More than 1,200 attendees packed into the main hall at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square for O'Reilly Media's fourth annual Tools of Change for Publishing conference to hear keynote presentations from the likes of Google counsel William Patry, Arianna Huffington, and Ingram's Skip Prichard, and to attend a dizzying arrangement of panels covering everything from the launch of Google Editions to augmented reality, and the on-going debate over digital piracy. Though launched four years ago in California, the last three TOCs have been in New York and, despite a profusion of local digital conferences, the TOC seems to have become a must-attend event for New York publishing's digital elite and digital wannabes.

The appearance of figures like Patry, a copyright scholar (author of the recent book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, published last year by Oxford) is one reason why. Although Patry quickly made it clear that he was not there to talk about the Google Book Settlement, he had much to say about copyright, digital piracy, and what he called “regulatory capitalism”—or the practice of “investing in lawyers rather than products and services.”

Patry is dubious about calls for stronger copyright or tougher penalties for digital pirates, such as those proposed by Macmillan president Brian Napack at Digital Book World. But Patry also used the launch of Macmillan's Dynamic Books, an interactive e-textbook platform offering cheaper e-textbooks that can be easily customized by teachers without permission, to illustrate the limits of copyright and the power of appealing to consumer interest. “It's consumers that give economic value; copyright can't force people to buy stuff,” said Patry, calling Dynamic Books “a really cool market solution” to the problems of piracy, high prices, and the used textbook market.

While Patry was not officially representing Google at TOC, Abe Murray, Google Books product manager, was, and he brought a standing-room-only crowd up to date on Google Editions, Google's much anticipated and much delayed, cloud-based “open e-book platform.” Google Editions could launch sometime in the second half of 2010 with as many as two million books for sale, allowing consumers to buy, access, and read e-books on any device directly from Google, or from the reseller of their choice. The program is based entirely on agreements with publishers (roughly 30,000 publishers have partnered with Google Books). Publishers can brand their books, Murray added, and eventually set up their own virtual bookstores. For resellers, the revenue split is 55% to Google, 45% to the reseller, and on direct sales, revenues are split 37% to Google and 63% to publishers—and Google will also support the newly popular agency model.

TOC offered everything from highly technical workshops to business case studies. And in a business-focused presentation, Sourcebook publisher Dominique Raccah made the point that CDs still represent 65% of music sales—“it takes 10 to 20 years for the old forms to disappear”—so publishers need to manage their old (print) business at the same time as their new digital business. Raccah focused on basing iPhone apps on Sourcebook's baby-name titles (the house has about 20); the apps became a profitable niche. Sourcebooks now has about 58 iPhone apps in development and spends $3,000 to $7,000 to develop each one.

No TOC would be complete without a peek (or a leap) into the future, and the Tuesday evening keynote conversation between O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly and futurist and technology visionary Ray Kurzweil provided that. While the conversation started with a down-to-earth presentation on a new e-book business venture—Kurzweil showed off Blio, the impressive e-reading software he's developed with Baker & Taylor—it quickly turned to virtual reality and the impending implantation of devices into our brains.

Kurzweil said the rate of technological innovation is speeding up “exponentially,” and noted that his iPhone is more powerful than the massive computers he used at MIT 40 years ago. He believes that e-books will dominate publishing by 2018 and that we'll be converting novels to virtual reality experiences much like we “translate books into movies” today. Despite new media criticism of big publishers, Kurzweil said, “publishers will still be needed to help artists get out into the world and make their name.”