Sticking up for books and paper

“To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Ray Bradbury (90) doesn’t explain why he doesn’t like the Internet, but I think I can make a good guess based on the “it’s in the air somewhere” remark.

Whenever anyone discusses the merits of books over digital literature, somebody always says something about how nothing can beat the feeling of a nice book: the paper, the ink, the smell of it, the weight of it, the warm, friendly feeling, etc. etc. Indeed, the emotional aspects of printed media usually seem to be the only argument presented in favour of them. Fans of dead tree media say that books and paper are emotionally better because they’re tactile and look nicer than [insert technology under discussion]. Bradbury’s attitude seems to be no exception.

While I don’t dismiss emotional attachment as being insignificant, it would be useful to list something else about books or paper that give them an advantage over digital media. Here are a few I can think of:

1. Paper (and to a lesser extent a book) fits a particular mode of use that digital media cannot yet fulfil: I can jot something down on paper, hand it to somebody who can then adjust that jotting if need be, and we can use it for high-level, fast communication. The recipient can then carry it around for a short while until its purpose is served, and then dispose of it. Similar use cases can be played out on walls with chalk or charred sticks, on sand, or on steamy windows.

2. Books and paper are robust within specific common parameters and don’t need a power source. Properly stored, a book can last thousands of years. I can also abuse a book in a variety of ways and it will still be fit for purpose. Burn it, however, or tear it into tiny pieces, and I better have another copy or all the information in it is lost forever.

3. Properly produced, books and paper can be far more environmentally friendly than digital media, or at least the hardware that delivers that media.

4. Er, that’s it. Every other property of books or paper I can think of are either disadvantages, or are matched by current digital media.

Any other suggestions for the objective advantages of books over digital media?

26 thoughts on “Sticking up for books and paper”

  1. Reading comfort: books still beat digital in bed, on the bog, on the beach.

    Risk: thieves prefer digital hardware.

  2. Having tried reading with the Sony Reader in bed and in bright sunlight, I prefer the Sony Reader over a book because you don’t have to look after the pages (eg in windy conditions) or keep your hand constantly fixed in a position that allows your fingers to keep the pages apart. These advantages are particularly useful in bed, where a Reader is better because it is generally lighter and lies flat, or allows you to prop it somewhere. And that’s assuming you don’t opt for speech-to-text, of course!

    I agree with the thieves advantage though, so that’s Advantage 4.

  3. Not sure if mentioned above but not many paper books I know use DRM either.

  4. Ha! Not sure if that was meant as an ironic quip or not, but I would say that all books have DRM in the sense that it’s damn hard to copy them without either introducing errors or degrading from the original in some way. In any case, DRM is not an integral feature of ebooks any more than a dust jacket is an integral feature of a book. Some have it, some don’t.

  5. I was thinking less around the degradation aspects rather the undermining of “permitted acts” that the law gives us. The law tells us what we can do with a book – however a licence or a TPM can make the law irrelevant. This is often not good for users who are being derived of their statutory rights by a TPM or contract law that over-rides copyright law.

    Another thing is books last better than e book readers – there is an exhibition of e book readers at the British Library at the moment. The readers are constantly failing – paper books are far more robust.

  6. I don’t disagree with your points about TPM as they stand, but I’m afraid they’re irrelevant here because DRM is not, as I’ve said, an integral property of ebooks. DRM is merely a feature they *can* have – there’s a big difference.

    As to longevity, I covered that in Advantage 2 (“Properly stored, a book can last thousands of years.”)

  7. Yes but surely this is about relatives. The fact is a proper book, I mean a paper book, *can’t* have a TPM, whereas ebooks can and do – Kindle for example.

  8. Relatively speaking, a book is naturally copy-protected almost to the extent that it has its own TPM. Photocopying and distributing a proper book is not going to be possible for most people. This is a fundamental point about copyright: it’s an industrial regulation, and not something that (until the Internet) has been a right that readers could exercise. Indeed, what’s even more restrictive about books is that even if they are in the public domain, they are still very hard to copy.

    All this of course assumes that the ability to copy is a good thing – which I think it is.

  9. Well we had photocopiers, and things called tapes, and video tapes which were possible for most people and people that I grew up with exercised their “rights” or as I now know often broke the law. Indeed this all led directly to our current copyright law that was largely the result of the dreaded photocopying machines ubiquity.

    I think they were a step change for their time, and what we now see is a step change and then some.

    Copying is fundamental to so many processes – education, art, access to material for the print disabled, news reporting etc.

    Once the law realises and catches up with digital copying, it then has to deal with the “remix” – which other than American systems of copyright law I think we are many many years from. If we ever do catch up I think the law of the jungle will rule – legitimate access to content will be the preserve of industry and the public sector who have to abide by the rules – consumers may have just given up entirely trying to do the right thing as use / reuse rights will have been lobbied out of existence.

  10. I don’t think I’d regard photocopiers as a step change. At least, they’ve been a ubiquitous technology for the best part of 30 years but I have yet to encounter a “pirate book” made with a photocopier. It’s just not a practical proposition for anything but extreme necessity (such as to provide course work books where not enough are available in universities). The same goes for pirate audio books on magnetic tape. Never encountered a single one.

    I think I agree with your prognosis on this though. There was a time when if you’d told me that copyright as we know it would be abolished in my lifetime I would have thought you were a loony. Now I’m not so sure.

  11. Going from laboriously copying by hand to being able to create a facsimile copy at the press of a button was a really significant step. It led to a flurry of legislation globally as people could actually copy in a meaningful sense.

    There is of course systematic photocopying of books all through developing countries – in Korea, Taiwan, China etc the photocopy shops are clustered around the university gates. One copy is bought, the whole class gets a photocopy.

  12. That’s the first I’ve heard of the systematic copying of entire books. I assume such copying has been going on for what, 20 years at least? What has been the impact on the publishing industry?

  13. It means that certain markets are effective no go zones for publishers, the industry pressurises embassies to lobby, WTO, WIPO etc to black list countries. It is seen as such a problem that the UK and US Publishers Associations have people who focus on infringement internationally exclusively. Apparently you can even buy photocopied books on the mean streets of Manhattan!

    Of course in part, as we can copy now in paper (and digitally) this is why the Publishing Industry currently is fighting an international instrument that would make all WIPO member states enact legislation meaning that the visually impaired could make a copy of something written if an appropriately formatted print copy was not available. Couldn’t make this stuff up could you?

    Going off piste of course it was the US government threatening to black list Sweden at the WTO that caused the Swedish government to act against the Pirate Party.

    N.B. Have you noticed my e-mail address appears above?

  14. No go zones, blacklisting, Manhattan streets? Really? I really can’t square this with my own experience though. I mean, we’re not talking about people photocopying and selling Harry Potter in Camden Market, are we?

    An admittedly rather slapdash googling of the subject seems to indicate that the problem is confined pretty much exclusively to academic coursework books where the cost of the originals is prohibitive. The AAP estimate that 20-30% of members’ revenue is lost to illegal copying (New Straits Times, Jan. 2004), which if similar figures regarding digital music are anything to go by, is probably about double the actual loss.

    I also see that in the UK at least, you have been able to copy books for purposes of research or private study, provided always that there is no multiple or substantial copying. Restrictions on commercial copying changed somewhat in 2003, but it appears that copies for research or private study still may be OK.

    What happens when you’re blacklisted?

    Oh, and no – your email does not appear unless you give it as your user name (which you may have done – I can try changing that for you).

  15. Harry Potter in Camden – no. But copies / translations in large parts of Asia (and Manhattan!) – yes. Of course pricing is a huge issue – I have been told that many scientific textbooks are cheaper in Asia than Africa. Why? Because India, for example, is seen as a viable market whereas Africa isn’t so they price competitively in Asia.

    Re blacklisting I don’t know – maybe it is the stigma of being on the list I would guess.

  16. I’m failing to turn up anything on this with Google. Can you provide some sources describing the extent of illegal photocopying and distribution/sale of non-academic books? Everything I can find relates to academic publications and on a semi-legal scale. While this is doubtless significant, the publishing industry hardly revolves around academia so I’m rather confused as to the extent of what you’re talking about here.

    As to pricing, there are lots of reasons why that differs per territory, but are you saying that the prevalence of piracy in Africa makes scientific books more expensive there than in India?

  17. That’s one of the places I looked earlier, but there’s not much there about book piracy outside of academic publishing (although I’ve emailed them for a list of the titles in a recent raid in Pakistan), and hardly any mention of photocopying. Most of the piracy seems to be organised operations of actual printing presses (using stolen banderols, etc.), which I would assume has been going on for decades before the advent of the photocopier (indeed, since Caxton – because that’s what copyright itself was suppose to address!).

    I still can’t uncover any significant evidence of the use of photocopiers for the counterfeiting of popular titles. Are you sure it’s not just a myth?

  18. I have a whole library of photocopied books from when I was a student in South Korea. The photocopy shops have reps who go into the university on a daily basis and collect the books to be photocopied – et voila a few days later the whole class has a copy. No myth.

  19. Sorry, I may not have been clear. When I said I can’t find significant evidence of the use of photocopiers for the counterfeiting of popular titles, I meant non-academic books – things like Harry Potter.

    The reason I ask is that I suspect the counterfeiting of academic books is simply a black market effect brought about by high prices. If so, that situation is as old as the printing press itself and is only affected by photocopying in terms of ease of production. There were of course other methods of copying books before photocopying such as stencil duplicators.

    Instead, what’s more interesting is whether popular titles are being copied by photocopiers as you suggest. That would mean people are far more willing to use photocopiers than I though, and that books may indeed be “free” in the original sense of not having TPMs.

    My assumption, however, is that the advent of photocopiers has done next to nothing in terms of damaging the non-academic publishing industry. That would make it consistent with every other copying technology to date, such as analogue tape and VCRs, neither of which threatened their respective industries – indeed quite the reverse.

  20. No idea – there are of course (you can Google) incidences of illegal translations of Harry Potter which are then “published” – whether by press or photocopier I don’t know – maybe you can ring the Chinese Embassy and ask?

  21. I think the longest was about 20 replies, but I’m not sure.

    I’ve not had any reply from Emma House at the Publishers’ Association about this, but I’ll mail her again. I would guess there is no chance at all of getting a reply from the Chinese Embassy on anything, let alone a question of book piracy.

    Meanwhile, I’m trying to uncover more on photocopiers and illegal publishing. So far, I can’t find any reports of a non-academic book having been photocopied and distributed. Things like illegal translations of Harry Potter all seem to be distributed digitally (with money made through Adsense or other advertising on the sites that distribute the works). But that’s obviously only going to have been done in the last 10 years or less.

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