There’s a lot of talk about whether e-books will be able to mimic the physical qualities of p-books, but often this talk focuses on the “feel” of books. People like to rifle through pages, smell the paper, make notes in the margins, et cetera.
A p-book does not just act as a container of a book, but also as a preservation device. And it does this against heavy odds. Modern, “acid” paper deteriorates quickly, but it is still possible to preserve books printed on such paper for a long time—hundreds of years in some cases.
In theory, e-books can last much longer than that. By abstracting from a physical carrier, books no longer need to be threatened by the weaknesses of that layer. But there are other threats to e-books that are much more insidious.
Threat Level Severe
One of those is the threat of format deterioration, and the politics behind choosing formats. Whether books were stored as word processor files in the 1980s or as XML applications in the 2000s, these formats will die, they will die sooner than you think (if they haven’t already), and in hindsight they won’t be as well-documented as you had hoped. Having access to the bits is not enough; you will still need to be able to understand them.
Of course, you should be so lucky to have access to the bits. The introduction of DRM makes it harder and harder for you to access the files you bought, let alone preserve them for a long time. And if you tried to liberate a book from its DRM, you’d be breaking the law. What’s more, with DRM the publisher can prescribe the uses you are allowed to make of works, so that DRM laws effectively give publishers the right to write their own copyright law.
Accessibility and archiving are at odds with each other. The more you give people access to fragile manuscripts, the more you run the risk of losing these manuscripts through handling. Luckily, the reverse is true with digital manuscripts. The more copies exist of digital texts, the better its chances of survival. Unfortunately, having been thrust in the role of gatekeepers has allowed the darker side of some archivists to surface.
In the late 1990s the Bridgeman Art Library, a company that markets reproductions of art for museums and archives, sued Corel for distributing its reproductions of public domain works without permission. This was much to the dismay of the people in the industry, who saw what was coming and tried to persuade Bridgeman to stop the case. Somebody at the American Association of Museums wrote—though careful to disclaim this as their official position: “In September, we learned that the oral arguments had gone so badly for Bridgeman that the judge stated he was inclined to rule in favor for Corel on the spot. We tried, to no avail, to convince Bridgeman to withdraw from the suit before the expected harmful opinion could be issued. As it turns, Art Resource (whose business includes licensing of reproductions), also tried to talk Bridgeman into dropping the case.”
The “harmful” opinion came, as expected. The court ruled that exact reproductions of public domain works are themselves in the public domain. They lack the originality—a legal term meaning that selection according to taste and experience were involved in creating a work, and not just “sweat of the brow”—that has to have gone into creating a work for it to be copyrighted, and Bridgeman v. Corel is now considered somewhat of a landmark case in the IP world. There’s a lesson though that may get lost in all the legal noise: archivists failed to keep the public away from what it owns.
And so it would appear that leaving archiving to the specialists is not always a good idea, especially not if you want access to what has been archived. Would anybody seriously defend the position that archiving digitally born works can be useful if the members of the public only have restricted access to those works, the way they have access to works in a museum?
Why is this bad?
If you keep your favourite childhood p-book around, there is a good chance that one day you can pass it on to your children. And if they like the book, and keep it, they can give it to their children. No such thing with DRM-ed e-books: you should be lucky if you can still read your e-books five years from now.
This need not be a problem for the casual reader, who may not even want to read a book more than once, but it is a preservation nightmare. Copyright law states that books will one day return to the public domain. One might even condense the meaning of copyright to “ensuring that works enter the public domain”. Unfortunately, with the introduction of the Berne Convention in the late 19th century, copyright law has started to concern itself less and less with how works will make it back to the public domain. And since copyright lasts at least fifty years in most of the world, at the time a book should make it back to the public domain there will be hardly any stakeholders left around to ensure it does, or to protest if it does not.
The e-book apostle may choose to regard the p-book as quaint and over the hill. But in a few years from now, that e-book you’re reading now may only have survived in printed form.
There is one simple solution to all these problems: the complete abandonment of copyright law. In the past decades, copyrights have become ever stricter, lasting for ever longer periods of time, and covering ever more modes of expression. All the problems I have outlined before would be far less stringent if copyright were less far-reaching.
The political will for such a radical overturning of copyright law is lacking though. Another legal option would be to create ever more laws on top of laws. Laws that outlaw copyfraud. Laws that force publishers to put digital works in escrow. Laws that prescribe the methods in which digital works should be stored.
Writing such laws is an incredibly difficult job. Scientists are currently looking for ways to battle senescence. In my life-time I will experience the emergence of a branch of medicine that may allow people to reach ages of over 150. Some copyrights already last for hundreds of years, but in a short time that will be the rule rather than the exception. And if we wish to rescue the public domain, instead of letting it turn into a mockery, our law makers will have to write preservation laws unlike any other laws, that themselves should last centuries.
Even then, the deterioration of digitally born works has begun outside the realm of literature. Computer games that were programmed less than twenty years ago have disappeared forever, simply because the mediums they were sold on (floppy disks, cassettes, tapes) were never meant to last long.
At least for books we still have p-versions to hang on to … for now. Even the p-books printed using the cheapest paper and ink will still serve us better in a hundred years than a lot of their e-brethern will twenty years from now.