What If Gutenburg Had Licensed The Bible?

I believe there are some similarities between the emergence of the eBook and the printing press. Both are transformative technologies whose ability to disseminate information to larger audiences marked a milestone in literacy and information access. While expensive and cumbersome in their own ways when they first came out, each innovation cycle has reduced the cost and has increased material availability through a variety of means. Gutenberg’s press would ultimately revolutionize the printed word by mechanizing the process; eBooks will revolutionize the publishing world by removing the remaining barriers to written content.

The difference that is emerging is how they are treated when it comes to rights of ownership. The first-sale doctrine does not apply to eBooks; one cannot re-sell or lend a title that they legally purchased. The limitations of eBook formats and ereaders themselves mean that some titles are not universally accessible. Furthermore, the prevalent winds of eBooks is leaning towards a licensing format in which control over one’s personal library has been ceded to another, be it corporation, author, or middle man content provider.

This is not an acceptable situation.

This is a correctable situation but it will require the combined efforts of all parties. It is an effort that is bigger than the librarian profession and the publishing field for it encompasses the entire spectrum of literature, from the author to the end user and all the people and institutions between. It will not be a sprint but a marathon where the ideal end result is a model that allows all to thrive. It will not be clean nor easy, but it is a process that has to happen. Not simply for ourselves, but for the future of literature and information access.

That is why the eBook User’s Bill of Rights is so important. And this is why we must act. For if you thought that the question in the title of this post was absurd, it could be a cruel reality in the new eBook world unless action is taken now. It is not something that librarians can pass up.

7 thoughts on “What If Gutenburg Had Licensed The Bible?

  1. Gutenberg would have licensed the Bible in a second if he could have. The only reason he didn’t maintain a monopoly on printing is that one of his creditors foreclosed on him and took everything Gutenberg had, setting up his own printing shop. (See this episode of Engines of our Ingenuity for a short treatment of this episode.)

    After that, printing of the Bible was controlled by the church and nations through imprimatur and licensing. I’m less familiar with how ownership and reading of the Bible was controlled.

    In any case, it’s good to ask questions like the one in your post title because they remind us that book production, dissemination, and copyright aren’t the way they are due to natural laws. They have worked differently in the past and will likely work differently in the future. Electronic books give us all a chance to fight about the rights and duties of authors, publishers, librarians, and consumers and re-draw some of the boundaries all over again.

    • Thanks, Steve, for the comment. I’m sure he would have if he could. And I believe that we (as in everyone interested in eBooks) need to find a new norm. This is a step towards that.

  2. I think a crucial part of this is educating AUTHORS. I’m a genre writer (under a pseudonym) and when I posted the Bill of Rights to a couple of writers’ forums I belong to, most of the immediate response was, “I can’t support that! It endorses piracy!” What they are talking about, of course, is the right of first sale doctrine. After the last 15+ years of large corporate interests pushing the whole “copying is piracy!” concept for digital media (first music, now ebooks) these authors really believe that giving readers the right to share ebooks will devastate there potential earnings – a totally false belief that is factually and provably wrong, but they are terrified of massive drops in sales because of wholesale file sharing.

    It’s important for us, as information professionals, to stand up for the Bill of Rights, but until publishers like HarperCollins feel the squeeze from several different directions – librarians, readers, AND writers – they won’t feel anything. We need to develop some kind of author outreach about this issue…I’m doing what I can at the individual level, but I’m not Gaiman, you know?

    • If I wanted to endorse piracy, it would have been a much shorter document. And probably not one I would have published, either.

      The unfortunate truth of the matter is that DRM and other restrictions do encourage piracy. It’s an internet thing where DRM is seen something to be circumvented. It presents a paradox; as much as they want to contain and control their content, then they wonder how to grow readership and build an audience. I believe that they are connected (the more control exerted, the less likely it is to build an audience) and that in giving up some control they gain a better chance at a broader audience.

      So, getting back to your point, I think it is a matter of educating authors. Librarians aren’t for piracy, but we are not for layers of barriers between people and the content they want to access either.

  3. The crux is the author, the prime source. As Kim mentioned above the author has been hoodwinked into believing that control equals monetary gain. I venture that if a new paradigm in the landscape concerning prime source to consumer happened a new world would open up for author, consumers and readers alike.
    Publisher’s are feeling the pain, with Borders defaulting on major bills ($30+ mil to certain publishers) the future looks dim. They’re concerned about their future. Authors are concerned about their ability to reach readers, and lo and behold, libraries are very concerned about providing clients information.
    How can we help each other? What is it that each entity needs to survive? And what’s the best way the begin that conversation?

    • The short answer is that we need content and access that content. We provide the funding to the publishers to make that happen.

      The long answer is, well, I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it. But starting a conversation is certainly a good thing and better than getting shut out.

  4. Pingback: Open Thread Thursday: Sparta Edition « Agnostic, Maybe

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