Thursday, February 25, 2010

Digital Complications

I’ve been talking with people lately about the implications of the wholesale rush into the online world—a rush I have happily joined, and enjoy immensely both recreationally and professionally, but which is not without its complications and unintended side effects.

Google, of course, is trying to digitize the world and make it all available via their search engine. For Google Books, they've finally reached a deal--sort of--with the publishers, but the only protection offered for the content generators, i.e., the authors, is an opt-out clause, and not all of them are meekly going along:

The authors ought to have real control over their works and should not find that by signing a contract agreeing to the print publication of those works they have accidentally signed over electronic rights not mentioned in their contracts without additional compensation, and which potentially impairs the future salability of that work. Yet there are real benefits to the rest of the world in making published material available as widely as possible, and there is no question that online availability aids that. As the publishing world grows more accustomed to our new digital world, I would expect that the standard contract will be rewritten to include those online rights. If they do so without including additional compensation for the authors for that use, however, this will continue to be a battle.

The other interesting development in recent weeks was the showdown between Macmillan and Amazon. Macmillan wanted to restructure the way it sells e-books through Amazon, including raising the price on some books from $9.99 to $14.99. Amazon responded by suspending sale of every single title published by the entire Macmillan publishing conglomerate--not just e-books, but all print books as well:

Now, Amazon caved after a couple of days and the books reappeared:

But the fact remains that a huge quantity of material simply disappeared from the largest and most familiar source. Amazon was not an exclusive source for the print books, of course, but the same thing has happened with "exclusive" electronic content on subscription online services Lexis and Westlaw that is not published by those companies, as corporate entities negotiate, bid against each other, play hardball, etc. Content that was on one system moves to the other, or becomes temporarily unavailable. Corporations, law firms, and public and academic libraries with large enough budgets to have contracts with both suffer less disruption, though still some loss of efficiency, but the only people who can be sure they have uninterrupted access are those who have the print editions.

Both the Google Books story and the Amazon/Macmillan tussle demonstrate that the customer can all too easily wind up getting the short end of the stick.

or all the advantages of electronic access (and they are many), it is concentrating too much control in too few hands, and those hands belong to those whose primary obligation is to the financial health and competitive advantage of their employers, with no professional commitment to the continued and general availability of the content. As a librarian, I find that disturbing. It risks undermining our ability to be an educated, informed society.

Even at its best, electronic access nearly always means you are renting the information rather than buying it. That can be an appropriate choice--but it's important to know that you are doing it, and to make a conscious, thoughtful choice in that regard, and too often it is not.