Monday, May 22, 2006

Scan This Book!

This is a great piece about the future of books and media, with lots of interesting facts and figures, bold ideas for the future of books and libraries in the digital age, an insightful look at the changes in the underlying economic models, and a good explanation of why copyright laws will need to be changed for the digital age.

The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages.

From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks.
Imagine the ability to have access to all content throughout history at any time from anywhere. Mind blowing.
Copyright bestowed upon the creator of a work a temporary monopoly — for 14 years, in the United States — over any copies of the work. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56. So when Congress voted in 1998 to extend copyright an additional 70 years beyond the life span of a creator — to a point where it could not possibly serve its original purpose as an incentive to keep that creator working — it was obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model.

In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent (or around 25 million) of all books in the world's libraries are orphaned.
The copyright laws need to be changed to reflect the new digital world. They need to be vastly reduced, maybe down to as low as 5 years. Allow people to make money off of their work, but don't stop others from manipulating it later to create more wealth. This isn't on anyone's political agenda, but it should be.
The new model, of course, is based on the intangible assets of digital bits, where copies are no longer cheap but free.

As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the "discovery tool" that markets these other intangible valuables. But selling things-that-cannot-be-copied is far from ideal for many creative people. The new model is rife with problems (or opportunities). For one thing, the laws governing creating and rewarding creators still revolve around the now-fragile model of valuable copies.
Overall this is excellent. Read it.

via NYT Magazine

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