E-books and copyright laws


One hundred years ago a reader had to go to a library and sit there to read a book. The books were not lent out. They were expensive and not easily obtainable, and losing a copy meant more than just losing a significant sum of money, but you may never find the book again. Printing technology was inefficient, and materials were costly; out-ofprint meant relying on the kindness of libraries and good friends.

As printing technology started improving and became more readily available, and as the paper was made of inexpensive (different kinds of cellulose) materials, books became cheaper, and more commonplace. Libraries started loaning out books to members. More importantly, the interlibrary loan system was invented. If you needed a book that was not in your nearby library, they could order a copy from another library, and usually in less than two weeks you would get it and would be able to keep it for several weeks.

Now we have a really strange situation. This is the Internet age. On the one hand, an electronic copy of a book can be duplicated and distributed with near-zero cost. We no longer have the restrictions of "printing technology" or "materials for paper." On the other hand, your library does not have a way to give you the e-book in its electronic format. It is tied almost always to a reader, either some proprietary electronic device or a piece of customized software running on your laptop (it will run nowhere else!). The e-book and the closed platform are inseparable. Older readers may not properly display newer books, an issue that could be circumvented by buying newer devices. But this is not really the problem. Your library has thousands of e-books, which can be made available over the Internet (or just the Intranet of the campus), but the licenses are too restrictive to allow that. Archaic laws prevent what the Internet could make possible for all us.

Copyright laws create impossible situations. You cannot copy and paste a portion of the book (even a paragraph or a sentence) and put it somewhere else. The interlibrary loan of an e-books is virtually nonexistent, and in some cases crosses the boundary of absurdity:
They try to make a print copy and send it to you (which is not always possible). Generally, libraries are not allowed to print or save e-books in other media (such as a USB disk).

Publishers have their point of view, well defended by them and by their lawyers. It is true that they lose money due to copyright violations and piracy. However, their strategy makes legitimate readers' life more inconvenient and does not improve the situation for publishers either.

There are technical solutions to at least detect piracy; watermarking is one of them. If an e-book is in the hands of a person or a library without a license, watermarking could allow one to detect that. This technology is neither taken seriously nor used in a meaningful way by the publishing industry to detect and possibly prevent piracy.

Copyright laws make it impossible to reach some books. The laws give publishers a certain amount of power, and the net result is to inconvenience readers. I could easily give a book to a friend from my personal library, but I cannot give away or loan an e-book to a friend.
This is just absurd. The Internet, software and electronics do not help to increase the circle of readers; it helps to sustain archaic copyright laws. The authors are probably the most inconvenienced group here. Publishers collect articles from authors without paying them directly (professors and researchers are generally paid from public money) and then sell subscriptions to libraries at high prices (subscription rates of publishers are on the order of $20,000-50,000). Most authors themselves cannot even afford to read the same journal their articles are published in.

We need a wholesale solution. The purpose of any author is to have his book(s) read. I don't know any author who just wants to get rich quick (perhaps a few high-stress fiction writers). Small adjustments in the copyright law would make big differences. Some research institutions (such as the Geneva-based CERN) and some universities (University of California) are trying other approaches.

CERN and Elsevier made an agreement; CERN pays a fee to Elsevier for an article published by one of its researchers, and Elsevier makes the article available free to the world. The University of California created an Open Access Publishing pilot project to support UC faculty who wish to make their research findings immediately and freely available to the public. But these are experiments. The world needs a better solution.

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