New DMCA exemptions for 2012

Every 3 years since 1998, the Librarian of Congress has been allowed to issue new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  The DMCA is the act which (among other things) makes it illegal to circumvent copy protection schemes and DRM.

The 2012 crop of exemptions (here’s the official document) goes into effect today.  The document itself is pretty lengthy, but Ars Technica has a great distillation of the important points.  In bullet point form, here’s the new things that the DMCA no longer outlaws:

  • Jailbreaking your iPhone (or any other smartphone) is now legal.  There’s a notable distinction here though: the exception applies to only phones.  Tablets are specifically excluded.  In the words of the rule, “…this aspect of the proposed class was broad and ill-defined, as a wide range of devices might be considered “tablets”…” Essentially, if it’s hard to define a tablet then how can it be made an exemption?  An interesting point, though I don’t agree with the results.
  • Unlocking your smartphone (making it compatible with a competitor’s cell network) without a carrier’s permission was previously exempted but will no longer be allowed if you buy your phone after January 2013.  Why?  Court rulings since the 2009 exemptions place more emphasis on the fact that we don’t own software – we just license it.  The new exemptions also note that “…there are ample alternatives to circumvention”.  The difference between jailbreaking and unlocking seems like splitting hairs to me, but it is what it is.
  • We’re allowed to rip DVDs (but if I read it right, not blu-rays) and use excerpts in noncommercial, documentary, or educational films.  That’s great, but I’m sad that the proposed exemption to allow “space shifting” of DVDs was denied.  That would have let individual movie owners transfer movies to their PC, home server, or mobile device.  Alas.
  • Visually impaired users who purchase an ebook can remove DRM to allow the text to be electronically read aloud.  The 2009 exemptions already allowed this one, but only in the case that content providers had specifically disabled read aloud functions.   Now that requirement is gone, so this one’s a slight win.  But it comes with a big caveat – the exemption does not include distribution of DRM-removal software to those blind users.  So as the Ars Technica article points out: the visually impaired are welcome to remove DRM, but only if they can write software to do it themselves.

That last contradiction reinforces my belief that the DMCA is a fundamentally broken piece of legislation.  It’s nice that it allows for periodic exemptions, but that process is too narrowly scoped.  Looking at Ars’ excellent analysis again:

“The space-shifting ruling is a good illustration of the fundamental brokenness of the DMCA. In order to convince the Librarian to allow DVD ripping in order to watch it on an iPad, a court would first need to rule that doing so falls under copyright’s fair use defense. To get such a ruling, someone would have to rip a DVD (or sell a DVD-ripping tool), get sued in court, and then convince a judge that DVD ripping is fair use. But in such a case, the courts would probably never reach the fair use question, because—absent an exemption from the Librarian of Congress—circumvention is illegal whether or not the underlying use of the work would be a fair use. So no fair use ruling without an exemption, and no exemption without a fair use ruling. A classic catch-22.”

Interesting things I’ve read this week – 10/19/12

Random House Says Libraries Own Their Ebooks

(Library Journal) I’m entirely surprised to read this headline and story, but Random House now flat out says that libraries own ebooks that they’ve bought from them.  That may seem like an obvious statement, but up till now libraries have only been able to license, not own, ebooks from the big 6 fiction publishers.  Of course, libraries don’t buy ebooks directly from publishers like Random House.  We’re still at the mercy of licenses we sign with vendors like Overdrive – and those licenses very clearly deny ownership.  Now it’ll be an issue of getting vendor licenses to line up with what Random House says here.  Plus trying to get the other big publishers to commit to the same thing, of course.  Those are still big hurdles, but at least it’s progress.

How We Lost the Future (Final Bullet)

In some ways I see this as a counterpoint to Louis CK’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” bit.  Have we lost the capability to even think about and imagine what the future might be?  “To say ‘we live in the future’ is an expression of a predestination fantasy. This way of thinking is cheating us out of the exciting reality of growing and achieving a future.”

How Not to Talk to Your Kids (New York Magazine)

This is a bit old (2007), but as an expecting parent I find myself paying a lot more attention to issues surrounding child-rearing.  I’m trying to avoid drowning myself in advice & ‘systems’ of child-rearing, but this piece dealing with how styles of praise have huge effects makes a lot of sense to me.

Can Boxee reinvent cable with the help of a TV antenna? (The Verge)

At home we use an antenna to watch live TV, and a Hulu subscription to watch things later.  For the most part I’m really happy with the setup, but I do still miss having the ability to pause live TV.  Current solutions for that issue are largely homegrown and a pain to set up & maintain.  The new Boxee TV has a good chance to change that, though the thought of another $15/month subscription does give me pause.

The forgotten Kindle

I don’t think there’s any consumer product line I’m more conflicted about than the Kindle. As a consumer, my Kindle Touch makes me very happy. At the same time, the Kindle Fire I’ve used made me very sad. (And as a librarian, well that’s another story entirely.)

But one thing’s for sure, the whole family of devices continues to be a big hit. Today’s announcement of the expansion of the Fire line to three different devices will no doubt have a major effect on the tablet market. And I’m certainly lusting after the new ‘paperwhite’ Kindle.

But what about the Kindle DX? The current version of this largest Kindle (with an 9.7″ e-ink screen) was released over two years ago, and hasn’t seen a major software upgrade since that time. Despite being seemingly tailor-made for reading PDF journal articles comfortably on an e-ink screen, the DX is missing the advanced PDF highlighting and navigation functions that were added to all the smaller Kindles long ago. The price hasn’t changed since July 2010 either – it’s still $379. (For the record, $379 could buy you five regular Kindles with money left over for books now.)

At this point I have to wonder what plans Amazon has for the DX. Sometimes I picture a warehouse somewhere packed full of the devices after an accidental massive over-order long ago. But even if that were true, why hasn’t the price dropped at all?

Amazon sometimes has mysterious motives, but with the DX it seems to be playing an unusually long and confusing game.

Quickly share screenshots with Snipping Tool++

I’m going to try posting more frequently with shorter items. So here’s a good start: Snipping tool ++ is my new favorite bit of free software. Windows 7’s built-in snipping tool is great, but I often need to quickly share a screenshot with someone else online. ST++ auto-uploads it and puts the link in my clipboard all ready to paste into a chat. Ta-da!

Here’s a screenshot I uploaded while composing this post. It’s a no-doubt fascinating view of my taskbar, and took just one keypress and one mouse click to create:

My taskbar

You can get the tool here:

(Found via Lifehacker)

A post-scarcity world

Last week I watched a printer spit out a skull. While I worked on a project at our local TechShop, another member was testing their new Makerbot. Bit by bit, a flawless four inch plastic skull grew before my eyes. I’ve read and thought about 3d printers before, but seeing one in action pushed some buttons about the future of physical items. In particular, I got thinking about what role libraries might play in a world with commonplace 3d printing.

Musician Jonathan Coulton was somehow thinking about the same ideas at the same time. In his reaction to an NPR blog post about young people’s attitudes toward paying for music, Coulton took his analysis in a fascinating direction. He theorized heavily about what might happen to many industries in a post-scarcity world.

What happens when a product can be reproduced by consumers with marginal effort? The music industry and the publishing world are facing early signs of that reality now, but won’t be the last. Coulton goes on to talk about the imminent rise of 3d printers, and the pile of industries they stand ready to disrupt. (There’s an especially fascinating look at a man who printed his own adapters to connect legos, k’nex, and lincoln logs)

Coulton’s post should be required reading for anybody in the library world. While he’s not talking specifically about us, his vision of a post-scarcity world is right up our alley. Libraries have built our business on reducing scarcity – we took a relatively uncommon item like a paper book and made it available to more people than would have access to it otherwise. Now we face the possibility of scarcity itself dropping off a cliff.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the post-scarcity world is upon us. Physical objects which can be easily digitized (books, music, etc) have become virtually obsolete. Most other common 3d goods are now printed at home. What industries or services would be left with viable business models? Here’s a few off the top of my head:

-Support systems for the printers. Raw materials to print with, repairs, etc.

-Food services like restaurants and grocery stores would probably be largely unaffected.

-Other services based around the human body would likely survive relatively unaltered as well. Travel, salons, massages, gyms, etc.

-There will likely be a boom in services related to information management.

I want to focus on that last item a bit, because I think that’s the only place for libraries in a post-scarcity world. If scarcity dies, we would no longer need to be a place to distribute most books, music, or movies. In some ways, that excites me. We’d be able to stop focusing all our efforts on these physical and digital objects! Those objects’ shortcomings have always been something we routed around.

Remove those roadblocks, and we could focus our services on what we’ve always done very well: organizing information and helping people access it. With scarcity gone, the resulting glut of information would be paralyzing if left unsortable and unfiltered.

Libraries which solely manage a flow of non-scarce digital information would admittedly be unrecognizable compared to their current form, but it would still represent a way forward for the profession and a valuable service to society. We might actually be better off than many other industries in the long run, but only if we can convince ourselves to get past the lending of physical objects as the way we justify our collective existence.

OK, Sorry, I went kind of sci-fi crazy there for a minute. I’ll reel it back in: I don’t know if we’ll see society dispense with most scarcity within my lifetime, but I do know that we’ve already seen it decrease in some sectors. Many libraries (both public and academic) face questions from their users here and now: why is a library necessary in an ebook and netflix world? We’re tied to distribution of objects which face an impending removal of scarcity. Can we shift away from them, while we still can?

(Eli Neiburger made very similar points almost two years ago in his “Libraries are Screwed” presentation. It should be required viewing for every librarian everywhere.)

Seeing a 3d printer in action, I noticed something that I’ve never seen mentioned about them before: They’re musical. Think of the noise an old dot-matrix 2d printer made, but somehow more tuned to random notes. So as a musical skull appeared out of thin air in front of my eyes, that’s what triggered the sci-fi thinking. I couldn’t help but wonder about a future in a post-scarcity world. As a group, libraries understandably fight today for ways to lend digital items. But will that even matter in the long term? What if we’re barking up the wrong tree entirely?

The good news is that we stand a chance for survival in a post-scarcity world. The bad news is that we might have to let go of a core part of our identity to get there.

Responsive web design with Bootstrap.

In an effort to improve my coding skills, I’ve been working on a little php/mysql shared shopping list webapp for my wife and I to use. Today I finished moving the UI into the Bootstrap framework. Bootstrap is a side project by some of the developers at Twitter, who had the goal of making attractive UI elements that conform to the ideals of response design.

A responsively designed site will conform to the screen size of whatever device views it. Desktop, phones, or something else in between. As someone who maintains a mobile site at work that’s entirely separate from our desktop site, the idea of integrating the two was pretty appealing. No separate code bases to maintain!

I’m happy to report that Bootstrap makes the process of developing a responsive site dead simple and, dare I say it, even fun. Above is what the shopping list looks like on my phone. Here’s what it looks like on the desktop. Remember, that’s the same html file on both devices:

From Shopping List project

Responsive design probably doesn’t fit the goals of every site out there, but it’s a design philosophy I find intriguing. If you’re at all interested in responsive design, give Bootstrap a look.

Is Udacity the future of higher ed?

I’ve spent the last two months enrolled in Udacity‘s Computer Science 101 course, and I’m happy to report that I scored 100% on the final exam! But what was it like?

Udacity is a Higher-Ed Startup, as odd as that term seems. That’s a crowded category lately, with startups offering college-level instruction for free. Of course there’s one important caveat: Udacity is unaccredited. I’m not working toward a degree here, though I will get a snazzy certificate of completion to print out.

Was it academically rigorous? Yes, though I don’t think it’s quite equivalent to the CS 101 class I took as an undergrad. There were some more advanced concepts missing from Udacity’s class. Instead, I found it roughly equivalent to the AP Computer Science class I took in high school. We started with foundations of what a computer is and how it works, and got all the way up to some trickier concepts like data structures and recursion. Portions of the final exam were quite challenging, and one of the questions stumped me until almost the last minute.

But I think evaluating Udacity’s CS 101 as a course should boil down to one question: Do I know more about programming than I did in April? Yes, I absolutely do. Professor Dave Evans (who also teaches at the University of Virginia) is a great teacher who capably broke up complex concepts into understandable nuggets. I’ll admit this was somewhat of a refresher course for me, but my original CS 101 class was over ten years ago and much of the knowledge I retained was quite faded. It was helpful to come in with some basic level of programming experience, but I think I could have done well even without that baseline.

What’s more interesting to me is Udacity’s course structure. I probably spent 3 or 4 hours per week on the class in total. The learning experience is broken up into seven units, each designed to take a week to complete. Each unit is in turn broken up into short (usually 1-3 minutes) videos and automated quizzes. It’s simple to rewatch the more complex portions of a video, something I did quite a bit. At the end of each unit there’s a set of automatically evaluated homework questions. Units built on each other, slowly teaching us how to build an actual functioning web crawler and search engine. I’m quite impressed that such a seemingly complex task could be taught so well to programming novices in just 8 weeks.

While the work was rigorous, I admit the promise of instantly available solutions for the homework made it very tempting to give up on a question earlier than I would have otherwise. Homework didn’t count toward the course grade, but in retrospect I wish it did.

Like any class, Udacity’s offerings will only be as good as the instructor teaching it. While I was quite happy with Dave Evans’ teaching style, I grew somewhat frustrated with one of the TAs. Explanations and clarifications were often confusing and hard to follow. But this was where the class discussion forums came in handy. Another student was often able to clarify things much better than the actual TA. I’ll admit I never actively participated in the discussions, but I was the recipient of much wisdom from reading along.

So my overall Udacity experience was a positive one. I refreshed/enhanced my basic programming knowledge and got that snazzy certificate. I’m happy enough that I’ll be signing up for more courses in the next session. I’m going to attempt both CS253 (Web Application Engineering) and their new Intro to Statistics offering at the same time. I might drop down to just one, but I’m optimistic that I can handle both. The next course session is the first time Udacity has expanded beyond Computer Science, with these new offerings:

  • Intro to Physics: Landmarks in Physics
  • Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data Statistics
  • Logic & Discrete Mathematics: Foundations in Computing
  • Software Testing: How to Make Software Fail
  • Algorithms: Crunching Social Networks

I’m very interested to see if something beyond CS can be taught well in such a CS-aligned platform. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has said that in 50 years there will only be ten providers of higher education in the whole world. I don’t think he’s right about that, but I do think there’s a place for offerings from Udacity at the table.

Status Check: Public Library Ebook Friction

I’ve been asked to speak later today on a panel about ebooks in public libraries. Thanks to the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough for the opportunity! While my day-to-day work is in an academic library, not public, I still try and keep current on the issues faced in our sibling institutions. If we learned nothing else from a recent ebook survey on campus, it’s that our students bring their perceptions of popular-fiction ebooks and apply them equally to academic ebooks.

I’ve been asked if my talk would be recorded or streamed, and I don’t think it will be. But here’s my slides:

I admit many of them don’t make much sense without my accompanying narration. So here’s a summary:

-Popular Fiction publishers love the word ‘Friction’ when applied to ebooks. They’re terrified that if it becomes too easy to get an ebook from a library, customers won’t have any motivation to spend money to actually buy ebooks individually anymore. So they want to introduce friction into the process. I can understand this fear to a point. But major publishers’ reactions is so swift and violent that they don’t seem willing to even experiment and see if their fears are justified. They’re shutting libraries out without a second thought. There’s also other arguments like the idea that libraries create lifelong readers, who turn into publishsers’ best customers. But others have made that argument much more coherently than I can.

-Why are libraries different? Why can’t we just buy a Kindle book like anyone else and then lend it out, the same way we do with print copies?
For one thing, when someone buys an ebook they’re not purchasing the book itself. We’re purchasing a license to use that title for personal use only. The terms of Amazon’s license, for example, specifically note that “…you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party.” So, no library lending is allowed. Barnes & Noble and other ebook vendors all have similar language in their licenses.
Even if we could negotiate a better license for library use, we’re still limited by Digital Rights Management in the books. DRM is programming which restricts each purchased ebook title to use on the original purchaser’s device. I could email you a Kindle book I bought, but you couldn’t open it on your own device. Some publishers like TOR are toying with DRM-free ebooks, but their licenses still prohibit library-style lending.

-What’s left for libraries? We have to rely on vendors like Overdrive and 3M. These are companies who act as middlemen; they negotiate with publishers for a license which allows lending, then sell a license to the books (laden with DRM) to libraries. But even that isn’t simple. Let’s look at six of the major publishers and how they sell to libraries through middlemen:

  • Penguin used to sell ebooks to libraries, but stopped in February. If a library previously bought an ebook from them, they can keep lending it. But Penguin disabled the option which allows a Kindle to directly download the title. They introduced the ‘friction’ of requiring a user to download the book and move it to their Kindle with a USB cable.
  • HarperCollins sells ebooks to libraries, but limits them to 26 checkouts. After that milestone is hit, the ebook evaporates and must be re-purchased. I think this is crazy. HarperCollins argues that no print book lasts forever, so why should a library be able to lend an ebook in perpetuity? This is true, but most print titles last much much longer than 26 checkouts. A popular HarperCollins ebook will expire in just one year.
  • Random House sells ebooks to libraries, but at significantly higher prices than individual users pay. Titles average a 35% increase in price, and some go as high as 300%.
  • Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and MacMillan won’t sell ebooks to libraries at all. This is why you won’t ever find Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs in ebook form in a library, among many other titles.

Think this is wrong? The San Rafael Public Library has a great webpage with contact info for all the publishers mentioned here. Let them know how you feel.

Other restrictions further impact how easy it is for libraries to lend ebooks. When an ebook is purchased from Overdrive, it won’t appear in the library’s catalog. Borrowers must know to go to a whole separate catalog to browse ebooks. Libraries also can’t re-sell ebooks, a fact which could impact fundraising efforts down the road. Overdrive and other library ebook vendors also limit checkouts to a two-week period with no renewals. That simply isn’t long enough to read many ebooks, such as the 1000+ page sequels to A Game of Thrones. Alternatively, if you finish a short ebook quickly there’s no way to return it early. The next person in line has to wait for those two weeks to be up before they can get the ebook. More friction.

So that’s the state of things. I don’t claim to know what the solution is, or where we go from here. Some libraries boycott ebooks under these limitations, and others want to provide any limited service they can. I go back and forth on that debate. But at the very least I think library users should be informed about the issues. I think public libraries of 20 years from now will be almost unrecognizable from today’s branches in a number of ways. Ebooks represent only one of those changes, but it’s a big one.

Maxing out the curve on ebook adoption

Last week Melissa and I visited the Wake County Public Library’s annual fundraiser book sale. I’d heard the legends, but never actually attended: 400,000+ books laid out on tables in a giant warehouse at the state fairgrounds. It’s pictured here. Think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now fill it with books instead of crates. That’s what it was like.

We went on day 1, with prices at a relatively high $4/hardcover and $2/paperback. We came away with a good haul of 15-20 books, all stuff we’ve legitimately wanted to read. Things were orderly and dignified in the warehouse, with staffers calmly directing shoppers to their preferred genre. I took my time and pieced together William Gibson’s entire Bridge trilogy, among other finds. We left feeling happy and encouraged. But then, based on that encouragement, we foolishly returned on the final day of the sale. By that point everything drops to $5 per box (and it’s a big box).

A certain kind of madness had set in. I witnessed shoppers indiscriminately shove whole rows of books into a box. It didn’t matter what kind of book, who the author was, or even what condition it was in – they wanted them all. Others jealously guarded a stack of empty boxes, keeping watch while a partner filled them one by one. The Children’s section looked like the aftermath of a bomb, and the sci-fi tables in particular were picked to the bone. Only the sad Reference section remained quiet (and if you ever wanted a copy of the 1997 NC Statutes, boy was that your chance). Trying to browse was chaotic at best, and we came away with only another half dozen books that we really truly wanted to read and own. Still a deal, but I’m not sure it was worth the ordeal.

The whole experience popped back into my head this morning when I saw Pew’s new report on ebook adoption and use in the US. Between PDF journal articles at work and my Kindle at home, I spend most of my reading life in the e-book world. But Pew reminds me that my habits aren’t yet normal at all. Just 21% of adults have read an ebook in the past year. Granted, Pew also found that the number of people who read an ebook each day has increased four times in just the last two years. But as noted in the summary:

“The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.”

Now I’m thinking back to the hardcore book grabbers at the sale: what will convince them to adopt e-books? Or would anything at all conceivably push them past the tipping point? Will they give up their feeding frenzy sales and packed bookshelves for a little convenience? Personally, I could see myself hitting that point someday. But the sale truly reminded me that I’m not the normal here.

I think what Pew left off at the end of that sentence above is “…for now.” That 21% will certainly continue to grow, but not forever. At what point will it eventually level off? At what point will we max out on the adoption curve? Will we be left with a few book-preferring holdouts, or will it be a more equal division? What will fundraiser book sales of the future look like, if they exist at all?

And, as always: Where do libraries fit into this picture?

Are we leaving the Gutenberg Parenthesis?

The news that Penguin is ending its relationship with Overdrive (which in turns stops library purchasing of Penguin ebooks for now) has me thinking about the idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis again.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is an idea that the printing press represented a massive shift in the recording and distribution of information. We rode that wave for about 500 years, but now digital distribution may represent an equally massive shift. The parenthesis opened with Gutenberg, but is it closing now? I’m afraid it may be for libraries.

Libraries were a major beneficiary of a printing press world. Information could be mass produced in an easily lendable book form, a form which was also difficult to restrict. Anybody who held the book could also access it, which provided a firm foundation for lending of material. There’s more to the parenthesis idea than just form of packaging, but it’s the part that I think most about.

The parenthesis and its inherent book-style packaging also represented a method for controlling content. We got lucky, and that control developed in a way benefitting libraries. Before the parenthesis opened, traditions were largely oral and couldn’t easily be stored in institutions. Inside the parenthesis, we got discrete objects without limitations that worked well for lending. Knowledge could be easily stored and accessed by many readers. But digital text may be the closing parenthesis, taking us back out of that easy and simple control.

In its easily copyable and non-permanent form, ebooks might be more akin to the earlier oral traditions than to physical printed copies. The potential loss of control over text, and its effect on their business model, is something publishers find terrifying. As a result they’re attempting to use DRM and other means to re-establish print levels of control over the digital world.

I think they’ve stumbled also on an unanticipated side effect of digital control – cutting libraries out of ebook lending. I have no idea where this quote originally came from, but I’ve repeatedly heard that “if libraries didn’t exist today, publishers would never let them be created.” I’ve also read repeatedly that publishers see it as essential to introduce ‘friction’ into the process of ebook lending. Digital text is trivially easy to send or copy, but borrowers might be required to go to a physical library to get the ebook or wait in line for a digital copy.

These restrictions strike me as particularly nonsensical. Publishers’ main competition for ebook sales is going to be the inevitable free pirated versions. Sellers have to be better than free to compete, a lesson the music industry took a long time to learn. Convenience and selection are the only ways to compete with a free product, but Penguin and others seem intent on putting up roadblocks to exactly those two elements when it comes to libraries.

Whether publishers can truly extend our time inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis remains to be seen. But they’re going to try their hardest. Will libraries match the effort to stay relevant and viable? We need to find a new model, because I don’t believe publishers will let the current one stand. It’s not too late yet, but it might be soon.

I hold out some small hope that Penguin’s withdrawl from Overdrive might be a good thing. Overdrive currently has an almost complete monopoly on popular fiction ebook lending for libraries. If Penguin goes to another vendor for library distribution instead, well then we’ve got competition. And that’s one force which applies equally both in and out of the parenthesis.