Coping with Unlimited

‘Unlimited’ is a funny thing.

It can be harmful. If we have the ability to produce an unlimited number of paper cups, where would they all go after they’ve been used? But it’s still something we pursue, and often to great effect.

If you think about information and the way it’s stored, transmitted, and consumed today, you’ll see we are able to create and distribute a nearly unlimited amount of knowledge to every part of the globe. There are still choke points which require more hardware-muscle, but in general, if the knowledge exists it can be made available and consumed for the price of nearly nothing.

That is our capability, anyway. The reality is different, due to the artificial limitations put on information by ‘old guard gatekeepers.’ That is, companies and individuals who are accustomed to the limitations of atoms and have business models based around those limitations.

These people can’t really be blamed for pining after the days where one required a Xerox machine and a lot of time to copy a book to which they owned the rights. I imagine this new world, where pixels are free and books are 1’s and 0’s, easily duplicated and distributed to millions around the world, is terribly frightening to them and their models, different as it is from the way things used to be.

But just because something ‘used to be,’ doesn’t mean it ‘ought to be.’

Libraries have a limited stock of ebooks. Seriously.

If you go into a library with your ebook reader of choice and browse their online list of books available and find one you’d love to read, you might click to download it and find that all available copies are checked out.

‘All available copies.’ What the what? They’re digital. They’re unlimited. Unless we limit them.

The big six publishers defend the decision to place artificial limits on ebooks in libraries as such:

“Our business model,” they say, “requires that individuals and libraries purchase books from us, and books are limited resources, based on the number of copies we choose to print. Because we can no longer control the printing process, we must control the legal process that determines how ebooks are distributed and managed, which means we must clamp down on unauthorized use of our products. Also, while we’re talking about it, hard copy books purchased by libraries are worn out by repeated use, which leads to more sales for us down the line. Ebooks don’t do this, so we’re going to have to raise the prices.”

To me, this attitude toward information is criminal for two reasons.

First, it limits the flow of information out of laziness and tradition, not out of necessity.

Second, it’s ineffective and counter-productive.

Covering the latter-point first, locking down ebooks with DRM and legalities which say, “Now don’t you go reading this without my permission, okay?” is a ridiculous move, made all the more ridiculous by the industry’s inability to enforce their lockdown.

If I want to read a book, there are any number of ways for me to get my hands on it. I could download it from a torrent site, I could find a file on a Usenet group, I could be emailed a PDF from a friend, I could download a preview copy and strip away the DRM using free, Open Source software.

Hell, if I wanted to, I could buy a physical copy of the book, scan it into my computer, use text-recognition software (also free) to turn it into an ebook, and then distribute the thing myself (returning the book to the store afterward).

The point is not that I want to do these things, I would much rather pay a reasonable fee through Amazon or some other online service than pirate a book. The point is that I can and there’s nothing the publishing industry can do to stop me.

As for the former point mentioned above, trying to limit the flow of information these days is not just an exercise in futility, but also a philosophical anachronism. Why, when we have the ability to make knowledge available to everyone on the planet, would we limit access to that knowledge, using the same amount, or more, energy and resources to do it?

This tactic makes sense from the standpoint of someone who thinks of themselves as above the human race in some way, but come on, we all suffer or succeed together. The net benefits of having a universally educated and successful world population would greatly outweigh the benefits of being one of a few successful and educated people upon a planet filled with ignorant individuals.

I don’t have all the answers, but we’ll need some if the large publishers of the world are going to be convinced to try new business models. If I (and people like me) aren’t successful in convincing them, these publishers will die off, and I think that would be a net-loss for everyone, as they still have a lot of value to provide to the world.

What we need, though, are new solutions, new business models and ways of thinking that will help the old guard come down from their ivory towers and share the wealth, enriching themselves as a result of enriching others.

Until then, all I can do is quietly curse their hoarding of knowledge and hope for a better future where that isn’t the case.

Update: February 16, 2017

Oh how much has changed, and how much has remained the same.

Library ebooks are still limited, and a lot of the Big Five have reinforced their existing positions and business models by wrangling more control over ebook prices. But there’s less DRM in the world than there was five years ago, and companies like Amazon have become big enough to force traditional gatekeepers from their guard post. This isn’t to say that Amazon et al won’t become the next awkward traditionalist defending an outdated model, but at the moment they’ve at least become a big enough player to take a spot at the negotiating table.