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When is a new thing a new thing?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

I recently gave a presentation at the National Central Library in Taiwan at a symposium on digital publishing and international standards that they hosted. It was a tremendous meeting and I am grateful to my hosts, Director General Karl Min Ku and his staff for a terrific visit.  One of the topics that I discussed was the issue of the identification of ebooks. This is increasingly becoming an important issue in our community and I am serving on a BISG Working Group to explore thes issues. Below are some notes from one slide that I gave during that presentation, which covers one of the core questions: At what point do changes in a digital file qualify it as a new product?  The full slide deck is here. I’ll be expanding on these ideas in other forums in the near future, but here are some initial thoughts on this question.

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In a print world, what made one item different from another was generally it’s physical form. Was the binding hardcover or soft-cover? Was the type regular or large-size for the visually impaired, or even was it printed using Braille instead of ink? Was the item a book or a reading of the book, i.e. an audio book, was about as far afield as the form question had gone prior to the rise of the internet in the mid 1990s. In a digital environment, what constitutes a new item is considerably more complex. This poses tremendous issues regarding the supply chain, identification, and collections management in libraries.

This is a list of some of the defining characteristics for a digital text that are distinct from those in a print environment.  Each poses a unique challenge to the management and identification of digital items.

  • Encoding structure possibilities (file formats)
  • Platform dependencies (different devices)
  • Reflowable (resize)
  • Mutable (easily changed/updated)
  • Chunked (the entire item or only elements)
  • Networkable (location isn’t applicable)
  • Actionable/interactive
  • Linkable (to other content)
  • Transformable (text to speech)
  • Multimedia capable
  • Extensible (not constrained by page)
  • Operate under license terms (not copyright)
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Just some of these examples pose tremendous issues for the supply chain of ebooks when it comes to fitting our current business practices, such as ISBN into this environment.

One question is whether the form of the ebook which needs a new identifier is the file format. If the publisher is distributing a single file format, say an epub file, but then in order for that item go get displayed onto a Kindle, it needs to be transformed into a different file format, that of the Kindle, at what point does the transformation of that file become a new thing? Similarly, if you wrap that same epub file with a specific form of digital rights management, does that create a new thing? From an end-user perspective, the existence and type of DRM could render a file as useless to the users as it would be if you supplied a Braille version to someone who can’t read Braille.

To take another, even thornier question, let’s consider location. What does location mean in a network environment. While I was in Taiwan, if I wanted to buy a book using my Kindle from there, where “am I” and where is the transaction taking place? Now in the supply chain, this makes a tremendous amount of difference. A book in Taiwan likely has a different ISBN number, assigned to a different publishers, because the original publisher might not have worldwide distribution rights. The price might be different, even the content of the book might be slightly different-based on cultural or legal sensitivities. But while I may have been physically located in Taiwan, my Amazon account is based in Maryland, where I live and where my Kindle is registered. Will Amazon recognize me as the account holder in the US or the fact of my present physical location in Taiwan, despite the fact that I traveled back home a week later and live in the US? Now, this isn’t even considering where the actual transaction is taking place, which could be a server farm somewhere in California, Iceland or Tokyo.  The complexity and potential challenges for rights holders and rights management could be tremendous.

These questions about when is a new thing a new thing are critically important question in the identification of objects and the registration and systems that underlie them. How we manage this information and the decisions we take now about what is important, what we should track, and how should we distinguish between these items will have profound impacts on how we distribute information decades into the future.

Upcoming Forum on Library Resource Management Systems

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

In Boston on October 8-9, NISO will host a 2-day educational forum, Library Resource Management Systems: New Challenges, New Opportunities. We are pleased to bring together a terrific program of expert speakers to discuss some of the key issues and emerging trends in library resource management systems as well as to take a look at the standards used and needed in these systems.

 

The back end systems upon which libraries rely have become the center of a great deal of study, reconsideration and development activity over the past few years.  The integration of search functionality, social discovery tools, access control and even delivery mechanisms to traditional cataloging systems are necessitating a conversation about how these component parts will work together in a seamless fashion.  There are a variety of approaches, from a fully-integrated system to a best-of-breed patchwork of systems, from locally managed to software as a service approaches.  No single approach is right for all institutions and there is no panacea for all the challenges institutions face providing services to their constituents.  However, there are many options an organization could choose from.  Careful planning can help to find the right one and can save the institution tremendous amounts of time and effort.  This program will provide some of the background on the key issues that management will need to assess to make the right decision.

 

Registration is now open and we hope that you can join us. 

Court acknowledges copyright law application to Open Source software

Friday, August 15th, 2008

In an important ruling yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit yesterday stood behind the concept that open source software should be covered by copyright law, which strengthens the rights of OS developers. 

This is a critical win for open source developers, which although seemingly obvious was an untested aspect of US law.  Software has long been viewed in the courts as being covered under copyright law.  Some background on the copyright protections provided to software is here, here and here.

The crux of the case centers on whether the terms of an open source license such as the Artistic License in this case (or similar licenses, such as Creative Commons) should be considered “conditions of, or merely covenants to, the copyright licenses.”  When a copyright holder grants a nonexclusive license to use a copyrighted work, he/she forfeits his/her rights to sue for copyright infringement and can only sue for breach of contract.

Why is this an important distinction?  One could consider violations of use a violation of contract law, which would significantly reduce the penalties for violation.  Contract law violations frequently result in awards that are a derivative of the monetary damages related to the contract.  In the case of Open Source software, there is very limited if any exchange of funds, and therefore very limited monetary damages.

In the ruling, Judge White addressed the question of economic benefits accruing to OS developers by writing:

The lack of money changing hands in open source licensing should not be presumed to mean that there is no economic consideration, however.  There are substantial benefits, including economic benefits, to the creation and distribution of copyrighted works under public licenses that range far beyond traditional license royalties. 

Copyright infringement on the other hand has a set of penalties and remedies that are much more significant and are not explicitly tied to the financial terms of an exchange.  In addition, copyright cases can include attorney’s fees in the remediation.

In the decision, the Artistic License used by the plaintiff was deemed to be limited in scope and have conditions, which the licensor violated, then the case was deemed to be infringing on copyright. Deciding in the plaintiff’s favor because of the clause “provided that …” created limitations and conditions in the license to which the licensor must adhere or they would be infringing on the copyrights of the licensor.  In this particular case, the “conditions set forth in the Artistic License are vital to enable the copyright holder to retain the ability to benefit from the work of downstream users.”  In addition, licensors are “authorized to make modifications and to distribute the materials provided that the user follows the restrictive terms of the Artistic License.”  These conditions of use were deemed to be sufficient restrictions to the terms of the license to distinguish them from contractual covenants.

This case will reinforce the legal protections for producers of OS software that have underpinned the development and sharing of OS code for years.  Andy Updegrove, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law, standards and a prolific blogger, was quoted in PC Magazine as saying:

“For the community this wasn’t about the money at all, but about receiving the blessing of an important court that the foundations upon which the entire fee and open source and Creative Commons philosophies are based.”