Wednesday Links 2-24-10

J.K. Rowling Sued Again + Other News

Not really a full links post, but a few things caught my eye this morning. So here we go.

First of all, J.K. Rowling has been sued for plagiarism, again, hilariously. This time the plaintiff is the estate of a writer who died thirteen years ago. They claim she stole from a 36-page pamphlet called “The Adventures of Willy the Wizard.”

The entire case rests not on copied passages, but on the fact that “both Willy and Harry [are] required to solve a task as part of a contest, which they achieve in a bathroom assisted by clues from helpers.”

So, your case rests on the word “bathroom.” Good luck.

My other favorite line from that story is the estate’s PR guy (not lawyer) saying: “‘All of Willy the Wizard is in the Goblet of Fire.’” That’s a joke, right? Because “Willy” is only 36 pages long? Right?

And there’s a lot of other funny stuff in the Guardian piece. In other news:

  • Engadget reports the new iRex ereader is finally coming out, only four months late. This new model, the cutely named DR800SG, is notable because it costs less than $800, and it gives Engadget a chance to backhand the stupid Nook by calling the iRex “Barnes & Noble’s first big play in the space.” Since it has a stylus-driven touchscreen, file it under Y for Yet another reason not to get a QUE.
  • And, finally, The Rapture, one of my favorite bands, says this about their upcoming release:

“Our new album’s gonna be fucking 100 times better than the iPad,” [band member Gabe Andruzzi] jokes. “With this record you’re going to be interfacing with your soul in ways that have never happened before.”

So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.

Anecdotally: Piracy Is Hurting; DRM Is Not Helping

I’ve noticed a mini-trend in the past week or two. First, in the Millions, I saw Confessions of a Book Pirate, an interview with a real, live ebook pirate, code-named “The Real Caterpillar.”

He does a little defense of piracy, which I’ll leave alone in this post, and he also has a few interesting things to say about DRM. Most importantly, he says he would pay more for an ebook without DRM and, when asked what would make him stop pirating books, he says:

I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle.

Caterpillar also lays out the excruciating process he goes through to upload a single book, a process that involves scanning a hard copy page by page, and then proofing the scan by hand, which can take “5 to 40 hours.” Damn.

So, for pirates like Caterpillar, DRM has no stopping effect on their piracy (Caterpillar started years ago, when he couldn’t find digital copies of the books he wanted, so he’s used to scanning), and instead it’s actually a reason to keep doing it, because publishers still don’t offer “clean” copies.

And Caterpillar isn’t the only one who scans. In this summary of a panel at Digital Book World, Peter Balis says the majority of pirated ebooks are scanned galleys, manuscripts, or hard copies. This means DRM is powerless to stop widespread piracy.

From other corners, there have come cries of falling sky, from Macmillan president Brian Napack (and we all know Macmillan isn’t afraid to go to the mattresses), and from music industry group IFPI, whose latest report claims “95% of music is pirated.” That’s a grossly misleading stat, since IFPI also says that the industry has shrunk by only 30% since 2004. Evidently IFPI means 95% of albums are pirated by at least one person—and they don’t seem to know how much revenue loss piracy actually causes. Ars Technica does a pretty thorough examination/dehyperbolizing of the report here.

Still, piracy is a problem. So stipulated. But, as I’ve said for a long time, DRM is not a solution, and providing media in DRM-free formats is actually an incentive to buy it and not pirate it. The argument against DRM-free is that piracy will be easier and more widespread since pirates won’t even have to scan the books. That may be, or it may not (it didn’t happen with DRM-free music). But one thing’s for sure: DRM does not help paying customers in any way. With the iPad coming out soon—along with a whole new slew of DRM headaches—it’s a good time to remember that lesson.

If publishers (and content distributors) continue to fear a potential future threat more than they care about their present, spending, legal customers, I’m afraid I’m not going to shed many tears when major houses tell sob stories about lost revenue.

The Problem of Providing Digital Content; Or, How to Solve Publishing’s Problem

I recently got an Android phone; among the apps I’ve discovered are two content providers that have radically different (but equally flawed) philosophies on distribution.

One (i Music) lets you download mp3s for free, the other (TV.com) lets you watch really bad CBS shows, but not the good ones…

So what does TV.com get wrong? What’s the catch with i Music? What are these content providers doing wrong, and how are they actually encouraging piracy? How does all this apply to books and what’s a simple, one-step solution to it? All that and more, after the jump.
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Sherman Alexie Is Afraid of eBooks—from The Colbert Report

Here’s author Sherman Alexie on last night’s Colbert Report, explaining why he doesn’t sell his books in digital format (i.e., why he’s terrified of ebooks). Among the eggs of knowledge he drops:

  1. It’s easier for the government to spy on you when all your books are in one place.
  2. The music industry doesn’t make any money because “somewhere between 75 and 95% of music is pirated.” (Airtight.)
  3. Books will be easily pirated once digital. The industry will then fail and (he intimates) there will be no more books.
  4. The Internet makes it so there’s no intellectual property and no “artistic ownership.”
  5. Stephen King and James Patterson should especially be worried. (I would be petrified if I were either of them. I’m not sure … exactly what I’d be scared of … but I’d be petrified.)
  6. If authors did more readings, that would fix everything—but they can’t.

So basically the same ol’ stuff with an extra dose of paranoia.

Look, I get it: it’s fun and easy to be scared of digitization. But to say that 95% of music is pirated and that books are dying because not enough authors are “storytellers”… that’s a stretch. Books are dying because we publish 400,000 a year in the U.S. alone—99.9% of which are complete garbage—and even an avid reader can only read 50 of those. What you got there is a three-legged goat.

[UPDATE: I think Alexie was talking about this report that likes to throw around the stat that “95% of music is pirated.” What they mean by it, however, is tough to decipher. They don’t mean that their sales are down 95%, which their phrasing implies. Instead, they apparently mean that 95% of albums and song are pirated by at least one person. Which is a stat that means nothing to anyone. Except, evidently, Sherman Alexie.]

Also, while we’re on the subject, if you’re popular enough to be pirated, you’re probably making a decent living. If you embrace as wide an audience as possible, you will become more popular and more wealthy. That’s the way it is.

Also… not selling your books on Kindle isn’t going to “save white culture.” Just to clarify.

Anyway, enough of me—here’s the video:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

Profiles in eBookery: Creative Commons

Copyright law is dastardly business, with more nickel-and-diming and squabbling over percentages than most people probably gather. The music and film industries have gone batshit with copyright law since the rise of the internet, as evidenced by all the tricky take down notices and bogus fair use violation actions taken against YouTubers and bloggers every day.

Imagine if everyone who contributed to the ingredients of a can of soup had a different stake in the overall profit of the can, then on top of that, the percentages paid out to the pea farmers and noodle makers changed depending on what side of the ocean the soup was purchased on. Same farmer; same soup. Once the soup gets old, and the farmers are dead no one can really claim the money anymore (unless they stick a new label on it and add a dash of salt). Books, more so than canned goods, have a tremendous shelf life.
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Historian to Try Radiohead Model With eBook

wilsonAccording to the Guardian, and GalleyCat, historian Ben Wilson’s next book What Price Liberty? will be released electronically in April according to the Radiohead model, which means it will be free to download and readers will be encouraged to pay whatever they feel like for it.

I think this is excellent. This model was very successful with Radiohead’s album, but BitTorrent fearmongers like to say that Radiohead only succeeded with that model because they already had a wide, die-hard fan base. You certainly can’t say that about Ben Wilson; I’m sure he’s great, but how many historians have die-hard fan bases?

The problem with a lot of the downloading/piracy debate is that there isn’t really much data to back up one side or the other, so a lot of it becomes shouting in the dark. This one experiment certainly won’t solve that lack of data, but hopefully experimentation with different digital distribution models will continue to expand.

I predict that this will work quite well for this book. Free digital downloads will hook people into getting this book, and then guilt or well-meaning will get a good price out of most of them. If people are treated nicely, they tend to reciprocate; most humans learn this by adulthood, the record companies, though, don’t quite seem to grasp it.

But if this scheme works, the anti-DRM, pro-digital format crowd shouldn’t pat themselves on the back too hard. The fact that it’s pay-what-you-like will act as its own piece of publicity, and that will drive sales in and of itself. This model won’t work–at least not this well–forever. Radiohead already abandoned it, and Trent Reznor says they half-assed it anyway.

Still, any step toward proving BitTorrent is not the fourth horseman of the new media apocalypse is a good step in my book.

[via Guardian and GalleyCat]

Loss Leaders and how BitTorrent Helps Sell Records

A record exec testifying at the Pirate Bay trial recently elicited guffaws from the courtroom when he claimed that every download on BitTorrent costs the record companies a sale.

People laugh at this not just because it’s a greedy and stupid thing to say, but because it’s so baldly, obviously wrong, and so out of touch with the mindsets of his customers, that it creates cognitive dissonance, which we deal with by laughing.

However, the exec isn’t completely wrong.
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Whoops, Onyx Was Reading Harry Potter

Earlier today, MobileRead posted a link to a YouTube video showcasing the new Onyx Boox’s touchscreen capabilities. Unfortunately, the video evidently showed off those capabilities while reading a Harry Potter book, and J.K. Rowling, fearing piracy, has refused to let her books be made into ebooks. It was (eek) a pirated copy, and the video was taken down shortly.

I find the Harry Potter ebook fiasco pretty hilarious, because, Harry Potter being perhaps the most popular book series on earth, bootlegged ebooks are readily available. Here are LRFs of the whole series, and if you can’t read LRFs, Calibre can convert them to ePubs for you. I had the whole series within a few hours of getting my Sony, and I’m not even particularly a fan of Harry Potter.

The bootleg ebooks are not good. There are a lot of missing spaces between words, and no paragraph breaks (although it is DRM-free, of course, that being one of the top benefits of piracy). I would predict that, if a legit digital version were made available, it would sell approximately a bajillion copies instantaneously. And yet, a fear of it getting pirated is literally forcing anyone who wants an ebook version to pirate it.

It’s as if J.K. Rowling’s internal metaphor alarm went off, and she realized that the world needed a microcosmic example of the heavy price media enterprises pay when they allow themselves to be paralyzed by fear. If that was the goal, well done.

The Pirate Bay on Trial: Links

In case you’ve missed it, prominent Bittorrent website The Pirate Bay has been on trial for a week and a half in Sweden. Whatever you think about “illegal” downloading, trying to stop piracy by suing websites is like trying to mop up a puddle of water by stomping on it. However, it makes for amusing trial-watching, especially as half the charges were dropped on day 2.

Essentially, the record companies are complaining that music sales have dropped 40% since 2001. We all know that the only thing that’s happened since then is the advent of Bittorrent. Well, that and dropping record prices, the RIAA treating customers like criminals, and fundamental changes in the way music is distributed (with major labels dragging their feet the whole way).

Clearly, I’m a bit biased. Here are some (slightly) more objective links:

  • From the “if we don’t learn our history” department: isoHunt.com, a torrent search engine, went through a similar ordeal a few years ago when the MPAA threatened them and then sued them. The idea, presumably was to shut them down, but isoHunt refused to shut down. Instead they eventually moved to Canada, and continue to fight.
  • You can also support The Pirate Bay by buying a T-shirt from Bytelove. I did this, and felt a lot better about it before I found out that one of the founders is a Nazi.