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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.