; both enable searching all that text and returning individual pages; both claim to respect copyright law by limiting how many pages people can retrieve; and both are negotiating with publishers, not authors. Amazon's service isn't available yet, and is expected to charge for access to pages.

Google Print is free and already running (in the fine Google Beta tradition). A sample search on "It is a truth universally acknowledged," the ultra-famous first line of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice reveals an additional danger besides the ones my agent raised about copyright, authors' rights, and security: Google Print has gotten its text from Penguin Classics, which slaps a copyright notice on a work that has been in the public domain for a few centuries and that was long ago digitised by the  Gutenberg Project, which makes it freely available in several formats.

Both projects are likely to do for books what MP3s did for albums: unbundle them. In the MP3 era, the unit of purchase is the song, not a carefully planned album; in the GoogleZon era, the unit of purchase (or access) is the page, not the whole book. In some cases, this makes sense. College textbooks, for example, have long been so expensive that teachers create course packs that include just the chapters they want. If you're considering a purchase, reading a page or two will tell you whether you want to buy the whole book. But equally, it may become extremely rare to read an entire book: why bother, when you can just read one page, extract a quote, and complete your assignment?

The New Yorker discs were apparently deliberately crippled in an attempt to comply with copyright law. According to the Wall Street Journal, the technical reason the DVD-TNY prohibits copying and pasting (and the reason it takes so many DVDs to hold the 3,600-plus issues' worth of text and graphics is that each page is stored as a photograph. The policy reason is to skirt the 2001 court decision in Tasini vs New York Times et al. In this case, the court upheld the National Writers Union's contention that freelances' work should not be sold via electronic databases without further payment. The ruling made a distinction between database compilations and reproductions of the original publication (think library microfilm). The NWU's goal was to get freelances paid, but we are doomed, doomed I tell you, and the decision vastly accelerated the industry-wide switch to contracts demanding all rights to make sure it never happened again. The New Yorker sought to both avoid both paying freelances and getting sued, and therefore created a product that is neither as useful nor as usable as it should be.

But for new services to emerge there has to be a change. In the early days of CD-ROM, one of the biggest problems for anyone trying to put together any multimedia product was that rightsholders quoted a licensing fees that assumed that every purchaser would access everything on the disc. You could certainly pay freelances for including their work in the New Yorker DVDs on that basis – but either you're going to pay them halfpennies or the discs are going to cost so much more than $100, that we'll be back to the old days when only libraries could afford such things.

It's my view as a subminor author that Google Print and Amazon Pages (my term, but it's catchy, dontcha think?) will ultimately be a good thing for authors, spreading our work to people who would not otherwise find it. For that to pay us, however, we'll have to find new business models of our own. I look forward to the publication of the first book deliberately designed for page marketing.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).