Our Own Worst Electronic Enemies

I am off for July. So I’m running some favorite Andy Unedited blasts from the past. This was originally posted May 29, 2008.

When it comes to the digital future of publishing, we as publishers can be our own worst enemies.

Everyone seems to agree that electronic books will be a significant part of the world ahead. The only disagreement is how fast this new publishing environment will emerge and in what form. One of the major barriers to any form of digital publishing, however, are the permissions policies of publishers themselves.

Tens of thousands of new books are published each year that contain quoted materials from other copyrighted works. Authors and publishers typically seek permission conscientiously to include these quotations when they fall outside fair use. They write to the copyright holders (often other book publishers), and the copyright holders usually grant permission under reasonable terms regarding duration or number of impressions with a reasonable fee attached.

When it comes to requests to include copyrighted material in an electronic work, however, all bets are off. Reasonableness may be as hard to come by as a sunny January day in Chicago.

Though the number of electronic copies that are expected to be sold is typically a small fraction of the number of print copies, the copyright holder may request a fee that is substantially more than an equivalent print permission—fees so onerous as to prevent electronic publication entirely—if the copyright holder is willing to grant electronic permission at all. And such policies are in the face of what all publishers currently know—that electronic sales are still and are likely to continue to be minor in the next few years, and preparing a work for electronic publication is still quite costly and making any profit on them is very much up for grabs.

So why do copyright holders (here I have book publishers particularly in view) sometimes charge unreasonable fees or refuse permissions entirely? One word: fear. Fear that print publishing will be Napsterized. Fear that the wild west of the Internet will render copyright protection irrelevant. Fear of losing control. Fear of not being compensated adequately.

What if a publisher grants permission to use a small piece of a 100,000-word work—what is the worst case scenario? That those few words will be blasted all over cyberspace and millions of copies will be downloaded without compensation to the publisher or author? Will that make the original work any less valuable? Not a bit. Has some “just” compensation been lost? Possibly. But publishers and authors will lose even more if we all refuse to grant electronic permissions reasonably to each other. For then none of our electronic works can be published without the material excised from the work, which may result in a very unsatisfactory substitute for the original with the quotations. So all publishers are prevented from releasing electronic versions of many of our works.

Unless.

Unless all publishers offer reasonable terms for electronic permissions. Then everyone benefits. Publishers aren’t unduly hampered from releasing electronic editions, and so more electronic books are sold. Authors benefit from having their books now available in electronic formats. The reading public benefits from having a greater variety of works available with different formats to choose from.

Licensing whole works or substantial portions of works for online or similar use should call for some caution since the future is unknown. (On the other hand, many publishers have released electronic and print versions simultaneously without apparent ill effect on the sales of the print version, even when the electronic version is free.) But licensing minor portions need not be highly restricted.

It’s time for publishers to stop implementing dual structures for electronic and print permissions, and start using similar systems for electronic permissions to what they are already using for print.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.

One response to “Our Own Worst Electronic Enemies”

  1. The sad part about all of this junk over publishing is that truth takes a beating.
    What is even worse, however, is the seem-
    ingly desperate attempt to grab ownership
    ove ever thing in print. Worst of all is
    the effort to gain absolute control over
    knowledge, so tht one can benefit by it or
    even prevent others from having access to
    the knowledge involved which might be of
    benefit to one’s life.

    I think of the subliminal seduction techni-
    ques taught in certain psychology texts in
    schools of commercial art. Then one looks at
    the results of selling which appeal to the
    most egregious pathologies, addicting people
    to such a degree that their futures are
    severely limited and even ended prematurely.

    Knowledge is power, and, in the age of infor-
    mation, it is a startlingly stark and ominous
    reality that threatens human existence with
    disaster of epic proportions.