Monthly Archives: July 2012

Information wants to be free – but Viacom is holding it hostage

Last night during dinner I went to watch Tuesday’s Daily Show online, as I frequently do, only to be confronted with a bizarre pop-up ad about DirecTV (which seemed to have nothing to do with me, since I don’t have DirecTV, or, indeed, a TV at all) and a message saying that full episodes were not currently available online. I did a couple of Google searches trying to find out what was going on, but my roommate said, “It’s just a contract dispute – they’ll work it out in a couple of days. Let’s watch something on Netflix instead.”

Turns out this contract dispute – over how much DirecTV pays for Viacom content – has been dragging on for a while. Viacom evidently thought it might come to this, registering its Facebook propaganda page “WhenDirectvDrops” on June 15, weeks before the July 10 deadline. According to the Washington Post, Viacom wants DirecTV to pay 30% more for Viacom channels; DirecTV has refused; both sides are spinning the story – Viacom blaming DirecTV for “dropping” content, Direct TV claiming they are “protecting consumers” – hoping viewers will forget they are caught in a dispute between profitable corporate giants. While Viacom posted DirecTV’s customer service number on its Facebook page and in its ads, encouraging viewers to call and complain, DirecTV was telling its customers where they could watch the full episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show for free online – and Viacom responded by blocking the full episodes.

Why should you care? Because this is what can happen when information, software, and services are controlled by companies primarily interested in profit. Many libraries (including my own) saw something similar this week when Meebo, acquired last month by Google, reached its own drop-dead date yesterday. And don’t forget those big price increases for databases and e-journals – when one of our products changed publishers and increased in price by 100% we had no choice but to can it. It goes away if you don’t pay.

Hopefully my roommate is right – that these two megagiant corporations will “work it out in a couple of days” – because, with no real rights to content which is protected by laws that favor intellectual property owners over viewers, users, and readers, that is our only option. I’m not trying to argue that we have a right to watch Jersey Shore online for free, or ought to. (Tweeter Courtney Mattison told the Associated Press the dispute was “costing her a couple hours of reality TV per night” – and you could argue she is better off.) But Viacom could decide to keep free full episodes offline and force consumers without subscription cable to turn to paid online viewing services, other media providers could follow suit, and then we are that much closer to an information environment where the only way any content is available is through a pay-per-view license negotiated between the company and the end user because we have created the legal and technological structures that make this feasible, profitable, and, even, acceptable.

I recently discovered the beauty of the Kindle for iPad app – I can download a book right to my iPad and start reading it right then! no waiting! But, of course, the Kindle license agreement (which Amazon can change, but I can’t) allows Amazon the ability to pull back the content at any time – content that I am paying for but not purchasing. Now, I’m not likely to want to refer back to my copy of New Moon (Book 2 of the Twilight Saga) and might never miss it, but if the book was a textbook, and the giant textbook publisher got in a dispute with Amazon, and Amazon decided to hold all the books hostage until it got enough readers to call and complain…

This is old ground, of course. Is paying a little bit for access to electronic information for an unspecified amount of time good enough? Most of the time, it probably is, it might even be fair, and most people, including me, might be perfectly willing to do it. But the problem is that this model gives me no real rights to the information. It’s as if I had no stake in it, which, while that may be true for online streaming of Jersey Shore, is less true for my copy of the Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 and is definitely NOT true for the last album I “bought” on iTunes.

You might say, well, then, buy print if you want those rights. Buy CDs. Or check the DVD out of the library. But the reality is that physical media is not only often less attractive to users (I like reading books on my iPad, I’ve discovered), it’s also becoming less available (how many of you live in college towns without a bookstore?), and it’s only a matter of time before it’s not available at all. Libraries are ditching print for online, too. Universities are adopting electronic textbooks. And without any revisions to copyright law that protect the interests of information consumers, libraries and end users are both at the mercy of the publishers’ willingness to negotiate and/or keep the promises they make to never do what they reserve the right to do.

We operate on good faith with our vendors (“it’s a trust relationship,” a rep from Innovative once told me). But at ALA last month I heard Cody Hanson talking about the process of choosing a commercial discovery service for the University of Minnesota Libraries. He wasn’t able to disclose yet what that discovery service was, but he told the audience that these products are “as different as they are similar,” and what makes them so different are not just their features, but the business models and “nature” of their vendors. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but as I look at my library’s portfolio of e-products, where, by the end of this month, two-thirds of our subscription databases will come from just one vendor, I sure hope I can trust in that vendor’s good nature. Because there’s precious few other providers we can direct our patrons to, and I don’t really think that making a Facebook page and giving them an 800 number is going to be enough.

Breaking Through the Block

One of the reasons I like to blog is that it keeps me writing regularly. Like lots of academic librarians my job comes with expectations for research and scholarship, so I need to be able to write up the work that I do and get it published. Writing is hard — I think writing comes truly easily for only very few people. I’ve found that the more I write, the easier it is to write. Many books on writing suggest setting aside time for it every day, and while I can’t always preserve that time I do tend to write at least a little something more days than not.

But everyone has a bout of writer’s block at least occasionally, which is precisely the place I’m in right now. I think I know why: I’m in the midst of analyzing and writing up a big research project so it’s likely that most of my creative focus is occupied with that. Even so, I’ll be working on this big project for a while yet, and I need to figure out a way to move past the block and keep writing, especially as I work through the data analysis.

Thinking about writer’s block has me thinking about strategies for overcoming writer’s block. Here are some that have worked for me. If you’ve got a great tactic for breaking through the block, please share in the comments!

Schedule your writing (and thinking) time
In the past Steven’s written about finding a good time to write and creating a writing routine, and as I mentioned above I try and find the time to write at least a couple hundred words every day. The key for me is that this doesn’t have to be academic writing or even related to libraries: writing in my personal journal counts, as does writing quick blog posts for work or for some of my other interests. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word count, which gives me a nice motivational boost.

I also find that it’s helpful for me to occasionally schedule thinking time. Usually this is on my way to work in the morning, which is most productive on the days that I walk, though I imagine it would also work well if I drove to work. This intentional time to think about what I could write about doesn’t always result in an executable idea, but it definitely helps get the mental gears moving. I think it also puts me into a more receptive frame of mind, so that when I do come across something of interest I’m more likely to be able to write about it.

Keep track of your ideas in a file, and revisit that file often
I’ve mentioned before that I keep a text file of sources of inspiration for scholarly research, which of course can be just as readily used to gather ideas for blogging. During a period of writer’s block it’s easy for me to forget about that file, and as I went back into it recently I realized I hadn’t gone through it in a few months. I’m going to make the effort to check the file more often, clearing out ideas that have been turned into full-fledged pieces of writing and adding in new thoughts.

Read, read, read (or watch, attend, talk, etc.)
This is probably a no-brainer, but reading news and blogs about librarianship and academia can provide great fodder for both informal and formal writing. I’ve gravitated away from listservs in recent years in favor of RSS feeds, but if you’re a die-hard listserv reader those can be good sources. Ditto for conferences and other professional development opportunities, both live and on the internet. Even a chat with your colleagues around the proverbial water cooler can inspire writing thoughts. When I’m writer’s blocked it’s easy to feel stuck my own head, unable to move past what seem like the same old boring ideas. Exposing myself to information from a wide variety of outside influences can help me think (and write) about new topics.

Ask questions
Finally, here’s where I’ll practice what I preach: ACRLog readers, what would you like us to blog about? Are there any topics you’d like to see us cover? Let us know in the comments!