Monday, April 09, 2007

Anxious Tomes

A Japanese woman came to view the flat yesterday. I use the term ‘view’ figuratively as her perspective was solely gained via a small photographic device. I have been to Japan several times so I know that where people live often seems no bigger than a 5 x 4 photograph but I had no idea that this was the only way to perceive a living space. I have moaned before about people coming to look at the flat and, rather than appreciate its breathtaking On Golden Pondness, they simply ask where the nearest supermarket is. It’s probably all a matter of priorities and my love of looking out the window at trees, swans, geese and people who look like David Bellamy chugging by in boats painted up to look like gypsy caravans probably should have been dispatched to a jumble sale along with my Peggy Lee cocktail dresses years ago. Or maybe we just can’t digest the simple pleasures of life unless refracted through an unreliable piece of technology owned and controlled by a creepy multinational. My potential buyer seemed to notice none of the qualities of my home that I hold dear and promptly left once her memory card was full.

I had this episode in my mind when I read John Lanchester’s article in The Guardian about the ever present threat of internet availability of the world’s literature to the long term future of the book as we know it. On the face of it you’d think this is a no brainer and why are we even having this conversation, wouldn’t you? Lanchester duly points out that there is a world of difference between the technologies that created a paradigm shift in the way we consume music and films and the likely impact of putting a few classic texts on the web on our centuries old love affair with the paper paramour.

There are obvious advantages to multi-media storage devices because they make life easier in so many ways. Believe me, I know how difficult it is to choose the right music to suit a particular journey so the more efficient that can be, the better I like it. Despite the doom and gloom forecasts of the music and film industries, the widespread copying and sharing of their product did not lead to the demise of their industry. In fact the opposite occurred. The cheaper it is, the more we buy – and actually, most of us do still buy quite legitimately, save the forlorn compilation tapes we make for people we fancy and are trying to impress.

Lanchester reminds us not only of why we love books but that they are the most efficient way of conveying a long story over the unavoidably long period it takes to be conveyed effectively with the joy that was intended by their author,

A book is also an object and a piece of technology; in fact, a book is an extraordinary piece of technology, portable, durable, expensive to pirate but easy to use, not prone to losing its data in crashes and capable of taking on an amazing variety of beautiful forms.

I think of the three places I’m most likely to have a book – bed, beach and bus. How would my MPwhatever Player feel about being dropped on the floor as I finally fall asleep after foolishly negotiating myself ‘just one more chapter’ long after losing the ability to focus? How would it fare left on the beach when I went for a surf – would it be advertised on eBay before I’d even caught my first wave? Most of us have been let down by technology at inopportune times but my response to a battery failure just as Emma Bovary contemplates her last moments, Moby Dick steams towards The Pequod or Scout Finch lies helpless on the forest floor dressed as a ham, would earn me an ASBO. Try as I might, I cannot think of a substitute for the joy of opening and closing a book, especially if there’s a handmade bookmark from my niece involved.

Okay, so if the idea of a digitised book is so pants, why are Google a) running around trying to create partnerships with all the world’s copyright libraries and b) being so secretive about it? Lanchester thinks the answer might lie in the 70% of books that are out of print but still in copyright. These have even acquired the moniker of ‘orphan works’, despite that fact that the parent may be very much alive and interested in the future of his or her offspring. As Lanchester very reasonably points out, no one in their right mind is going to prefer an electronic version of Middlemarch to their own well-thumbed copy which they might even have had since childhood. But it’s probably not novels that are the target of Google’s interest, not initially anyway.

Whether you are writing an essay or article or simply burning the midnight cyber-oil trying to keep up with your peers, what you want out of internet research is instant, reliable information. As anyone who’s researched on the internet knows, the big problem with freely available information is verification. Lanchester talks about this in the article but, I think, misses the point when he speculates that future problems might be caused by an unwillingness by a population conditioned to ‘stealing’ other people’s intellectual property via the internet to pay for information. If there is reluctance, it’s much more likely to be of the buying blind variety.

But what if one organisation with the backing of all the world’s most prestigious universities were to control all that information – in the public interest of course? One central, validated repository called, let me see, Google Book Search?

Let’s not forget that Google (owner of mein host Blogger) is very much the leader of the current intellectual property sharing culture and has managed to successfully blur the boundaries of the ‘public domain’ by enabling plagiarism that no conventional publisher could ever get away with by simply facilitating a global volume that can't be successfully monitored or regulated. And yes, we bloggers are undoubtedly pawns in this game because we provide product for free that other people charge money for and we also liberally dispense quotes and images that we have access to, usually via a Google mechanism, sometimes crediting the originator, but often not.

You could argue that Google is simply exploiting a natural tendency in people to share or even reinterpret a piece of art that has touched them in some way. During World War II my father copied down the lyrics to new songs as soon as they were played on the armed forces radio and passed them around amongst his comrades so they could all sing together. He was infringing copyright by doing so. It’s against the law to sew a sampler with a few lines from a Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes poem without permission from their estates or paint exactly like Jackson Pollock but are the Pollock police going to come around and prosecute you and your toddler for splattering paint on an old sheet in your back garden? I think not.

Google already has free access to the 20% of the world’s books that are out of copyright and, with the cooperation of the libraries that hold copies of these books, it will focus its immediate attention on getting all of them online. Google won’t have exclusive rights to Jane Austen or Shakespeare and you’ll probably have your own bound copies of your favourite classics, but if you are looking for an exact quote in a hurry, you’ll go to Google and each time you do, you’ll contribute to their legitimacy as the primary source of literary material. If Google then starts to target the 70% of literature that is out of print, the copyright owners, many of whom will be beneficiaries without a vested interest in the integrity of the work, will naturally think it is better for the work to be available to the public especially if it opens up an income stream in the process. As Lanchester points out, Google would then effectively become a publisher – but interestingly, one that doesn’t create actual books, those things we love so much.

It doesn’t take a maths genius to deduce that thumbscrews would soon begin appearing on the remaining 10% of works in copyright and in print, many of which will have been and are continuing to be created by living, breathing writers with increasingly nervous publishers. These would be the jewels in any aspiring monopolist’s crown. Citing the sinister example of Disney’s manipulation of US copyright laws to maintain the ownership and earning power of the Mickey Mouse franchise long after the rights should have lapsed, Lanchester exposes a potentially lethal weakness in our long tradition of copyright existing for the protection of the author. Yes, powerful corporations can and do influence law-making. With a population eager to devour every new piece of technology on the market, governments and academia alike enraptured by the possibilities for the betterment of us plebs and a regulation vacuum that could suck up Siberia without anyone noticing, there will be no greater opportunity for Google to gobble up world rights to the written word.

Lanchester is right to raise the alarm in the face of Google’s offensive. At the moment, it may make no more sense than Warner Chappell’s purchase of the rights to Happy Birthday in 1990 for a ridiculous $15m. Ever hear of Warner Chappell showing up at a kiddy’s birthday party with a writ? Not yet. In the long term, we should try to imagine a future where, like my Japanese buyer, we end up deciding on where to live on the basis of a tiny digitised image. Or we may be so preoccupied with mastering our newly purchased MPWhatever Player that we fail to notice that the faceless corporation that sold it to us is burning all our books while we are tearing our hair out trying fathom how to download the latest updates to Pride and Prejudice.

Note : I'd put up some artwork on this post which I have subsequently discovered is not allowed by the author so I've replaced with this cute picture from


The Moon Topples said...

Ms. Pantalones: The cartoon in question is a Far Side, by Gary Larson. He's a bit freaky about uses of his cartoons, but since your last post featured artwork belonging to Disney, I suppose you are not afraid of such things.

That's so pants said...

Hi Mr Moon Topples - of course. I thought I'd seen it somewhere before. Of course I could be wildly mistaken, but I thought I have been within the bounds of 'fair use'. However, if Mr Larson would not be happy about it, it's reason enough to remove it and replace with something less controversial.

GoAwayPlease said...

your home location/aspect sounds wonderful.
I hope a deserving/appreciative person is in it next.

and speaking of Disney and Intellectual Property Rights - they DESTROYED Tigger Pooh and Eeyore. a pox on 'em.

That's so pants said...

Hi GAP. I know I'm the most hideous hypocrite but I love Disneyland Paris and Fantasia.

Ms Baroque said...

Wow, that is some dystopian vision - except, oop, it's happening. And as you point out, you and I are both part of it, especially me with my gmail addresses.

I think it's hard for people to realise how pervasive this is because it's so abstract, it's a legal thing and about "rights" and so on - people are still thinking about technological gadgets as "personal entertainment" and that seems to be all that matters. Meanwhile things are being lost and gained, and changed forever, and you are not so far off with your "updates to Pride and Prejudice" vision. Integrity is key, and integrity is something we've lost respect for, by attrition.

This - the amazing power we have now - is the reason I think we need to remind ourselves about integrity and pursue it. We are about to be drowned in a tide of the ersatz, & there will only be a minority who remember that just one of the optional culturally-equal versions of something is the real one, or who remember what authorial intent was.

Of course it's all very postmodern and that's great, isn't it? Hurrah!

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms Baroque - writing this, I was thinking about a recent post of yours where you talked about the opportunity for small presses to grab their moment and jump into the widening gap created by the trend in publishing to increase volume but narrow choice.

I remember in the 80s there were hundreds of fanzines that people would sell at gigs. That was a response to a gap in the mainstream music press which had neither the inclination nor resources to adequately cover everything that was going on.

We have a long tradition of pamphleteering and self-publishing so the printed word will have a future as long as people can still write and distribute it. I think you're absolutely right to challenge the erosion of integrity and the potential to overrule authorial intent. Corporate interests will always trash ideals unless there is a strong enough protest to dissuade them.

Ros Barber said...

What an eloquent post, Ms (Not everything it seems, thank Goodness is) Pants. You are really on form. We should have to pay for your skilled labour, and yet here you are, giving yourself away for free again. Yet things that are free often do a great deal of good just by being so. We just need some balance between sharing our thoughts with the world for free and paying the bills that allow us to do that.

That's so pants said...

Hey Ros. Thanks. Yes it would be nice to get some money, sometime. I can't blame Google for that one, not yet anyway.