Five things the USA can do to help e-books stimulate the economy
Nobody does media like the USA.
Yes, Bollywood releases more movies every year. Yes, a lot of our TV shows are based on British shows.
But American media is a huge economic force worldwide.
It’s even bootlegged where governments try to keep it out.
Books are part of that…and we are leading the way in e-books, the publishing of the future (and increasingly, of the present).
There are challengers in other countries…but we should make sure we seize this opportunity.
What steps can the US take to encourage the growth of this industry and American dominance?
1. Establish orphan book legislation
Right now, the market is hungry for content…and becoming more so, in my opinion.
Books that are in the public domain are getting converted, but those are often made available for free. That’s not a big plus for the economy, although it can help sell EBRs (E-Book Readers). People can make money from public domain books, because they can be released with DRM (Digital Right Management).
The engine, though, is fueled by books that are under copyright. When paperbook rights are being negotiated now, you can bet that e-book rights are part of it.
The issue is books that are still under copyright…but with whom there is no one to negotiate. If a book hasn’t fallen into the public domain, you currently can’t publish it without getting permission from the rightsholder.
But what if you can’t contact the rightsholder? What if the book was published in 1950 and the author has died with no estate?
“Orphan book” legislation would allow a publisher which has done due diligence to try to find someone to publish a book (if it isn’t already in the market) to do so and make a profit from it. They’d have to pay royalties to somebody who showed up and proved a claim.
It might surprise some of you that I would support that…I didn’t support the Google settlement as originally constructed.
This is something that could be done fairly and get a lot more books into the market.
2. Establish that it is okay to digitize books that you bought for your own use…and encourage development of scanning technology
Right now, many people assume it is okay to scan a book you own in paper and digitize it. There isn’t anything that says that, although it seems reasonable. Why would that help? Wouldn’t that cut down on sales?
It would make sales for those machines! VCRs were a big deal, and other recording devices have been (like Tivo).
It would have to be much easier than it is now. You’d have to be able to stick a paperbook in there and have it end up with a searchable file…without destroying the paperbook. We’re not close to that as this point.
Developing the machines would also have them used by people digitizing books to sell them…the process of digitizing is probably holding up quite a few backlist books. An author who owns the rights to a book she or he wrote, and doesn’t have an electronic copy, would be a serious market.
3. Prohibit blocking text-to-speech access
This almost happened this year, but it sounds like the presentation just wasn’t well done. The precedent is there: the Copyright Office already requires that one version of every e-book have “read aloud”.
Why would this matter?
Text-to-speech opens the market for those people with print challenges that do not reach the legal level of a disability. There are a lot of those people! It also means that people with print disabilities who are now waiting and getting a book free will choose to pay for it.
I wouldn’t require that publishers provide it…just that they don’t block it when someone else provides it (which is the case with the Kindle).
Would this cut into audiobook sales, making a net loss?
I doubt it. Even if it did, I think the market provided by text-to-speech would be greater than the audiobook sales it would reduce. I’m just guessing on that, but I’m pretty confident.
4. End the Agency Model
Competition is good for business, good for sales. I don’t think eliminating price competition amongst the former rivals is good. It takes a lot of the spark out of it. While discounting reduces profit margins, it creates excitement and sales. I know the argument can be made that having the Wii cost the same everywhere hasn’t hurt it. However, this is content…that’s a different story. I don’t mind publishers selling on their own…I don’t mind them having sales agents. I just don’t like them compelling all of the major sellers to be sales agents.
5. Straighten out copyright
There are a number of things to be done here. We need to get more backlist books available. One thing that holds that up is that we don’t have an online database we can search to see if a book is in the public domain or not. We have an incomplete one, but we need them all. The records exist, they just need to get online.
We need to simplify the current copyright laws. Get rid of the requirements for books prior to 1978 to have had the right copyright statement and to have been renewed. Go ahead and grandfather editions that are already out there. It’s ridiculous that Night of the Living Dead fell into the public domain because they put the copyright notice on the title screen, and then the distributor changed the name and they lost the copyright. If you’ve already put out a book that was in the public domain at the time, fine. But if you want to do it after the law is changed, you have to pay.
Work on standardizing international copyright. It’s time for another international agreement on it. I don’t like the “Life Plus” scheme, because it makes it too hard to figure out whether a book is in copyright or not. At the least, require that the Copyright Office be able to tell us when a given book will fall into the public domain.
I’d consider extending copyright terms, making them longer. That’s a hot potato, though…even though it’s been done several times already. Since keeping an electronic book “in print” costs very little…so a license could more easily be used for a longer time. For more thoughts on that, see this earlier post.
There are five ideas for you, USA. One thing you may notice I didn’t say: start or increase collecting sales tax on them. In California, e-books delivered electronically aren’t sales taxed (at least, I know they weren’t last year).
However, e-books already generate taxes in California. Author’s royalties are taxed. Publishers’ and retailers’ profits are taxed. You don’t have to add sales taxes to make money from e-book sales.
What do you think? Would ending the Agency Model be a mistake, since it’s raised the prices of bestselling e-books…and they’ve still done phenomenally well? Is not allowing the blocking of text-to-speech unreasonable…and would it affect so few people it doesn’t matter? Would more free e-books sell more EBRs…meaning that copyright terms should be shorter, not longer? Is orphan book legislation unfair to copyright holders? Feel free to let me know what you think.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.