I've been wanting to avoid writing about the (latest) mess Amazon finds itself in. However, the story is being mis-told all over the place, so I'm going to pontificate about it.
Compare, if you will, these two headlines: "Amazon redacts Orwell on Kindle like it’s ‘1984’"
versus "Pirated copies of Orwell books pulled from Kindle"
. You'd almost think they were talking about two different things, but in fact they're talking about the same thing. And here is where Amazon seems to have failed completely to learn the lessons of its past gaffes.
It is true that Amazon pulled some e-books off Kindles after customers had paid for them. The problem is that those books were 'stolen goods' to which Amazon never had sale rights in the first place. The fact that those pirated e-books were Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm makes me think this was a deliberate hack set up to embarrass Amazon. And it seems to be working, as the company first took the action silently, then has failed to manage the publicity around the incident, starting with the initial New York Times piece.
The gaffe here isn't that they pulled e-books that people had bought; it's that they're currently in a situation where they're looking at new competition from a new e-book reader put out by competitor Barnes & Noble and they can't manage to keep egg off their face. The way this situation has been handled is putting doubts into the minds of customers who are already hesitant to adopt a new reader technology.
For years, the Cartel has slowly been infecting the public mind with the notion that by buying a CD or DVD you don't actually own that music or movie - you just own a piece of plastic and the bits that are burned into that plastic are still the Cartel's property. Now Amazon has shown that the same thing is true for Kindle e-books. You don't really own the books, you just own the hunk of plastic pictured above.
That has some further unpleasant implications; for example, Christopher Dawson's piece "Amazon ate my homework, or why DRM stinks for education" draws a direct line from Amazon's actions to the larger implications of harm to student education from digital control technologies. In an ideal world, schools would save a bundle by buying Kindles or other e-book readers and giving (or loaning) them to students. My bet is that, just as there is a serious economic argument for Kindle over home-delivered newspaper, there's a serious financial case for putting student texts onto e-readers.
But what teacher or school administrator wants to worry about their whole school's supply of a textbook disappearing overnight because of some error that the publisher (Amazon) decides to "rectify" by erasing all downloaded copies of the book? I'd guess none. Maybe Amazon can convince schools it won't happen. But really, you don't want to have to make that argument in the first case because this should never have happened. Amazon should have taken steps to make things right with the Orwell book rights holder without impacting its customers' experience. I feel like a broken record saying "customer experience matters most" over and over, but it's still true.
Amazon has just proven that it can take seemingly random actions that result in bad things happening to innocent people. And you're going to sell that as a good technology to... who?
PhD Comics presents its take on the process whereby scientists produce original material and then give it away (for free) to a system where other scientists work (for free) to select from those works so they can be published in journals that then charge huge fees to read this freely contributed work.
This is sort of funny, particularly in the way the cartoonist draws the rivalry between the journals Nature and Science. But it's also really serious business, in which peoples' life work gets held for very expensive ransom by an exclusivist system of copyright monopolists. It's one reason I'm a supporter of PLOS, the Public Library of Science.
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July 7, 2009
The stated purpose of patents, as spelled out in the US Constitution is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts..." I've pointed out cases in the past where the way patents are granted and used is actually contrary to progress in the useful arts I practice. Now a pair of researchers have published a paper in Columbia Science and Technology Law Review called "Patents and the Regress of Useful Arts."
In this paper, the authors report on a simulation they conducted to examine the behavior of potential patent holders and competitors under a variety of condition. The PDF of the full paper is available from the bottom of that linked abstract page. They compared situations involving patents (exclusive rights) against two non-patent situations - commons and open source. The surprising result (to Copyfighters) is that open source produced inferior results to a pure commons system given how the authors measured innovation, productivity, and societal utility.
As with any simulation, it's certainly possible to argue with the parameters of the model, the experimental set-up, and the interpretations of the results. In addition, the game results may be biased by the selection of players who, in this case, were incoming law school students. It's also unclear whether any game of this sort can capture all of the motivations for patenting as they exist in the real commercial environment. People get patents to protect their own inventions or to restrict competition, of course, but they may also seek patents for purely secondary purposes, such as improving their bargaining position with larger rivals or with venture capitalists. Of course, you could counter-argue that none of that is really useful progress as conceived by the framers of the Constitution.
(Full disclosure: the second author of this paper was a grad student at MIT while I was there and remains a friend and professional colleague. For whatever reason, he didn't mention this work when I saw him back in April. I found this publication through the blog of a mutual friend.)
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