Whatever else can be said about Tools of Change, O’Reilly Media’s traveling road show on publishing and technological change, it seems to come along just when a concentrated dose of discussion—or perhaps muted confrontation—is needed. Over the course of the three-day conference in New York City, February 13–15, there were timely presentations on libraries and e-books, the bewildering evolution of copyright in the digital era and the related role of digital piracy—not to mention a parade of authors, whose books and entertaining presentations served to illuminate some of the most contentious issues in media and business culture.
That was certainly the case for issues around libraries as both Library Journal’s Barbara Genco and a panel of library experts, in separate presentations, tried to make the case for library e-book lending and respond to the recent controversy around Penguin’s severing its ties with library vendor OverDrive. Genco came loaded with data on libraries ($983 million spent on books and $72 million on e-books) and the voracious media consumption of library patrons, making libraries, she said, “proven marketing engines for content.” “The Library Alternative” panel featured both PW senior editor Andrew Albanese and PW library blogger Peter Brantley and tried to frame the library e-book situation in terms of both a carrot—Albanese said publishers are reluctant to sell e-books to libraries until they get a better handle on fast moving digital developments—as well as a big stick—Brantley mentioned “class action lawsuits” and noted a public that’s “unsympathetic to foreign-owned media conglomerates.”
Copyright scholar William Patry, author of How to Fix Copyright, returned to TOC to continue a discussion on copyright in the digital era he began at TOC 2010. (See next week’s PW for more.) Long dubious of businesses investing in copyright lawyers rather than products, Patry emphasized again that “the law is never a solution to business problems,” in a panel called “Can We Have a Rational Discussion About Copyright?” Patry’s remarks offered some insights into a presentation made by Joe Karaganis of the American Assembly at Columbia University, a public policy forum, that we’re entering an altogether different era of digital copying. Karaganis outlined what seems to be an approaching copying apocalypse, an era of pervasive and systematic unauthorized digital copying that will require far more coordination to address than “the polarized positions of anti-SOPA or pro-enforcement.”
In his presentation called “Copy Cultures,” Karaganis described an IP landscape threatened by a combination of high-priced content, low local incomes, and the proliferation of cheap digital devices that make copying ever easier. This “new digital copying” is creating massive digital “shadow libraries” that are being aggregated by an unusual combination of students, faculty, institutions, and others—anyone needing cheap access to necessary digital content. He described this parallel aggregation as an unsanctioned but relentless “democratization of access” to knowledge and content that will only grow and inevitably compete with—and ultimately disrupt—both conventional digital pirates, and legitimate academic institutions and commercial content marketplaces. And he’s not talking about the conventional Third World, but the low-income economies of Eastern Europe, societies that are fully integrated into the Western economic infrastructure.
Yet, Karaganis said, there’s been little or no expansion of “affordability and legal access” to digital content—only more calls for enforcement at a time when the public shows virtually no support for draconian penalties for infringers and despite the “rampant futility” of copyright enforcement. He pointed to an effort called the Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest, which he described as a “collective and consensual” effort to create sensible public policy on IP/copyright that is “fair to creators and to the public.” Check it out at InfoJustice.org/Washington-Declaration.
But it was also the parade of tech-smart authors across the TOC stage that really highlighted the conference’s ability to roll technological change, social insight and fresh business thinking into an entertaining package that can keep you attentive after a long day. Eric Ries, former software developer and author of The Lean Startup, praised his traditional publisher, Crown, while lampooning traditional publishing practices—all the while checking his Amazon ranking on stage. Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, called for the launch of a “Whole News Movement,” offering a theory that linked American media consumption to food. Americans gorge themselves on empty calories because “pizza tastes better than broccoli,” at the same time we bloat ourselves on super-partisan media outlets because “opinions taste better than news.” And Baratunde Thurston, comedian, director of digital at the Onion, and author of How to Be Black, a very funny book that’s also a memoir of growing up in Washington, D.C., summed up his own efforts at marketing the book. “The marketing was very simple,” he said, switching to a wacky slide with his “marketing” slogan, “If you don’t buy this book, you’re a racist.” He added, “Eric talked about science, numbers, testing? I just accused people of being racist—and it worked! We’re a New York Times bestseller.”