Friday, June 21, 2013

The Book Elf, The First eBook Sharing Social Network, Launches July 15th

The Book Elf is coming! What is The Book Elf? The Book Elf is the world's first eBook sharing social network. I started dreaming it up two years ago as a way to make eBooks more easily shareable, because current eBook licenses actually make it illegal for the owner to share them. Our mission is to making sharing eBooks as easy as sharing print books, while still adhering to copyright law.

How will it work? The Book Elf will start by letting users share public domain eBooks. Public domain works don’t have copyright restrictions, so you can share them freely with your friends. Most literary classics are in the public domain so this gives users a great selection to chose from. Users can find eBooks by searching their friends’ shelves, or searching The Book Elf which also links to the internet archive’s public domain collection. If a public domain eBook does not appear in our collection, users can upload a copy. We will verify the public domain status before adding it to the user’s shelf and our collection. Users can also write reviews for eBooks. The Book Elf is completely free to use.

In our second phase, we will create a new eBook license that will allow authors and publishers who adopt it to make their copyrighted eBooks shareable through The Book Elf. Instead of using DRM file formats, The Book Elf will build DRM into the website itself to prevent from proliferating. 3 simple rules will keep sharing fair for copyright holders, while still leveraging the advantages of this digital format to give users a great experience.

If you would like to learn more and sign up for a notification when we launch, please visit The Book Elf.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ebook Licenses: Where Is The Outrage?

I remember when Andy Rooney started complaining about the shrinking one pound coffee can. Coffee makers kept selling their coffee in the same size can, but instead of giving consumers the 16 oz. of coffee they had come to expect, people got a coffee can with between 11 and 13 oz. of coffee. They also made the print which tells how much coffee the can contains smaller in the hopes nobody would notice.

Publishers and retailers are pulling a similar switch with ebooks and hoping that nobody will notice. When you buy an ebook you don’t actually buy it the same way you buy a print book. You buy a license to read it on a certain device, or number of devices. Most of these licenses do not give readers the legal right to share their ebooks, even though people have shared print books for as long as they have existed. As a librarian it bothers me that this basic feature of print books might disappear entirely as more people read ebooks over print books. While I understand the concerns publishers have about ebook piracy, the use of DRM and the criminalizing of sharing goes to far (at the same time it is not very effective). They would never get away with trying to restrict the sharing of print books, yet somehow they have convinced readers they don’t have the right to share ebooks.

Even though users pay a little bit less for an ebook than they would for a print book, publishers do not need to worry about costs associated with print books (printing, distribution, warehousing). So while it costs money to produce the content in an ebook, it costs almost nothing to produce the ebook file when compared with producing a print book. Despite this, publishers and retailers have created licenses for these ebooks that don’t allow sharing, even though this is not the case with print books which have a much smaller profit margin.

I know the argument a lot of people will make at this point. They will say that publishers will go out of business if everyone shares their ebooks. As a librarian I find this argument ridiculous on the face of it. Everyday I see people check out books printed by publishers that are still in business despite selling their books to libraries to be lent out. But as a librarian I know how publishers treat libraries, so I don’t doubt they believe this line. For instance, many of the licenses libraries acquire to lend ebooks through the Overdrive service cost the library more than they would cost the average consumer to buy the ebooks through a retailer (as much as 60% more). However, libraries generally acquire print books for prices lower than you would find them at a retail store. Publishers have seized this opportunity to squeeze more money out of everyone under the guise of stopping piracy and protecting their copyrighted material. They don’t like the idea of people sharing and would get rid of accepted forms of sharing if they could. The fact that all six major publishers in the US have backed SOPA/PIPA makes it clear they have no problem changing the rules to suit themselves even if it criminalizes
previously legal activity.

I aim my comments mostly at publishers. I think when it comes to sharing books authors have conflicting interests. They don’t want too many people to get their work without paying for it, even though they do appreciate it when anyone enjoys their work. At the same time, if they want to write new works they must also have access to a large number of books. In many cases this includes books that people have lent them, or they have borrowed from the library. Without the practice of lending many authors could not afford to have access to as many books and their work would reflect this. Cory Doctorow makes this point well and I recommend watching this lecture he gives on the subject of copyright.

What about piracy? I fully understand why publishers have resorted to these tactics. An unprotected file can quickly multiply and spread through a network making it freely available. However, it has become clear that these tactics don’t work and that they upset readers. DRM can be removed very easily and users resent the fact they can’t share ebooks when they have always shared print books. If publishers want to stop piracy they need to make the process of getting an ebook easier than torrenting one. They need to make it affordable enough that people feel they get their money’s worth when they buy an ebook. For a bit more on how this approach has already worked check out my blog about Louis CK and his experiment. Publishers also need to let people share ebooks the way they have always shared print books. I’m in the process of creating a social network that lets people share ebooks freely, but still treats authors and publisher fairly. You can read more about it on my Indiegogo campaign page. Please contribute and tell your friends if you would like a better way to share ebooks.

Here is a video from my campaign.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

You don't need DRM to make money.

Last week while so many of us in the online community worried about SOPA destroying the internet as we know it, we received some very strong evidence that argues you don't need to use DRM files to make money selling your content. Comedian Louis CK released his latest special through his website in a DRM-free format for $5. Many told him that most people would merely torrent the file and he would lose money. But Louis made an appeal to people's conscience on his website and emphasized the reasonable price of his special. It looks like it worked. After 4 days he had already made back the money he spent making the special and had turned a nice profit. After 12 days he has made over a million dollars on the project and he will probably make a good deal more, as the video is still available on his website. He has made two statements about his experiment and he plans to release all his material this way in the future. It is cheaper for the fans (a $5 download vs. a $20 DVD) and because he has cut out some middlemen he gets to keep a lot more of his money, so much that he is giving a good deal of it to charity. But don't feel you need to support him purely out of altruism. The special is also very funny.

It has also come to my attention that J.K Rowling will release all the Harry Potter ebooks online in DRM-free formats. I find it hard to criticize the business savvy of the only billionaire author ever. If she feels she can make money with this model I have little doubt other artistis can as well. I realize both her and Louis CK have established themselves and will make more from this kind of venture than someone less established. But I don't think that means we can't adapt this model to suit fledgling artists.

If you are interested in the issues I have raised here you might like to look at the Indiegogo campaign I have launched to create Our Bookshelf, a DRM-free ebook lending social network.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Do Honest People Pirate Content?

I have always enjoyed Dan Savage's sex and relationship advice column. He tells his readers the truth, no matter how brutal. For example, he will tell someone who refuses to take care of their partner's needs they have the right to do so, but they should not be surprised when their partner starts getting their needs satisfied elsewhere. Yes it is wrong to cheat on a partner, but it is also foolish to think the other partner won't seek satisfaction elsewhere if they are not getting it. I feel the same way about publishers and other media companies in the business of selling content who don't take their customers' needs into consideration.

I will give you an example. I don't watch much TV but I enjoy HBO, so I can't justify purchasing a monthly cable subscription in order to watch it. Why? Because the cable company won't let me purchase HBO by itself, so I refuse to pay for channels I will never watch. Imagine if this happened when you went to the grocery store and you could only buy eggs if you also bought 20 other items bundled with the eggs. If HBO offered me the option to stream HBO shows online for a monthly fee, I would gladly pay $5-10 a month for that service, maybe more. HBO actually has a service (HBO Go) that streams their shows online, but they only offer it to people who already have a subscription via their cable provider. So what do I do? I get the HBO shows I want to watch elsewhere and HBO receives no revenue. I'm not the only one who does this. I think if they knew how many people do this they would rethink making HBO Go available to non-subscribers. Many of us would gladly pay a monthly fee to watch shows online whenever we like, instead of paying for a bunch of channels we don't want, as well as fees for DVR and on demand services.

I think people generally want to get their content honestly, but if a provider makes it too difficult or expensive they will refuse to do so. I think publishers need to realize this in regards to ebooks. People are used to sharing print books with their friends and they want to do the same with ebooks. Unfortunately, publishers have made this very difficult by releasing many ebooks in DRM formats which prevent people from sharing ebooks. Just like the frustrated partner I mentioned above, if publishers don't satisfy their customers needs they will go outside the publishing model to share ebooks. They will strip their ebooks of DRM and share them via Bit Torrent. While I think this model cheats publishers, if they had tried to satisfy their customers' need to share they would not have this problem.

I think I have a solution to this problem. I have created a way to let users share their ebooks that still respects copyright holders. I don't know if publishers will go for it, but if they don't want their customers leaving them for Bit Torrent clients they should give it some thought. My method of ebook sharing resembles the way people share print books. It is a DRM-free ebook lending social network. Even though it does not use DRM formats, it will not allow copies to proliferate to the point of piracy. You can read a concise description of how it works on our Indiegogo campaign page. I hope you will make a contribution and share the link with your friends, so we can create a place where people can share ebooks as easily as they share print books. If you would like to receive updates as we get it off the ground you can follow us on twitter @ourebookshelf or like our facebook page.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why is it so tough to share ebooks?

I like ebooks a lot, especially when read on an e-ink ereader, because it puts a lot less strain on your eyes than a standard computer screen. Like many ebook enthusiasts I wish I had a better way to share my ebooks with others. Sadly, all the options for lending and sharing ebooks have a lot of problems that make them almost useless. They certainly don't let you share ebooks as easily as you can share print books. We can blame a lot of this on the DRM formats favored by big name ebook retailers like Amazon.

I have seen two basic approaches to ebook lending/sharing. The first is the lending library model.These include services like Overdrive which lends ebooks to people through public libraries. Overdrive has a generally poor selection of ebooks and anyone who has tried to download an ebook using their convoluted process knows how needlessly complicated it is to use. Library patrons must download the Overdrive software and go back and forth between it and the library's web page to properly download an ebook. If they are using a Kindle, patrons end up hopping between three websites in order to complete the download, in many cases with no success. A lot of this has to do with DRM formats, but a lot of it has to do with a poorly thought out interface that considers the user almost as an afterthought.

I would sum up the other kind of lending library with the phrase "Netflix of ebooks". It seems everyone in the ebook game today wants to pull this off. Amazon's Kindle Owner's Lending Library (part of Amazon Prime) falls into this category. Users pay a yearly subscription fee which allows them to borrow ebooks. However, users of this service can only borrow one ebook per month and they may only read it on a Kindle device (so no using the Kindle app on another device). There is limited content because publishers are afraid a lending service will give away their product for free. This last point deserves some attention. The idea of a lending library for ebooks scares publishers, because if everyone could get a free copy at a lending library, who would buy ebooks? In any case, I think Amazon and others trying the "Netflix of books" model will run into the same problem as Netflix and Hulu. They will end up competing for the rights to content. This will create a fragmented market where people can borrow ebooks from one publisher through one lending service and ebooks from another publisher through another.

The other approach to lending/sharing ebooks involves sharing in some kind of a social network environment. I like this idea better because it allows people to connect directly to one another instead of going through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. However, the schemes for doing this all currently involve DRM formats. Several webites exist for users to share both Kindle and Nook ebooks. They have a major problem though. Users can only lend an ebook once for 14 days. After that you can't lend the ebook again. I don't know about you, but if I buy a good print book I will sometimes lend it to several of my friends and they can take as long as they need to read it. People have done this for as long as they have read books and publishers have not had a problem with it. Yet, ebook vendors go out of their way to prohibit this type of legitimate sharing.

I understand why publishers worry about ebooks. If you make something available online you usually make it available to everyone with internet access, not just a few friends. But I think we can find a way to share ebooks that more closely resembles sharing print books with friends. I have put a lot of thought into how to achieve this and I'm creating a DRM-free ebook lending social network called Our Bookshelf that will solve all these problems. I have launched an Indiegogo campaign where you can find out more about it and make a contribution to help create the website. If you want a better way to share ebooks please contribute, tell your friends, and post a link to your social networks. You can also follow us on twitter @ourebookshelf

You can also check out my campaign video below. I hope you will contribute and tell your friends, especially if they like ebooks or books in general.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

No More Popstars

While studying abroad in London almost ten years ago I remember my fellow students watching a show called Pop Idol.  I observed them in disgust, hoping this show did not somehow cross the Atlantic.  Alas, I should have known better, or perhaps I already knew American Idol would go over big in the US. 

While I find the desire to create art and gain appreciation for it a wonderful impulse, I see something very immature, pathetic, and twisted about seeking fame for fame's sake.  If you make art just to get famous you probably won't make anything worthwhile.  I know this probably sounds cliche and idealistic, but if you make art just to get famous you have probably missed the point.  We should make art because it feels good to us and the people we share it with.

Not that anyone who appears on this show writes any of their own material.  Still, I see this attitude across popular culture.  Everyone wants to get famous and rich quick.  On some level I can't blame them.  In a world where so many people spend their lives in boring jobs without ever gaining distinction, the pipe dream of attaining celebrity status calls out to many of us.  When I was younger the promise of "money for nothing and your chicks for free" had a strong hold on me.  I wanted to be a rock star so I would not have to spend my life in a less exciting career.  Unlike some pipe dreamers today I spent hours a day practicing and writing music.  At some point though I realized that a lot of my reasons for playing music were misguided.  I still love to play my bass, but the desire for fame and fortune in this realm has left me.  I have more intesest in the visceral joy I get when playing with other musicians than I do in becoming a rock star.

What if everyone had this mentality?  What kind of world would we live in?  In a scene that takes place on December 21st 2012 a character in Grant Morrisson's The Invisibles describes the people in the streets to a friend.  "Drum machines in the trainers, man: No more popstars, no more fucking DJs, just kids dancing themselves deaf until dawn."  What if we lived in a world where everyone created art and we ceased to place pop stars on pedestals?  I think it would work out better for everyone, even would be pop stars.

I remember how we all lamented the passing of Michael Jackson.  The pressure placed on him to perform, first by his father, then by himself, caused him to mutate into a troubled individual.  His intense regimen caused him great deals of physical and emotional pain that he tried to ease with various medications.  Nobody should need to torture themselves for the amusement of others the way Michael did.

This kind of entertainment not only places a very heavy load on our entertainers, but it also makes us passive spectators.  As I mentioned in my last blog, this can disempower us.  Think how much more engaged we would feel if someone like Michael could not dance so perfectly, but the rest of us could dance a lot better.  Instead of standing in a crowd looking up at one person, we could all be part of the show.  We will probably have big bands that tour all over for some time, but think about a world where you could hear good live music almost anywhere.

Of course it would be hard to achieve this.  Most of us have those boring jobs I mentioned earlier and might not have the time and energy needed to perfect an art.  Perhaps we could create an economy that depended on the creation of art, instead of on making, selling, and marketing stuff we don't need and often harms us.  But I guess I'm dreaming again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Feudalism Today

I just finished reading A Storm of Swords, the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire (the basis for HBO's Game of Thrones), and it has me thinking a lot about feudal society and how we can see vestiges of it in the behavior of the average person.  Specifically, we can see it in the way people practically bend a knee for the rich and famous as if their lives have more value.  We also see it in the widening gap between the super-wealthy and everyone else which this attitude enables.  While I don't feel we could slide back into a system as unegalitarian as feudalism, I think we should heed these observations in order to stay on track.  Also I will admit that I'm using the term feudalism very broadly to describe a highly stratified society with laws and customs that support this status quo.

A comedian friend of mine (the incredibly funny Colin Kane) recently commented that people treat celebrities like royalty.  I have to agree.  For some time I have thought people pay too much attention to the lives of celebrities, to the point where some almost live vicariously through them.  This disempowers people, placing as much, or more, importance on the lives of others than on their own.  This too closely resembles the way peasants bowed to lords and kings in feudal times, giving their feelings and desires more credence than their own.  I know the words of Terence McKenna influenced me in this:

if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears...You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.
The type of media McKenna describes gives people a kind of pseudo-engagement in political/cultural matters by feeding them trivial gossip, but for the most part it keeps them ignorant of how things really work and thus out of the way.  So a peasant might know what goes on in the king's bed chambers, but they might have no idea how he runs the kingdom.  Just as today the average person knows all about Weiner's weiner, but has no idea how the filibuster works.  When we concentrate on drivel like this we become less like modern informed citizens and more like digital serfs in the global village.

The trend of privatizing formerly public enterprises also brings us closer to a system where only those who have money can afford things we now consider necessities (health care, education).  At the same time the masses get asked to support the extravagences of the rich by giving them tax cuts, fighting in their wars, and passing laws that favor people who make a living from owning property over those who produce things or work for a living.  The media pretend like all this could not happen any other way and frame public discussion accordingly.  Most people go along with this, at least partly, because they have succumbed to the distractions I mentioned above, instead of paying attention to important matters.

We have also seen an increase in executive power that too closely resembles the power kings once had.  The government can place someone in indefinite detention, so gitmo is our new castle dungeon. Michigan governor Rick Snyder recently passed a law that allows him to declare a "financial emergency" thereby allowing him to disincorporate entire municipalities, dismiss elected officials with no replacement election, seize control of local civil services, and hand tax payer money and services over to private industry.  This has already happened in two towns in Michigan where the governor has disbanded the elected government and appointed his own "emergency manager".  Like many things I have mentioned here, perhaps this is not exactly feudalism (fascism?), but it certainly is not democracy.

We might attribute this feudal attitude to the fact that our economic system has roots in the late middle ages as Douglas Rushkoff discusses in his book Life Inc. The aristocrats of the time felt threatened by the rise of the new merchant class. They did not want them becoming more wealthy and powerful, so they created central banking currency and the chartered corporation.  You can hear him elaborate on this in the following short video.  Both of these tools served to separate people from the value they created and let the aristocracy continue to profit from the work of others. 

We see similar trends today.  We see it in the move from smaller independently owned stores to big box corporate chains where people do the same work, but receive less money, benefits, and dignity.  Instead of someone owning their own business and having a close relationship with their employees, we have people who buy into franchises that have corporate policies the franchise owners have littler control over.  More and more we get people who can follow orders, but can't think creatively or even critically.  We get peasants and vassals who can do the work, but will not question the status quo.

But we do not need to bend the knee to this status quo.  We can refuse to become consumed by meaningless stories in the media and instead show more discretion with our attention.  We can become more vocal in our opposition to some of these disturbing developments.  We can support people and businesses working to create a better way.  Most importantly we must cry foul when we see absurdities and injustices packaged as truth.  No matter what so-called popular wisdom says, the emperor wears no clothes.