A visit to the White House by members of the Association of American Publishers' board of directors to meet First Lady Laura Bush and a debate concerning the protection of copyrighted materials were the highlights of the association's annual meeting held February 27-28 in Washington, D.C.

Publishers who went to the White House said they were impressed by the First Lady's commitment to books and reading. In their meeting, the AAP board discussed ways that the Washington Book Festival, organized by the First Lady and set for September 21, could be turned into a national event. Ideas include encouraging retailers to promote the event, having the Center for the Book in different states establish events and getting a moratorium on sales tax on books for the day. Laura Bush also agreed to appear on the next "Get Caught Reading" poster.

When the formal part of the meeting began, Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner told the gathering that all companies in the "world of communications" faced a common enemy, digital piracy. Eisner said that while the tools are not yet available for pirates to create high-quality copies of e-books, the "technology will eventually be good enough" for book publishers to one day be faced with losing millions of dollars to illegal domestic pirating, a fate that has already befallen the music and film industries. E-publishing "can only thrive if safeguards are in place to protect copyright," Eisner advised.

Eisner charged that "technologists" have been dragging their feet in developing methods to block piracy, while they sell equipment that abets illegal copying. Eisner said that while he favors letting the private sector try to find a solution to illegal copying, the government may need to pass legislation to require technology companies to include copyright protection software in their products if the companies do not begin addressing the issue more aggressively. While technology has long played a key role in developing new markets for the distribution of content, technology cannot be allowed to undermine the secure delivery of legally protected works, Eisner said. "Pirates are parasites," he concluded.

Later in the afternoon, Bruce Chizen, president of Adobe, said he "was one of the technologists" that Eisner had been referring to in his lunchtime address. Chizen agreed with Eisner that a remedy to piracy should be left to the private sector, but denied that technology companies have been intentionally slowing their efforts to solve the problem. Finding a solution that won't also slow down the creative process is a "challenging and complex" task, Chizen said.

Chizen pointed out that copyright is also an issue for software manufacturers, estimating that Adobe lost as much as $700 million from the illegal copying of software programs. Until an answer is found, Chizen advocates stricter enforcement of existing copyright laws and intensified efforts to educate the public that copying materials is illegal.

In other remarks, Chizen acknowledged that Adobe "may have spent too much money on e-books," explaining that the company thought good dedicated reading devices would be ready sooner than has been the case. He estimated good reading devices were still two to three years away. While the development of dedicated reading devices has been disappointing, alternative platforms, particularly PDAs, are improving the quality of the reading experience at a rapid pace, Chizen said, and he remains optimistic about the long-term prospects for e-books.

Axis of Evil

Hyperion president and AAP chairman Bob Miller opened the association's business meeting by identifying the industry's "axis of evil" as "piracy, postal rates and illiteracy." AAP president Pat Schroeder said that among the initiatives the association is implementing to combat those problems is to increase funding to fight both digital and international piracy. The fight against foreign pirates will focus on South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong/China.

The balance of the program at the February 27-28 meeting was a bit light on substance and suffered from some bad luck. "More show than tell," one attendee commented. Scheduled dinner speaker Jean-Marie Messier, chairman of Vivendi, canceled a few days before the event. House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi managed only brief remarks before she was called back to the House for a vote, and Ann Curry, one of two women from the Today Show who received AAP awards for promoting books, was stuck on a plane and didn't make it to Washington until after the medals had been presented.

Among the other speakers, Georgia Senator Max Cleland and author William Bennett both spoke about the importance of books in their lives. Author Scott Turow, who is one of the members of an Illinois commission reviewing that state's death penalty procedures, discussed how his views on the subject have evolved over the years.