October 4, 2000
Winter approacheth - and so do my thoughts on eBooks
October has finally rolled around, and it's getting a slight bit chilly here in the San Francisco Bay area (not so chilly as to require one to put the T-Tops back on the car just yet, but enough to cause one to take notice). It feels like winter is approaching, and with it comes my usual restless wintertime mood; when that mood comes about, I usually end up spending a lot of time reading. Occasionally, such as now, I end up writing.
So here I sit, with WinAmp pushing the gentle music of Loreena McKennitt out through my stereo system. Two white candles sit idly on my computer desk, their flames dancing slightly in the wind; they provide the only light in the room, save the ever-present glow of the monitor. The odd lighting casts an eerie glow, probably giving any passing neighbors a good scare. I'm sitting here trying to wrap my mind around a new experience that I had recently, and a number of related issues.
The experience involved electronic books, in case you're wondering.
You see, I'm quite an avid reader of those mindless Star Trek novels published by our wonderful friends over at Pocket Books. I have an amazing stack of the things piled up in my closet. They're wonderful entertainment; typically about 250 pages long, I can easily chew through three of them in a single sitting. I know, I'm a hopeless geek, but that's not the point here; the point is that I discovered another way to get my fix.
The revelation was sparked by my roommate, another PalmOS nut. for whatever reason, he was poking around at http://www.memoware.com, surfing through electronic documents. Since reading some a while back, I've had an intense interest in the little beasties; my Handspring Visor makes a convenient tool for reading, and it's much nicer than killing off the trees... so of course, at my earliest convenience, I had a look at it. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I came upon the Peanut Press, a purveyor of fine electronic books for the masses.
The discovery of this seemingly well-kept secret blew my mind.
Immediately upon locating their reasonably well-stocked Star Trek section, I ordered a few books that I hadn't read; I was fairly disappointed with the savings (the cost of printing had to be more than 10%), but it was worth it for my instant gratification. I then loaded them into my Visor (after going through the hell of making the ancient, never-before-used USB ports on my workstation talk to it), and started reading.
For someone who has never tried it, the advantages to an electronic book aren't readily apparent. In most ways it's like reading a book on paper - except that you have to switch pages electronically, and you have to do it often. For me, this is fine; I can sit just about anywhere with the Visor and flip through at high-speed without being disturbed by it. Most popular readers even support auto-scroll these days (though that gives me the willies). It's an adventure. The best part? It's completely searchable, and you can store a fairly large number of books in a device the size of the Visor. And that's before you start accounting for expansion modules...
The bottom line is that it's a tremendously useful and thoroughly enjoyable technology, and I hope it catches on. So here I sit with my candles, listening to Loreena and wondering: what about a digital public library? Now there's a thought worth pursuing, I think to myself. But what about the legal hassles?
Legal hassles. Hmph. That's only the beginning. And before we even start with the legal hassles, we have to deal with the technical ones...
You see, each of these electronic books comes packaged in a PalmOS database. The database is somehow locked (I haven't done any research to determine how). In order to lend such a database, you'd need to give out the key to that database. No problem, right?
Now tell me this: would you give out your name and credit card number to random passers-by?
I have to give Peanut credit: encrypting a document with the user's credit card number is a brilliant way to keep that user from distributing the product. Sure, I can let someone borrow it, but they'll need my credit card number in order to unlock it. How utterly convenient. It seemed like only a minor inconvenience at the time, but then I asked myself a question.
What if eBooks were to become the publishing format of choice?
The scene looks fairly bleak if you let your imagination run for a while. Publishers can now completely control access to their works through the force of law and a little creative technical maneuvering. Each individual that ever reads a given book would need to pay for it. Access to that information would be limited to those affluent enough to afford it. Never mind the fact that distributing the book doesn't cost the publisher anything in physical terms; it only costs potential sales.
Now, I'm not one for taking away the right of an author to make money, but I like to think that ideas can't be owned, and that society will naturally reward those that deserve it (far fetched perhaps, but a nice dream). Besides, what's worse: one person not getting paid to distribute information, or all of society being blocked from accessing that same information?
In short, it could easily set society back in a very significant way. At least in this country, we have laws that were crafted so many years ago in an effort to keep society free; a key principle found in those laws is the idea that all people are equal. Doesn't that equality imply that all people deserve to have equal access to all knowledge? Why are we allowing today's lawyers and politicians to subvert the fundamental principles of this nation?
The real problem that people don't see is that this isn't some future world; this is the present. We face these issues already, but they're not yet wide-spread enough for people to take notice. Instead, the lawyers, businesspeople, and bureaucrats work covertly to wring as much money from us as possible, even at the cost of restricting knowledge.
And knowledge, as they say, is power.
So what is there to do about this? Don't ask me, I'm just a geek with a taste for Trek novels and a penchant for writing at length about the twisted musings of my mind. But I hope that someone thinks of something soon, or some day it'll be more than just my Trek novels that get slapped with safeguards to prevent the general public from freely accessing them.
I like knowledge. If anyone important out there ever happens to read this, try to keep it free, will ya? I'll be busy trying to figure out how to start the ultimate digital library...
PS: If you like eBooks and want to see them adopted, do me a favor and go buy one or two from Peanut Press. The more we buy, the more they'll publish...
Published: October 4, 2000