Once upon a time there was a writer who was solitary at his desk. All his life had been dedicated to books. From dawn to twilight, his pen was chasing the right word, the definitive sentence. Days were passing by. Each new day was a step towards his Magnus Opus. Was he happy? Nobody knew, not even himself. Were King Arthur and his knights happy? They knew about one thing only: The Holy Grail was what their lives were all about. There was no place for sorrow or happiness. Pain for sure. Our writer believed in what they believed: Lonely perspiration will get you there, to your Magnus Opus. His publisher shared the same faith although, from times to times, he doubted the Magnus Opus would ever see the public light. The Magnus Opus seemed like a never ending story. No publisher, even the shrewdest, knew how not to lose money on a never ending Magnus Opus copyright.
Sometimes the publisher would hear some silly stories about books that were written online, crowdsourced, the product of multiple anonymous pens. How can it be? By what stretch of imagination could books end up as a collective knowledge factory, always at work, where you cannot distinguish between writers and readers. Why would the Magnus Opus be exposed to all eyes, to all brains while it should have been kept as a genuine secret until publishing time?
Are books dead? Should the writer give up his cherished solitary desk and strive for something else?
No, books are not dead. They are different. Why? Because we are different too. The Magnus Opus is not dead either: It will become even "more Magnus" simply because we are more and as a crowd we are able to transform perspiration into inspiration.
No, we won't pretend that each of us is a good as the solitary writer at his desk, only that we can make him or her even better should he or she and his or her publisher accept us in his or her writing cabinet.
Writing and publishing should not remain solitary exercises. Otherwise they'll become a dry land of failed and lost opportunities, the opportunities many of us were willing to share thanks to the many digital tools our voices can embrace.
Life is not perspiration or inspiration, solitary or collaborative, closed or open, all rights reserved or no rights reserved. It is all of this. And, in all of this, books, writers and publishers have a bright future, the future of our collective collaborative wisdom.
I have just discovered a genuine "digital" treasure island.. This is the site entitled Scientific Commons . The site is still in beta but does already contain true pearls.
Scientific Commons is reminiscent of the famous "tragedy of commons". This tragedy refers to pastures that were left available for free to farmers. They could leave their cattle there. Guess what happened. Since nobody had a property right on the pastures, nobody cared to maintain them properly. The cattle exhausted them. It died and farmers ended up starving.
"The major aim of the project is to develop the worlds largest
communication medium for scientific knowledge products which is freely
accessible to the public. A key challenge of the project is to support
the rapidly growing number of movements and archives who admit the free
distribution and access to scientific knowledge. These are the valuable
sources for the ScientificCommons.org project. The
ScientificCommons.org project makes it possible to access the largely
distributed sources with their vast amount of scientific publications
via just one common interface. ScientificCommons.org identifies authors
from all archives and makes their social and professional relationships
transparent and visible to anyone across disciplinary, institutional
and technological boundaries. Currently ScientificCommons.org has
indexed about 10 million scientific publications and successfully
extracted 4 million authors out of this data."
I urge you to go hunting. I did find Robert C. Merton 's PhD dissertation at MIT. I am sure PhD students will give Scientific Commons a high five!
The Paris Book Fair opens next friday. This year is somehow The Year. Indeed, they have set up a digital village. So far media has been concentrating on music, movies, TV and the digital challenges they are facing. As if books were less sexy! Well, we think they are sexy and we are grateful to our growing community of users who thinks the same way!
I am currently reading (yes, I confess Gutenberg format, hat tip Mr Gutenberg!) Larry Lessig's The Future of Ideas, a book that could be Cyberlibris's bible. I like the way Lessig looks at the law and the lawyers:
"The law, through "property", can be used by the kings of yesterday to protect themselves against the kings of tomorrow, and we - especially we lawyers - should be defending tomorrow against yesterday."
Indeed, more often than not lawyers get huge fees to make sure that the present vetoes the future. As always the confusion comes from that, as a common saying as it, the future is already there, it is just that it is not evenly distributed yet.
In earlier posts on this blog I have tried to share our love for the future, especially the future of books. Our intention has never been to defeat Mr Gutenberg. We have too much respect for an invention that has contributed so much to the progress of mankind. On the contrary all our inspiration comes from Gutenberg, bookstores, libraries and above all readers. We mix all this with technology, economics, law, intuition and a lot of listening and hard work of course.
We'll be at the Paris Book Fair of course, preaching the gospel: Yes, books are sexy! Yes, they do have a shining digital future. We are proud to be part of those who are believing in it and sticking their necks out!
The copyright landscape is far from being peaceful these days. In earlier posts on this blog I have tried to shed some light on copyright in the digital age. Here is more by Knowledge@Wharton: Will Online Publishing Flap Rewrite Copyright Law?
The point the Wharton experts are making is that neither side (namely publishers and Google) gets it right. Publishers are right in that Google has indeed violated current copyright rules. However the end result of the pending court case may be a thorough revision of the copyright notion to make it more suited to the digital age and to needs of end users (us for that matter).
But the train may not stop here. I like the perspective taken by Wharton School Professor Daniel Raff: "What's at stake for book publishers could be the economics underpinning the industry for the last 150 years". Indeed, the copyright debate is only the tip of the iceberg.
Worse, the iceberg is melting at a fast pace: It does not resist this radical business climate change. So the question is: Shall we struggle against digital warming (which is what the forthcoming court cases are all about) or shall we get our acts together and listen to what people really want (and not what publishers or Google want)? If you are a reader of this blog, you know my answer!
I heard on the radio the other day that Swiss students went on strike to ask for more scholarships and less student loans. It sounds quite obvious that they would rather go for zero interest rate funding rather than for a loan with a strictly positive interest rate. Indeed, a scholarship is nothing but a fully subsidized loan. Hence what the Swiss students have been advocating is a zero cost funding topped by the right not to repay the principal of the loan. Well, I assume many of us would indeed love to be able to receive free money to fund the assets we want to invest in whatever these assets are.
What strikes me is that (far too) many people seem to think that we live in an "All or Nothing" society. Either you get what you want in full (zero cost funding for that matter) or you get nothing (namely a loan with an interest rate). But wait a minute, where has their creativity gone? Human brain is admirable precisely because it has always been able to fill the void between all and nothing. Let's take the example of the student loan again. It does not have to be zero rate or fixed rate. What if it were something where the loan installments would be indexed on some earnings measurement. When earnings would go down, installments would go down too precisely when you need it badly. When earnings would go north, installments would go north too precisely when you can afford it.
I know there are many contractual details to be fixed (may explain why the folks at My Rich Uncle don't offer the scheme anymore (?)). But the spirit is there: Use your brain to fill the void.
Last week-end, we went visiting antic shops and I was able to buy a vintage textbook dated 1900. The textbook is entitled "Textbook of Commercial Sciences" and has been written by Professor Merten of the University of Ghent. Very interesting book (we should have some of these wonderful vintage textbooks in Cyberlibris) where you can feel the author's passion for pedagogy.
Two things in particular have caught my eyes. The first one is related to the way the reader can authenticate whether he is reading a true copy or a faked one. Simple, each true copy has to carry the author's signature. The absence of the signature indicated that the copy is fake. It begs the question however of how you know the authors' true signature in the first place and how you can be sure it has not been counterfeited.
The second thing has to do with copyright and copyright enforcement. We all know the traditional formula. It usually says "All Rights Reserved".
Well here the text is rather different. It is a lot more personal. Indeed, the publisher says quite openly:
"All rights are reserved in accordance with the law. I am willing to sue anyone who would, in violation of my copyright, reproduce any theory or proof from this book, either from past editions or from the current one." The Publisher.
One cannot be clearer! Somehow I find it more "romantic" than the rather dry "All Rights Reserved".
What strikes me is that here again we are stuck in an "all or nothing" situation. Either the book is copyrighted (all) or the book is public domain (nothing: No Rights Reserved).
This is sad! What about having something that would say "Some Rights Reserved" I know that Lawrence Lessig and the folks at Creative Commons are fighting big time for this. The simple fact that they have to fight for it is again a strong evidence of the pervasiveness of the "All or Nothing" society. By the way the book by the way is an interesting creature as it blends in one entity the hardware and the software, the container and the content. Gutenberg was smart indeed!
But this obvious fact has odd consequences that we know quite well at Cyberlibris. Publishers often say that their business is to sell books. Not true! Their business is to sell content. This begs then the question of what is the best "container" to sell the said content. Sometimes Gutenberg is the winning option. Sometimes not. Again it is not all (Gutenberg) or nothing. Digital for that matter may win and that's how we make our living at Cyberlibris (not any kind of digital though: Digital without a clean and proper business model is doomed to failure).
The "All or Nothing" society is a real plague and the last thing we should do is surrender to it, an insult to our brain indeed. Next time you see or feel "All" or its mate "Nothing", watch and listen carefully there might be room for a new business. Your business!