Duelling PR

According to CNET News, Random House and Amazon are now planning to allow customers to pay per page or get electronic access to books they buy in print. What I find interesting is how much Amazon claims can be “searched inside” (one out of every two books sold) and how postive the impact on sales (8% lift for those that are searchable). You’d think that would make Google’s project all the more attractive, but worries about DRM and Google’s ultimate plans for their digital texts seem to be giving publishers (and a few authors) the willies.

One correction to the record, though: Amazon doesn’t work with copyright holders, only publishers. Authors who hold copyright were not asked if they wanted their books “searched inside.” I’ve asked a number of authors if they were consulted when their books were entered in the Search Inside program. Hardly any of them even knew their books were included, and none were asked. Presumably, publishers are submitting books to which they have publication rights, and that’s being conflated with asking the copyright holder. Whatever – only I find it disingenuous for Amazon to keep talking about honoring the rights of copyright holders when copyright holders are not given any choice (except hey – to opt out. Does that sound familiar?) Oh, and by the way – if Google’s privacy policies worry you, Amazon’s should too. A benefit of participating is letting publishers know what bits of books are searched, and you have to hand over your credit card information to search inside the book. Now, that should give librarians the willies!

I hope the Open Content Alliance isn’t lost in these competing PR releases. Though operating without deep pockets it has principles I can respect. On the other hand, it’s time we sorted out how to reinterpret “copy” in a digital age and Google’s chutzpah (and their lawyers’ fees) are putting it on the table.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “Duelling PR”

  1. I have never published a book, so I have a question. You said Amazon is only working with publishers, so copyright holders are not being asked permission. Do not publishers in many cases own the copyright unless the author worked out special arrangements in negotiation?

  2. In most cases authors (at least in trade publishing – Random House and the like) own the copyright to their books; the publisher owns the right to publish the work and usually acquires a number of subsidiary rights such as electronic rights, paperback, book club, serialization rights, sometimes foreign rights – to resell publication rights abroad. Among university presses it varies: I’ve seen situations where the press owns the copyright and others where the author does. When a book goes out of print, rights usually revert to the author, but now with “print on demand” technology a publisher could assert that a book is never technically out of print – just not being printed or promoted. So in a sense who owns the copyright isn’t as significant for brokering these kinds of deals as who owns the exclusive right to publish the work.

    I’m not suggesting Amazon did anything legally wrong (though at the time the Author’s Guild raised the question, especially for books acquired by publishing houses before electronic rights were explicitly spelled out in contracts) but they are not being accurate about dealing with copyright owners. They deal with publishers who own rights to publish the work.

  3. PS: here’s Ed Wyatt’s coverage of this story in the Times.

    I’m surprised to hear Jeff Bezos of Amazon say one of their programs may allow customers to download books or portions of books since that’s the nightmare that haunts publishers: the content will escape and start moving freely around the Internet. But then, it’s all speculative at the moment anyway.

    I still love the National Academies Press for making their content free online since 1994 (!) – what a great public asset – and they’ve shown it’s a business model that works.

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