A Chunk of History: The Medieval Roots of Digital Publishing

This blog post originally appeared in Concurrent Media.

One of the wonderful paradoxes of the digital era of media is its retrograde quality. We tend to think of inventions like the internet and peer-to-peer digital networks as apotheoses of modern communication, but their economic impact on many media industries has been to unravel their modern industrial structures and to resurrect many of their pre-industrial, folk foundations.

Nowhere has that been more true than in the case of music. MP3 files, P2P networks, and now streaming have blown up the multi-song bundle we called the album — and the profit margins that came with it — and restored the single to prominence, as it was in the days before the invention of the long-playing record (LP).

The much-derided phenomenon of unlicensed “sharing” of music over P2P networks also carries echoes of music’s past. Until the Gramophone and the Phonograph made private performances of music practical, music was almost always shared, in the sense that it was usually experienced as part of a public performance. While the industrial technologies of recording and playback made private performances lucrative the instinct to share music never really went away.

Even modern notions of musical authorship are in part a function of industrial technology and are now being challenged by digital technology. Prior to recording, many forms of folk music (think traditional American blues) held standard lyrical tropes and even entire verses as part of a commons that were recycled and rearranged by performers as needed. It wasn’t until recording technology enabled the fixation of a canonical version of a performance that many folk artists began to think seriously about authorship.

Today, EDM DJs treat recordings as part of a commons, recycling and reassembling their elements into unique performances.

The film and television industries haven’t experienced the same retrograde dislocation as the music industry has, in part because the media themselves are products of industrial technology. Film and TV have no pre-industrial past to resurrect. But even then, they have felt the tug of digital technology against the industrial economics of bundling, as programs are disaggregated from channels and channels are disaggregated from pay-TV tiers.

As a sometime-student of media history, I came across a fascinating recent example of digital technology’s pre-industrial DNA in an interview with David Hetherington, North American COO of Klopotek, ahead of the upcoming London Book Fair.

Klopotek AG, is a German software company that provides CMS and rights management technology to the book publishing industry around the world. Here is Hetherington’s description of one way Klopotek helps academic publishers monetize their works, taken from Publishing Perspectives:

“Typically, thinking in the book business,” Hetherington says, “has started with the book. And I think our view of it is that it really has to start with the grain of content…

“So the idea of taking content from various products and pulling it together means that the initial block of content is no longer sold as it is. It means that the content is able to be parsed and re-assembled.

“The users—whoever wants to re-assemble that content—can identify the pieces they want, can specify the part numbers. This, in effect, means that the owner of the content must give it a unique part number and pass that part number to the potential market.

“At times, in some markets, this has been called the “chunking” of a book, breaking it into salable sections that fit users’ needs. Nowhere is this more easily understood than on campuses, where professors can effectively build their own textbooks for courses by piecing together parts of existing works, a “chunk” at a time, to match the needs of a given set of students.

Klopotek’s sophisticated software helps publishers “chunk” their books and license the chunks separately into customized bundles. It creates a licensed alternative to the “course pack,” in which professors would assemble their custom bundles at Kinkos and then distribute them to students. It also provides a defense against book rentals and used-book sales by providing students an affordable option.

Any 14th Century university scholar, however, would immediately recognize Hetherington’s description as an example of the pecia system.

With the rise of Medieval universities in Europe, the demand for books for use by students increased dramatically. But in the years before Gutenberg made it possible to produce identical copies of texts at scale, reproducing books was a laborious, manual process, carried out mostly by monks or itinerant scribes, and incapable of meeting the demand.

A solution emerged in Italy in the 13th Century and spread quickly to other countries. Books were chunked into pieces (pecia) for copying by individual students, and the pieces were then passed around in what amounted to a peer-to-peer network until each student was able to assemble all parts of the text required for his course work (women were not permitted to attend university).

The system became formalized and regulated in the early 14th Century, beginning at the University of Paris. Certain book mongers were licensed to provide students with pecia rentals for copying taken from master texts certified by members of the university faculty. The rates that could be charged for each work were set by the university, and as demand grew and more master copies were needed to supply pecia, the texts were regularly inspected by scholars to make sure they did not become corrupted through the accumulation of copying errors.

The scholars who oversaw the pecia system were not concerned with authorship per se, of course, let alone droit d’auteur. The concept barely existed at the time, and in any case the texts in question were mostly classical or the works of the early Church fathers. The scholars’ interests were pedagogy and preserving the integrity of the texts, not rights management. But it shows that the use of chunking to affect the economics of academic publishing has a long history.

The printing press, many early examples of which were established in university towns, eventually did away with the need for the pecia system by introducing industrial economies of scale to the reproduction of books, although the system survived well into the 16th Century in some areas.

The mechanical press made the complete text the anatomical unit of the commercial publishing industry — “starting with the book,” in Hetherington’s formulation. But it wasn’t always that way, and with digital technology it need not be that way now.

Apple Dusts Off its Ebooks Playbook for Music

Library_of_Congress_(1)It’s hard to tell whether Apple is simply trolling Spotify with its pitch to the Copyright Royalty Board to adopt a fixed, per-use royalty rate for songwriting rights on streaming services in place or the current revenue-based formula, or whether it’s a serious proposal. But if it’s the latter, the CRB should at least consider the source before adopting it.

Paris Bookstore La Librairie des PUF Commits to Print-on-Demand

The new Les PUF store, La Librairie des PUF, certainly makes a stylish addition to an already highly literary quarter. It’s not far from the Place de la Sorbonne, the city’s historic seat of academia. And it’s just round the corner from some of the city’s most prestigious bookshops: the Librairie Philosphique J. Vrin, Editions de Boccard, Bonnefoi’s Livres Anciens and Albert Blanchard’s Librairie Scientifique and Technique.

On opening the door, however, it’s immediately apparent that this is not quite the “bookstore without books” that some have suggested it is.

Source: Paris Bookstore La Librairie des PUF Commits to Print-on-Demand

As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows

The Codex Group’s April 2016 survey of 4,992 book buyers found that e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016.

In light of the April study results, Codex president Peter Hildick-Smith believes that the book industry’s experience with digital sales differs from that of music and video because of two factors. First, electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video), and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second, Hildick-Smith said, a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge.

Source: As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows

Copyright Clearance Center Announces Enhancements to RightFind Content Workflow Solution

Copyright-Clearance-CenterCopyright Clearance Center, Inc. (CCC), a global licensing and content solutions organization, has announced enhancements to its cloud-based RightFind™ content workflow solution that offers immediate, easy access to a full range of Scientific, Technical, and Medical (STM) content.

“We’ve worked closely with customers around the globe to make sure we’re delivering comprehensive solutions that accelerate scientific research,” said Lauren Tulloch, Director, Corporate Products and Services, CCC. “These new enhancements bring content directly into researchers’ workflow without interruption.”


Source: Copyright Clearance Center Announces Enhancements to RightFind™ Content Workflow Solution – Copyright Clearance Center

Self-published authors have found a way to actually make money 2016-06-08 16-13-50As the power of the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) in the US ebook market wanes, self-publishing authors have overtaken them in terms of unit sales.

And though Author Earnings shows that in terms of gross dollars made off ebooks, Big Five publishers do better than self-published authors, the site also shows that as a group, self-published authors are taking home more of the pie than those who publish with the Big Five.

Source: Self-published authors have found a way to actually make money — Quartz

Macmillan Buys Self-Publishing Platform Pronoun

ebook_buttonPronoun offered its suite of publishing services to authors at no cost, giving them a 100% royalty on their e-book sales. From the beginning, Brody has positioned Pronoun as an entrepreneurial platform aimed at empowering individual authors with a variety of digital tools and data on e-book sales and the book marketplace.

Brody said that Pronoun’s platform will continue to be offered for free to individual authors and that the service will also continue to “pay royalties on Pronoun’s existing payment schedule.” Pronoun authors will also retain, Brody said, “creative and financial control” of the books they publish through the platform.

Source: Macmillan Buys Self-Publishing Platform Pronoun

Hail and Farewell to The Google Books Case

When the Authors Guild and a group of publishers first sued Google in 2005, the ink was barely dry on the earliest holdings that search engine indexing was a fair use, and the legality of creating search engines for copyrighted content was still subject to serious dispute. Those fears have subsided.

Judge Pierre Leval’s magisterial opinion in the Google case is an authoritative restatement of modern fair use, but it breaks no new ground. After a decade of legal decisions, the proposition that search engines are fair use is so well established as to be boring. While there are still interesting cases at the margins (what counts as a search engine? And when does a search engine go too far?) technologists today have secured their landing zone.

Source: Hail and Farewell to The Google Books Case

The Impact of the Blockchain Goes Beyond Financial Services

During the first generation of the internet, many creators of intellectual property were not properly compensated. Musicians, playwrights, journalists, photographers, artists, fashion designers, scientists, architects, and engineers were not only beholden to record labels, publishers, galleries, film studios, universities, and large corporations (vestiges of the pre-digital age) —these inventors now also had to deal with digital piracy that became possible on the web.

Blockchain technology provides a new platform for creators of intellectual property to get the value they create. Consider the digital registry of artwork, including the certificates of authenticity, condition, and ownership. A new startup, Ascribe, which runs on the blockchain, lets artists themselves upload digital art, watermark it as the definitive version, and transfer it, so similar to bitcoin, it moves from one person’s collection to another’s. The technology solves the intellectual property world’s equivalent of the double-spend problem better than existing digital rights management systems; and artists could decide whether, when, and where they wanted to deploy it.

Source: The Impact of the Blockchain Goes Beyond Financial Services

Copyright Clearance Center Acquires Ixxus

Copyright-Clearance-CenterCopyright Clearance Center, Inc. (CCC), a firm dedicated to creating global licensing and content solutions that make copyright work, has acquired London-based Ixxus, a software professional services firm and leading provider of publishing solutions that reinvent the way organizations work with content. With offices in the UK, US, Spain and Romania, Ixxus is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of CCC. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

According to The Radicati Group, the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) market will grow from $5.5 billion in 2014 to more than $9.4 billion in 2018. This is an average annual growth of 15% over that timeframe. The Ixxus proposition goes beyond the traditional ECM offering, combining content modeling, semantic linking and advanced workflow capabilities to support the publishing process from end to end and deliver truly ‘smart content.’

Source: Copyright Clearance Center Acquires Ixxus | Digital Book World

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