CLIRing Things Up

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has a new report out on Acquiring Copyright Permissions to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books. Among the findings: orphan works are a problem. Locating and dealing with publishers is daunting. If a book includes materials for which the publisher had to acquire rights (say, to quote a poem) they don’t feel they have the right to include the book in an open access project. And now that “out of print” doesn’t mean what it used to mean, publishers can hang onto rights for as long as they can print on demand – so even if the copyright holder is willing, the publisher may not be. Ever.

This reminds me that during the e-book boom around 2000 I asked a representative from NetLibrary what the biggest challenge was. He said it was winning over publishers – it took far more time and effort than anything else. That boom, of course, went bust largely because everyone in the industry was trying to figure out how to make money by cutting someone else out of the picture. In an article I wrote about it I quoted a New York Times book critic who asked a key question: “What’s in it for the reader?”

I think the industry needs to ask that question again if they want to be in business.

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.

I Should Have Sent My Opac And Database Suppliers A Card

Did you know that today is the first World Usability Day? It was established by the Usability Professionals’ Association to promote “user-centered design and every user’s responsibility to ask for things that work better.” I discovered this from an article about World Usability Day in USA Today. The focus of this special day is to draw attention to the need to make electronic gadgets more user friendly. You shouldn’t need a manual, goes the logic, to figure out how to program frequently called numbers into your cell phone or to use any of the many features on your digital camera that you’ll never get to work. World Usability Day resonates with me because we have our own little usability challenge in academic libraryland.

Our OPACs and aggregator databases offer some great features. I always enjoy showing students how they can format a citation in ProQuest databases or create a personalized booklist in our library catalog. Students can quickly realize the value of these features, and they are important in helping us to differentiate our resources from those offered freely on the Internet. The challenge is in helping our users to discover these added-value tools because, like the too complicated cell phone or digital camera, the usability needs improvement. I’ve gone on the record in the past claiming that our OPACs and databases are not overly complex – and I still maintain that. Students come to our institutions to learn, and learning to use these resources is a part of the process. Having discovered these features a student is ususally able to figure it out the next time. But I would like to see library products that make it easier for the end user to discover the useful features embedded in the product without needing a librarian to divulge its availability. Perhaps the products need to be designed more like website homepages that clearly layout the features and navigation. But whatever we do let’s not just dumb everything down so there are fewer options all together. I think we can do better than that.

Well, today is only the first World Usability Day. The world’s environmental problems were not solved on the first Earth Day. But if it gets us to start thinking more seriously about our responsibility, as a profession, to “ask for things that work better” that’s a start.

My In-box Overfloweth

Amazing all the interesting stuff that can wash up in one’s in-box in a single day. The Chronicle reports that some of the first books scanned in the Google Library project are now online. Google’s blog shows some of the texts. I notice that some are missing the “find in a library” link to WorldCat that the library project is supposed to include (a link that is absent on the digital books supplied by publishers; the idea was to include it on the library-scanned books). Still no memo describing how Google plans to take over the world. We’ll just have to either take their word for it that they’re good guys – or use our imaginations. And wait to see what the courts decide.

If you want paranoia with that, here’s a scary item from the Electronic Frontier Foundation: your printer may be watching you. Remember how detectives used to match documents to the typewriter they were written on by noticing the top of the letter T was a little chipped? Well – that’s sort of the idea. Embed a secret code that can match a page to a specific printer. And how handy when industry does the advance work for you! It strikes me as a tad bizarre that we live in a country in which the idea of making a record of the unique grooves and lands in any handgun as it goes from the manufacturer to the marketplace is totally untenable. Nope. No way. Threatens our civil liberties. Fuggetaboutit. But ideas? Speech? Expression? Hey, those things are dangerous, dude! We need to be able to track back and see where they came from. The Feebs, of course, say it’s just to apprehend counterfeiters, but that’s about as comforting as being told I shouldn’t worry about the PATRIOT Act unless I’m a terrorist.

The EFF tidbit (not the rant) came from the wonderful folks at LII – which has a spiffy new look. Between their weekly update and the one from the Scout Report I usually find plenty of interesting academic sites to share with faculty or to add to our subject guides. Or just to make me think.

Now if Steven would just find a way to add a button to his Kept-Up Librarian that would automatically download all the news fit to feed directly to my brain, I would truly feel kept up. But I would definitely need a memory upgrade.

LJ Offers E-Learning on E-Books

Tom Peters sends word that Library Journal is sponsoring an online forum on e-books on November 15th.

From the LJ site, the topics to be discussed include: (1) trends in e-book publishing and pricing models; (2) acceptance and use of e-books by different disciplines and demographic groups; and (3) the impact of massive digitization projects (e.g., Google Print). Scheduled panelists include Warren Holder (Toronto), Suzanne Weiner (NC State), and Jim Mouw (Chicago).

Participation is free, but registration is required through Library Journal.