Writing, speaking, and translating the future

Copyright and IP protection in a digital age

Copyright and IP protection in a digital age 1

The looming problem in ebook copyright may curtail the growth and longevity of this burgeoning industry.  The problem seems to be developing in three areas that will only compound over the coming months as different ereaders and ebook retailers enter the market.  The three main issues are copyright protection, proprietary format, and the public domain/library issue.

As I discussed in a few prior posts Intellectual Property and copyright will be at the center of ereader and ebook market issues as ereader sales and use grows.  Let’s face it the underlying implications for works entering the public domain, and used book markets are huge.  Compound that with the draconian stance that I expect publishers to take on “protecting” their copyright through more restrictive electronic means and these groups are sure to squelch their markets.

First Public domain and used books:  There is currently no viable method for measuring the starting point of electronic publication.  Works entering public domain are all decided by their publication date so what if the book is only “printed” electronically? When does the copyright expire?  Also there is a huge group of works in electronic form that have entered the public domain in some countries but not in others, but no company has yet found a way to address copyright issues surrounding these public domain works. This problem has already arisen for Amazon in their unfortuate PR faux pas around the copyright of George Orwell works.  So how will ebook sellers address this issue?


And of course copyright and public domain issues are even compounded further by the treaties, agreements, and country-specific copyright processes set into place throughout the world.  Google has attempted to address this issue via IP address identification. Amazon has mostly addressed the issue through the sale country of their device. This mandates a country specific Kindle store and restricts the device to that country’s content and copyright laws. But this doesn’t address a much larger problem.

I don’t feel the country where you buy the ereader should not mandate the country and the copyright under which you can purchase content. What if I buy my ereader device in the US, but I am a businessman whose first language is German or Arabic? Should I be restricted by the copyright laws and content choices of the US? Or should I be allowed to purchase content in the country and language of my choosing, following the copyright that is mandated by that particular product.

The solution I imagine is twofold one a customer choice, and the other a device design method. First the customer should be allowed to choose at least two (maybe as many as five languages) that they will be reading on their device.  This should be a changeable selection so that if I decide to use my device to learn Portuguese and Chinese I can download from the appropriate stores, under the appropriate copyright. This also ensures a worldwide secondary market for devices that can be sold and re-registered in different countries.

The second solution is a change to these devices.  It will have to identify a purchasing country, and allow the user to choose and set priorities for choosing which country and copyright method to abide by.  If it were me I would solve this with multiple UI settings. One for GPS-Enabled location, and a priority of reading language setting.  If all the stores in my chosen languages returned book results I would be able to choose the best price, and most favorable copyright in my language of choice. This would solve the problem from the users perspective but it does present a separate problem for the ebook retailer.The eretailer now has a more difficult time protecting the convoluted copyrights for a book in each country.

To solve the copyright issues that arise from this, I would place the onus on the copyright holder.  Only books that have addressed the copyright conundrum could be displayed in multiple languages and country-specific online stores.  And perhaps addressing this would give publishers/copyright holders  a few extra percentage points in their royalties. With the established copyright problems, and DMCA, and WIPO efforts that give copyright holders added clout to sue, it seems like the those copyright holders might be in the best position to elicit clearer understandings from Intellectual Property organizations and governments worldwide.  So it will be up to ebook retailers to convince copyright holders this problem is worth addressing. Once these copyright understandings are established, it frees the ebook retailers to focus on the business of selling books.

Public Domain

One of the more interesting dilemmas for ebook retailers and ereader sellers will be public domain materials and library materials. Public domain and library borrowing materials will be a large driving factor for ereader adoption and every ereader maker is actively addressing what this means.

For the public domain documents Archive.org has become a very large player.  They have listed over 1.5 million volumes from worldwide public domain collections. They also recently struck a deal with Kobo.com to list the 1.5 million volumes they have in Kobo’s ebook retailer database. Archive has also been kind enough to address the issue of public domain books themselves by creating a beta program that automatically converts the public domain books from their linked collections to PDF, B/W PDF, EPUB (beta), Kindle (beta), Daisy (beta),  Full Text, and  DjVu formats.  Whether or not these ereader makers and ebook retailers fully incorporate archive’s database into their offerings remains to be seen. But many, especially Amazon and Apple, will have to respond to Kobo’s initiative if they want stay competitive.

One of the more interesting controversies in public domain is exemplified by Amazon’s George Orwell fiasco. If one believes Mobilereference’s account at the below link, the issue of posting Australian Public domain material in the US Kindle store was a Mobipocket automation failure. Either way the Kindle store had for sale material licensed to Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt in the United States. The controversy raises an interesting issue. What can be done with Public domain materials that are still licensed under copyright in one country but are considered public domain in another country? I think the solution to this issue will directly affect the rate of adoption of ereaders and the ebooks they utilize.


(Update Amazon has made its first move into offering free ebooks by striking a deal with the British Library for 19th ebooks http://www.thebigmoney.com/blogs/goodnight-gutenberg/2010/02/08/british-library-gets-publishing-biz-amazon)

Library usage

Amazon has been recently put in the unenviable position of regulating university and college libraries use of their product.  The Kindle has been lent by libraries with legally purchased books.  And each of those libraries must get Amazon approval for lending the device. The easiest way for Amazon to solve the issue would be for them to strike a deal with Overdrive as Sony has done. This allows overdrive to add Kindle books to their collections that libraries loan from, and makes the kindle or one of its applications for reading Kindle books more appealing to large lending institutions and many other individuals. I think one of the strong adoption considerations for ereaders will be whether or not devices support library lending. And since Overdrive is the main supplier of ebooks to libraries, Amazon would be better off if they struck the deal and adapted the reader to support these filetypes.  I believe many ereader manufacturers will make that deal soon and if Amazon does not want to miss out, they should as well.

Proprietary formats

Another restricting factor for ereader adoption will be the proprietary file formats and proprietary DRM being placed on many of the epub open standard ebook formats.  The justification for this proprietary layer is of course Intellectual property protections. However, the result will be to lock consumers into a specific ereader, and a particular online ebook retailer. Though this will not slow the ereader growth as much as other factors, I think this issue will eventually need to be addressed by a consortium of ereader and ebook sellers for the good of the market.

This snapshot is an attempt to consider many of the factors that will affect the growth of ebook sales and ereader adoption. It will be a subject I return to again and again as things develop and the market matures.

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