New guidelines for public domain content

New guidelines for public domain content

One of the concerns people had about the Kindle store in the past was that there were multiple identical editions of public domain (those no longer under copyright) titles in the Kindle store.

Amazon’s answer to that at one point was to ban independent publishers (indies) using its KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing…formerly the DTP, Digital Text Platform) from publishing them.

They changed their minds on that, and said public domain was okay…but you could only get a 35% royalty, not be part of the 70% royalty program.

So, today, I was doing some work with a non-profit (I’m on the Advisory Board).  I was putting a book in the Kindle store for them, and I indicated it was a public domain book.

They had new guidelines (and I’m paraphrasing here):

  • It should be a unique translation (which creates a new copyright anyway)
  • It should ten or more original illustrations
  • It should have significant original annotation, such as a detailed historical context, footnotes, and so on

At this point, this edition doesn’t have any of those. 

Somebody, it might be me, will write a detailed historical context for it…that makes sense in the role of the organization.

I do think this is a good decision on Amazon’s part. 

I never thought it was a good idea to keep public domain titles out of the store.  After all, those are some of my favorite things to read.

Public domain doesn’t automatically mean free, nor should it. 

Let’s say I digitize a public domain work. There’s quite a bit of effort involved in that…or at least, there should be.  You have to scan it (or re-type it or use something like Dragon to read it aloud), but you also have to proof-read and potentially format it.

Even after you’ve digitized it, you don’t own the rights to it unless you add content (such as the content Amazon suggests).  However, you can still profit from it.  You can release the book with Digital Rights Management (DRM)…Amazon gives you the choice to do that or not.  If you do, it will inhibit (but not prevent) others from just reproducing the same text and competing with you after you did the digitization work. 

In the case of the new Amazon guideline, they’d actually have to do some…yuck…work 😉 before selling it in the Kindle store. 

This decision means that you can have public domain works to read and yet, you won’t have to choose between duplicate editions (unless they are published by traditional publishers…but they usually don’t do versions without something that makes them unique, I believe).

Any opinion on Amazon’s new policy?  Or did I scare you off by suggesting DRM might be useful?  😉  Feel free to let me know.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

6 Responses to “New guidelines for public domain content”

  1. draegi Says:

    This is great! I keep seeing public domain books for sale, and to be honest I’m against it. Sometimes there are new editions or translations, but often they look like they’ve just been lifted from the internet archive or gutenberg. I have digitilised a couple of books and although I’d of course love to be paid, I value the freedom of knowledge for everyone more than any greedy motive: I’d love to see “my” books read by adults with only a passing knowledge, children with no money and even students who would rather spend money on booze… Plus of course, the author put far more effort into their book than I did, so it seems wrong to profit. Hopefully this will also drive up the quality of the books on the kindle marketplace… We don’t need 236 versions of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes!

    But being scared of people stealing the credit for your work is still no excuse for DRM! Not so long as you remember the old “mapmaker’s-signature” technique…

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, draegi!

      It’s not about being scared of not getting credit…it’s about diluting the market.

      It’s wonderful that you want to (and can afford the time and effort) to digitize books to be given away. I’ve done that myself in my work with a non-profit.

      However, I believe that there are books that may be lost to the public if people do not digitize them. I have some items which I would guess are quite rare. It would be great to have the time to digitize them…but it’s hard to justify it on a purely volunteer basis.

      It would make a difference in terms of priorities if I could make some money for the considerable work I would put into digitizing them. It takes many hours to scan and then proof-read a book, as you probably know. I honestly wouldn’t assign the term “greed” to the desire to have recompense for that work.

      I do understand what you mean about people simply lifting someone else’s work (such as that done by Project Gutenberg volunteers) and putting it in the Kindle store with no alteration just in hopes of making a few bucks.

      While Project Gutenberg elects not to control the use of the work (unless one credits Gutenberg…in which case they have different requirements), I believe that’s not the only possible model here.

      Here’s the scenario with and without DRM (Digital Rights Management).

      The first part is the same.

      Someone buys a book at a garage sale. They research the book’s copyright status, and find that is in the public domain.

      They scan the book, and then proof-read it against the original, making necessary corrections to the output from the OCR.

      They format the book, putting in an Active Table of Contents, chapter marks, and so on. They don’t add material in this scenario, but I’m just showing the work that they might put into it.

      Without Digital Rights Management

      The book is published in the Kindle store at ninety-nine cents (this is under the old system). The book is immediately reproduced by other people, and a hundred versions show up in the Kindle store and on other sites. The prices range from ninety-nine cents to $9.99. While the original digitizer does allow some places to distribute it for free, it’s hard for people to find, since there are so many versions out there. The original digitizer doesn’t see much money for it…and it’s hard to justify to the family taking the time and effort to do another one.

      With Digital Rights Management

      The book is published in the Kindle store at ninety-nine cents. While it is possible for someone to strip the DRM, it’s much harder. The digitizer makes a couple of hundred dollars, and the book is available to people when otherwise it wouldn’t be. The digitizer also makes it available for free for educational purposes…since there’s one place to get it, the educational institutions can find how to contact the person…they don’t pay $9.99 to another source unnecessarily.

      The digitizer goes on to digitize other books.

      Credit, in terms of being recognized for the work, may not be the issue at all. I can see a digitizer releasing a work with a publisher’s name, but no credit being taken in the book file.

      I know I’ve idealized the situations in the above scenarios, but I think they are reasonably illustrative. One could imagine an evil digitizer, I suppose, who kept the piece too controlled and the price too high. In that situation, I think it is likely that someone else would digitize it. If there is a reasonably-priced version reasonably available, I think there would be less motivation to duplicate the effort.

      Amazon’s new policy will add another barrier to mass, potentially shoddy and controlling duplicative versions. A new introduction (or illustrations) will get a new copyright. However, with no DRM, it would be a simple matter to remove the new material…and it would be legal to then reproduce the original material. Stripping the DRM in that situation would be illegal (generally), since the new material puts the work under the protection of the Copyright Office. In the case of a digitized work without new material, I think stripping the DRM may not be illegal.

      DRM can and has been misused, in my opinion, when it is used to prevent non-infringing activities. However, this is a place where I think it would benefit the public, by making it more likely that works become available.

      • draegi Says:

        I do definitely see that a lot more books will be digitilised when people can get some money for the time they spend on them, and when it’s individuals doing all the work, in that situation I can see DRM and a price tag is only fair. Also, there are a LOT of books out there, some of which are very rare.

        On the other hand, I am optimistic they will all be digitilised eventually! The Google OCR team not to mention many, many Archives and Libraries are digitilising books at a prodigious rate. The Internet Archive accepts donations, and although at present it only hires volunteers, I think in the future “digitiliser” will become a career path. It has already reached the point where I am disappointed if any public domain primary OR secondary texts can’t be found online within about 10 minutes of searching for my uni course, and it’s only getting better. Yes, it’s a really important job, preserving texts for the future, and I would love to see people paid for their amazing (I might even say historical) work, but in my opinion, making the consumer pay is not the way forwards…

        I’ll paint a scenario for you – someone trying to read the declaration of human rights, or the geneva convention, or the american constitution. They left school long ago and so can’t get hold of them for free. – They certainly aren’t doing any research either, they just have a strange, never-felt-before urge to find out about something for themselves, from the original source. But this person finds their source blocked with a 50p download. Admittedly that’s a tiny price for an adult, but any price is quite likely to put readers off, especially for the underprivileged, who these documents were originally written to help. The library system was long ago shut down because everyone uses the internet (“google it, man”). What does this person do?

        The answer is probably nothing at all. It’s ok if you have a job, if you don’t need to grudge a few cents, but when you do, your money is likely to be spent only on more tangible things. And I’d say this state, not necessarily poverty, just needing to watch what you spend, is far more common than you might think.

        I’ve said it before when we’ve talked about public domain, but in my opinion, any barrier on knowledge makes the world a smaller place.

        Now, although my example is far more extreme and perhaps more ethos-y than yours, and we are already well past the point where we need to worry about these sorts of documents being findable online, is it really too much to dream that we could have a system that celebrates both the digitiliser, and the future reader of books?

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, draegi!

        Well-written, and I understand.

        However, the US government makes its documents available free (not counting taxes, of course) 😉 , and I think any documents like that are likely to be available for free now and in the future, even from other governments.

        That’s one place where I see people making everything the same. The right of the people to read, say, a decision made by the Supreme Court does not seem to me to be the same as their right to read a novel. 🙂

        Is paying money for a novel a “barrier on knowledge”? Arguably. Would we have as many novels if Stephen King was working at McDonald’s to make a living and only wrote in an uncompensated way? My guess is no. That’s the argument that some people have against copyright generally, and while you certainly haven’t even suggested that, I see a parallel. Copyright helps authors get paid for their work. DRM helps digitizers get paid for their work.

        I actually don’t think it will be a job description in the future, because I expect both the software and hardware to improve greatly (Google patented a really part clever of their system). My hope is that we get to the point that you put a book in a device and with no degradation, you get a digital copy later…of course, there’s probably in line behind the Jetsons’ flying cars… 😉

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