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Ted Striphas knows more about the potential for and failures of electronic books than just about anyone. He is finishing up a book on the future of print right now. He wrote this about the Amazon Kindle:

...Though I may not be optimistic about Kindle's future, there are a few, significant differences that set it a part from earlier stand-alone e-reading devices. The most significant factor to me is probably Amazon.com, which is unusually well-positioned to market and sell the reader. But even more interesting to me is the careful messaging that's going on around Kindle. In contrast to many earlier forays into the realm of ebooks and e-reading, Kindle isn't being marketed as a replacement for printed books. Instead, media reports about the device, and indeed the marketing surrounding it, all speak reverentially about the smells, sounds, and textures of printed books. The Newsweek article I mentioned earlier even touted the printed book as having one of the best "interfaces" (to impose an anachronism) of all media hitherto created. Kindle's being touted not as a replacement for printed books, but rather as a supplement to them, or even as a way of augmenting them. This definitely shows signs of having learned from past mistakes.

Here are a couple of the rubs for me. First, Kindle can only hold 200 books. Now, that may sound like a lot, but at a time when iPods and other such devices can hold thousands of megabyte-consuming songs, couldn't the designers of Kindle have done better with what is, after all, mostly text? What's more disturbing to me, though, are the terms of service Kindle and many other ebook devices attempt to impose. Once you buy a book and download it to your Kindle, you're done--as in, you can't pass it on to anyone else due to embedded digital rights management technology. In other words, this "friendly" new e-reading device, like many digital technologies abounding today, is working actively, if quietly, to undermine the First Sale Doctrine. This basically says (among other things) that once someone has sold you some good, they're no longer at liberty to dictate to whom you can give or sell it. In other words, Kindle represents yet another salvo in the book industry's war against the pass along book trade--and now, a major bookseller is in cahoots with them.

I can understand why the book industry, as well as the Author's Guild and the sellers of new books, might be discomforted by the passing on and resale of books. None of these groups profits directly from the circulation of these objects in the after market. But I wonder: is it as simple as that? Does cutting off the ability to circulate books after their first sale really help authors and publishers? Or is this an unimaginative way of creating demand by manufacturing artificial conditions of scarcity, a way that neglects the degree to which informal and unauthorized economies of exchange actually can increase people's desire for at least some consumer goods? (Here I'll refer you to Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, which addresses these concerns more cogently and in more detail than I can here.)

All that to say, if you really want to revere the printed book (and I'm talking to you, Amazon.com), you need to respect its ability to circulate more or less freely and to create ebook devices that do the same. Lock down culture all you want. I'm not buying until I start seeing some keys.

So I have been wondering: What is the relationship (if any) between these commercial devices and the various online library projects (Google Book Search specifically)?


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A book in progress by

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan

This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

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» More about me


Like the Mind of God (22 posts)

All the World's Information (26 posts)

What If Big Ads Don't Work (10 posts)

Don't Be Evil (9 posts)

Is Google a Library? (43 posts)

Challenging Big Media (18 posts)

The Dossier (19 posts)

Global Google (3 posts)

Google Earth (3 posts)

A Public Utility? (19 posts)

About this Book (16 posts)

Other books by Siva:


Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)

The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)

Copyrights and copywrongs cover

Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)


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