Sunday, January 3, 2010

Books aren't dead yet - plus Kindle's effect on the first sale doctrine

Amazon's Jeff Bezos recently declared the imminent death of the book in light of eBook sales outpacing for the first time the sale of physical books during the holiday season that just concluded.

[T]he physical book really has had a 500-year run. It's probably the most successful technology ever. It's hard to come up with things that have had a longer run. If Gutenberg were alive today, he would recognize the physical book and know how to operate it immediately. Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what's remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever

The Kindle also became Amazon's most popular gift item and not just among electronic devices but "across all product categories.But see Kindle may be next year's 8-Track Player.

On the other hand, The Atlantic's Edward Tenner says don't count the book out so fast, Methuselah.  Just because a technology has been around for a (very) long time doesn't make it a forgone conclusion that it's headed for the metaphorical glue factory. 

Eyeglasses have had an even longer run than print, 700 versus 500 years. In science, the tools of glassblowing hasn't changed much in two millennia, or at least hadn't in 2005 when I attended a local lecture-demonstration about the craft. (Household glassware and light bulb production were largely automated in the nineteenth century, but not advanced products.)

Think of music. The keyboard arrangement as we know it is older than movable type, having survived many proposed alternative designs, and the piano is still going strong at 300-plus, virtually unchanged for almost half that time. Chemists are still probing the secrets of seventeenth-century Strads and Guarneris, the gold standard for today's luthiers.

And consider energy. Wind turbine electrical generators, descendants of late-medieval mills, date from the 1880s and were considered obsolete, along with decentralized power sources, by early twentieth-century utilities. The 1970s energy crisis even brought back woodburning stoves not so different from Ben Franklin's model.(For a global view of mistaken prophecies, see The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton.)

Mr. Tenner believes that in the future, there will continue to be a demand for both physical and eBooks. The only question is what mix of the two formats will users demand.  (The same has been said about digital versus brick and mortar libraries - that both will coexist going forward because users will still need the resources of a physical library). 

Mr. Tenner, as well as our good buddies at the Law Librarian Blog, also remind us that there are some significant drawbacks to eBooks that will continue to ensure the market viability of the hardcopy kind.  Specifically, the Kindle-George Orwell fiasco of this past summer reminds us that when purchasing an eBook, one only gets only a license to use it which can be altered or revoked at anytime by the licensor.  The copyright act's first sale doctrine is implicated, therefore, because unlike buying a hardcopy book, the owner of an eBook can't sell it at her next yard sale.  

The Kindle e-book is not a product but a license, and not even a done deal. Before you buy a Kindle, read the whole contract that you are signing. Especially this paragraph:

Amendment. Amazon reserves the right to amend any of the terms of this Agreement at its sole discretion by posting the revised terms on the Kindle Store or the website. Your continued use of the Device and Software after the effective date of any such amendment shall be deemed your agreement to be bound by such amendment.

You can read more of Mr. Tenner's commentary here and more from the Law Librarian Blog here.

Big hat tip to Joe Hodnicki of the Law Librarian Blog.

I am the scholarship dude.


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