US Government and Others Trying to Block Access to Books

The US Justice Department is trying to stop Google creating a digital library.  It’s not just the government. Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon don’t like this either. I just don’t get it.

I mean, I get why the three companies are fighting it. Microsoft and Yahoo don’t like Google having such a large share of the internet marketplace, particularly in terms of searches and results. They want their billions of dollars, too. Amazon is doing e-books and other digital access – in fact, it has had almost a monopoly – and it doesn’t want to see its market share challenged. It seems the only people who want this deal are authors, publishers, the general public, and Google.

Google plans to scan thousands of books that are in the public domain and give everyone free access to them. Microsoft and Yahoo can do the same thing, if they so desire. The books are, after all, in the public domain.

Google has also struck a deal with the Authors Guild to scan millions of out-of-print books that are still under copyright. Authors and publishers will manage their own rights to access and can refuse to allow a book to be used. If they do allow a book to be used, they will receive 67% of revenue generated from it. The revenue they otherwise receive from out-of-print books? $0. £0. 100% of 0.

Every public library will get complete access for free. Every college and university will be able to subscribe to the  same service. Every home user will get free access to 20% of the text of each book, so they can decide whether to buy access to the rest.  These are in-copyright out-of-print books that would otherwise be completely inavailable.

What is Google going to do with the books that are in print? Absolutely nothing. The actual book market as it is today will be untouched. However, millions of books that would otherwise been unavailable will be available again. Not just the odd copy in a used book shop or off the shelves of a distant library.

As the Authors Guild puts it:

Here’s the math: we expect the settlement to make at least 10 million out-of-print books available, which, at an average of 300 pages per book, represents at least 3 billion pages of professionally written, professionally edited text.  20% of that is 600 million pages of text available at every desktop computer in the U.S. as a free preview. (For comparison, Encyclopedia Britannica is about 44,000 pages in print form; Wikipedia’s featured articles total about 5,000 pages. All English Wikipedia articles, including stubs, total perhaps 3 million pages.)

This is the next great step in the information age.

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Sneaky Piggy Profits

I have uncovered one of the underhanded tricks by a major corporation in the UK.

Since time immemorial, Marks and Spencer have sold Percy Pigs. For anyone outside the UK (as there would be no one inside the UK unfamiliar with Percy Pigs) they are a raspberry-flavoured gelatin-based, and yes, pig-shaped confectionery. In other words, they are small chewy pink sweets. They are delicious. Everyone likes Percy Pigs, proving the words of George Orwell that some pigs are more equal than others. Some people have been known to be almost addicted to them at times.

When I was in M&S recently I intended to purchase a bag of Pigs. I usually bought the largest size (400 grams), but recently had been in the habit of buying the medium size (200 grams) Percy Pigs together with a medium size bag of lemon-flavoured but identically shaped Penny Pigs.

I picked up a bag of Pigs and immediately noticed that it seemed lighter than usual. I thought perhaps it had been split open and some of the contents fallen out. No, further inspection confirmed that the bag was intact. I picked up another bag and it also felt unusually light. Then I saw something strange.

I saw a 7. I happened to glance in the direction of the lower left hand corner of the bag and there was a 7 next to a 0. It all became clear. There was not 200 grams of delectible pork-derived gelatin in the bag. There was 170 grams.  That woud be 15% less.

But wait, there was more. I looked at the price tag. Had M&S lowered the price to reflect the reduced quantity of pigs per package? No. Rather they had raised it. That’s right 200 grams of Pigs at £1.09 had become 170 grams of Pigs for £1.19. No announcement. No fanfare. No warning.

It’s because M&S is losing money so they have to tighten their belt, right? No. In May this year, they reported that their profits were up 20% over the previous year. They tucked £1.1 billion into the bank after paying their bills.

I will be calling M&S later today to get an explanation about this development.

Capitalism at Work

I’m an unrepentant capitalist. I think the spirit of capitalism is exhibited in Jeff Ferris and Dan Hilliard.

Hilliard owns and Ferris manages a restaurant in Owen Sound, Ontario. I’ve been to Owen Sound and it’s a lovely place. The restaurant is called Nathaniel’s. I’m not sure why it’s called Nathaniel’s since neither of them is named Nathaniel, but perhaps they thought it sounded more posh and sophisticated than “Jeff and Dan’s”. But they can call it what they like: that’s capitalism.

Jeff and Dan have standards. They want their waiting staff to look a certain way. Male employees cannot wear earrings. Female employees can’t shave their heads. Standards are standards. Customers have certain expectations.

If a female employee comes in with a shaved head, they lay her off and send her home for three months. That’s what they did to Stacey Fearnall. She shaved off her long red hair to raise money for a cancer charity. After all, her father died of cancer, her cousin has cancer, as does her best friend’s husband. She raised CN$2,700 for the shave.

When Stacey was told to leave Nathaniel’s, the press found out. Freedom of the press is a good thing. The local paper wrote it up. Then the big Toronto papers picked it up, as did the CBC. So did the Daily Telegraph here. And of course it hit the blogosphere. Now everyone knows that Jeff and Dan have standards.

And the great thing about capitalism is that just like Jeff and Dan have standards, so does the public. The dining out public. And captialism being what it is, the public has lots of choices of where to eat in Owen Sound. And they are not choosing Nathaniel’s.

Jeff and Dan are in for a long dry summer. That’s the great thing about capitalism.

No Tears for Media Giants

The Government here is under a lot of pressure from media companies to put a lot of pressure on ISPs to stop file sharing downloads. At the same time, the High Court ruled against a pub landlady who used a foreign service to show Premier League football, rather than BSkyB, which has the exclusive right to show the matches in the UK.

I think there is a difference between using a camcorder in a cinema to get the scoop on the release of a film and downloading a telelvision programme that has already been shown. It’s a bit like the pub landlady, only with no cost implications for the viewer. The programme has already gone to air. It doesn’t cost the end user anything wherever they watch it. If companies want to maximise profits from advertisers, they need to broadcast simultaeously worldwide, rather than go from country to country in a piecemeal fashion.

When it comes to music downloads, I think there is a question as to whether it is mass larceny or mass revolt against the fleecing of the record companies. The record companies are complaining that they face ever-declining profits.

However, back in January 2006, “Sony BMG reported net income of $178 million on sales of $1.49 billion for the three months ended December 31 [2005].” Then this month Bloomberg reported on the BMG half of that partnership:

Bertelsmann AG, Europe’s largest media company, plans to boost revenue by about 50 percent over the next eight years as it expands the Arvato services unit and in countries including China and India.

Sales will exceed 30 billion euros ($44 billion) by 2015, Chief Executive Officer Designate Hartmut Ostrowski said in Berlin today. That’s similar to the revenue Time Warner Inc., the world’s largest media company, posted last year. Bertelsmann will have as much as 7 billion euros to invest in the next four to five years, he said.

Doesn’t your heart just weep for them when somebody shares music? Read the rest of this entry »