Matching metaphors: Ebooks and cable television

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A recent thesis by Stefan Larsson, entitled “Metaphors and Norms – Understanding Copyright Law in a Digital Society,” received a lot of attention for examining the metaphors being used to quantify digital products like ebooks, MP3 files, etc. The thesis asserts that the many problems holding the ebook industry from a stable, sustainable state have been the result of applying the wrong metaphors to ebooks, for instance, comparing it to physical goods like printed books, to limited data like an email, or public presentations like a website.

In the arena of ebooks, that discussion has predictably covered a lot of apropos and inapropos territory, effectively providing plenty of evidence in Larsson’s assertion; but thanks to his well-informed attack of the problem of recognizing digital products, quite a bit of the discussion about and following the thesis has been exceedingly intelligent and well-considered.

Of the themes and arguments that frequently circulate this subject, two, I feel, stand out.  One is a comparison of the ebook industry to the cable television industry of the late-twentieth century, and its method of justifying its services to its customers.  The other is the idea, very popular among digital fans, that the concept of digital product “theft” is inaccurate, since there is no actual “loss” of product in the instance.

Both of these comments are vital to the discussion because the first represents a set of metaphors that might suit ebooks better than most product/services; and the latter raises an important concept also touched on by cable services.

I remember when the first cable TV services were rolled out in our area (yes, I’m that old—so shaddap before I swat you with my walking cane); and right away, consumers were trying to figure out how to “steal” cable signals from neighbors, what rights they had to run lines through their homes and create multiple outlets out of one, and why they were suddenly paying for something they used to get over-the-air for free (excepting the cost of a television).

The customer’s logic was that the cable companies weren’t “losing” anything through cable sharing. It was the same show, whether they got it over-the-air or from a spliced cable, and they’d never paid for it before. In one sense, it seemed a logical argument.

The cable companies didn’t see it that way: They were, in fact, creating infrastructure and providing a customized access to video materials, even if they didn’t create the materials themselves; in short, they were providing a service to customers, and customers were free to pay for the service, or get their TV elsewhere (re: More limited number of stations, over-the-air).

Cable services put a lot of effort into working out those conceptual problems, mostly through massaging laws and offering value-added extras to their services (more channels, premium content, adult content). They have been largely successful over time in satisfying customers that they are getting a valuable commodity for their money (content quality notwithstanding), and getting legislatures to back their assertion that their services could not be “pirated” without prosecution.

Though no security system is perfect, the cable industry has always relied on one simple deterrent to prevent unauthorized cable use: Denial of service.  With a comprehensive individual identification system in-place, the industry is (supposedly) capable of identifying a cable scofflaw, anywhere they go, and based on past indiscretions, refuse them access to their cable service.  And despite the average consumers’ complaints about the cable industry, few of them are willing to risk the loss of it by blatantly unauthorized use of cable signals. Today, most customers do not obsess over attempts to “pirate” TV signals, and are unlikely to complain much about it… they are more likely to complain about not liking the content on the 500 channels they pay for.

“Theft” of ebooks is, in many ways, similar to cable “theft,” in that strictly speaking, there is no loss of physical product involved; it is considered a theft of service, the idea that you are legally expected to pay for their services provided (creating a digital form of the book), or go without (read a printed book, or nothing). If a reliable system designed to identify scofflaws and deny them access to ebooks was in-place, the market would largely self-regulate and a stable industry would result.

Therefore, ebooks should be considered in the context of software and broadcast services, as a digital file created by a service and offered by a provider (and therefore requiring the mutual agreement of the customer to compensate the service/provider for their work as requested), and protected by the same statutes (and roughly the same methods) that prevent unauthorized re-broadcast or reuse of broadcasts. This makes much more sense than looking at ebooks specifically and solely as analogues to the physical products that they replace, a model that has proven to be unworkable in the marketplace even if it seems logical on its surface.

From this foundation of more appropriate metaphors, we ought to be able to make the required adjustments for the realities of the internet and digital devices to ensure the proper adherence to these considerations.  The cable system provides many workable analogues to creating and policing an ebook service/provider industry that could be acceptable for consumers and profitable for industry.

For instance, the understanding that cable companies provide goods/services made by others is a good parallel to the ebook and its sale to others.  Though the ebook itself may practically have zero cost, it is understood that cost was generated in creating the ebook, packaging it and delivering it to the consumer, and this is what is being paid for. Once obtained, the consumer can use the book according to agreed-upon parameters (initial use in perpetuity, and sharing with the immediate family/household).

It is further understood that the delivering of the ebook product to a consumer assumes certain rights of the creator and distributor, and limits the rights of consumers in re-delivering that product to others; in other words, control over copying and redistribution of the ebook to others. In the same way that you are not permitted to copy and rebroadcast an NFL football game (to public groups, or for monetary gain) without permission from the rights holders, so you would not be permitted to copy and redistribute an ebook to others without permission from the rights holders.  It does, however, allow the creation of “backup” copies of the ebook, as many as reasonably desired (it is assumed that 1 or 2 copies would be typical) as long as they are not redistributed to others.

This also protects against the independent creation and redistribution of an ebook whose original work is still owned by a rights holder.  Just as it is illegal to independently create DVD copies of, say, Jurassic Park, and redistribute those copies to others without permission of the rights holders, so it would be illegal to create and redistribute copies of an ebook, without permission from the rights holder.  It covers the book without specifically involving the provider/distributor, just as the movie Jurassic Park would be covered independently of the broadcast provider, say, Verizon.

In another example, cable’s convention of selecting a location and allowing anyone with access to that location access to cable’s services is a good parallel to the social system of the immediate family/household group that share that household’s products and services.  An ebook system that can be accessed by an immediate family/household group would facilitate the communal sharing common to that group.  Though this does not quite equal the sharing of printed books that can extend beyond the immediate family/household, it is a reasonable and understandable compromise for ebook producers and consumers.

Of course, the cable system does not cover every aspect of ebooks, but it provides a good guideline towards establishing a public- and industry-wide set of reasonable rules and guidelines with which to create and transact ebooks in public and private.

One of the reasons the cable system works is that people tend to be tied to certain households, and provide information regarding those households’ occupants and use, to the cable provider.  The provider uses this information to determine the suitability of a location and its occupants to receive their cable signal, with the understanding that a violation of their rules regarding locations and occupants can merit the blocking of their signal to those locations.

A similarly-effective system must be in-place in order for the cable TV metaphor to be applied to ebooks, otherwise the system will not be enforce-able at any level.  This would require some method of identifying a user, and their methods of access to their ebooks, as well as those of their immediate family/household.  In a way, each person would become the equivalent of a household, and their equipment would need to be registered or identifiable to them, like a cable receiver and attached televisions or wireless network, to allow it to access the product.  Perhaps some combination of user ID code and biometric identifier would suffice to provide all the identification a user and their equipment would need.  And these codes would have to be protected against tampering, in the same way that a cell phone’s internal systems are designed not to be altered by the user to, say, piggyback a call on someone else’s account/line.

Though this seems, on the outset, to be a lot of bother for an ebook, the steps are not that out of the question, and to some extent, have been accomplished with present-day technology.  Again, the cable industry provides ample examples of the effectiveness of the model, and by extension, its applicability to other models.  When you consider an entire industry at stake, the effort required to create a sustainable ebook market and infrastructure would be eminently desirable and workable, and worth any additional effort required by industries and consumers to support it.

The alternative would be an ebook market that is not sustainable, not supportable, and not profitable for its creators and providers, which would eventually cause an cessation of large-scale book writing and production for the masses.  Though some argue that this would be a good thing for literature, removing all monetary value and consideration from writing, most understand that there are a significant number of excellent writers and book producers who work for monetary gain only, and such a measure would only deprive the world of some of the best writing available; an end to the era of writing—or, if you will, a return to an era of a few amateurs of mixed talent and a bit of time amongst their other obligations to write, creating literature that will ultimately not be seen by more than a tiny fraction of the population.

In cable parlance, it would be the equivalent of shutting down the 500 channels in crystal-clear reception, and being left with 2-3 local stations of dubious quality.  I suspect that few of us would want to go back to a television world like that, if a few dollars and some household accountability could maintain what we have.  And like so many other things, consumers usually demonstrate a willingness to pay, and even suffer a few impositions (like heightened security), for something they perceive to have value.

But the question is completely up to the consumer: They have the final power to accept a cable-based sustainable infrastructure for ebooks, or to drop reading like a hot potato, and allow it to fade into obscurity with such treasured art forms as tap-dancing and voice-mimicry… relics of previous centuries, abandoned and barely missed in this century.

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