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Publishing News: Britannica isn't dead, it's digital

A traditional publisher takes a bold digital step, copyright issues span sane to bizarre, and PayPal rescinds its role as censor.

Here are the publishing stories that caught my eye this week.

Information doesn’t need to weigh 129 pounds

EB.jpgThe Encyclopaedia Britannica announced its final print run this week. Looking at the description of the closing print product, it’s clear that its day has passed. As the New York Times reports:

“The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.” [Emphasis added.]

Some argue that Wikipedia, with its open, free, crowdsourced content, “did in” the EB. Tim Carmody over at Wired purports that Windows, not Wikipedia, caused EB’s demise:

“Britannica went bankrupt in 1996, long before Wikipedia was a crowdsourced gleam in Jimmy Wales’ open-access eye. In 1990, the company had $650 million in revenue. In 1996, it was being sold off in toto for $135 million. What happened in between was Encarta.”

I prefer to approach the situation from a more positive angle: A group of publishing executives sitting around a boardroom table finally had an “ah-ha!” moment and realized the path to future success was of a digital nature. With print put out to pasture, EB will focus on its online and digital offerings. As described in the Washington Post:

“Online versions of the encyclopedia now serve more than 100 million people around the world, the company said, and are available on mobile devices. The encyclopedia has become increasingly social as well, [Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. president Jorge Cauz] said, because users can send comments to editors. ‘A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it,’ Cauz said. ‘Whereas our online edition is updated continuously.’”

The EB offers access to its content through a subscription model online ($69.95 annually) and through its app ($1.99 monthly). Merriam-Webster also is a subsidiary of EB — I’ve had my own an annual subscription to the online unabridged version of that product for a couple years now.

“But, how will EB compete with Wikipedia?” you might ask. EB president Jorge Cauz addresses this point in an interview at NPR:

“We will probably never be as large as Wikipedia because we need to concentrate on fewer topics where we can allocate scholarly knowledge. You know, we have a different assortment of contributors that really know their subject areas. We obviously put editorial processes in place so that we can actually deliver on a source of content that is factually correct and created by the experts. That, actually, is a very different value proposition than Wikipedia.”

So, perhaps we shouldn’t mourn the end of an era or the death of a print product, but instead celebrate a publisher that is embracing the digital age.

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Copyright was in the spotlight a few times this week. First up, a federal court in Nevada made a fair use ruling late last Friday. A post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) summarizes:

“The judgment — part of the nuisance lawsuit avalanche started by copyright troll Righthaven — found that Democratic Underground did not infringe the copyright in a Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article when a user of the online political forum posted a five-sentence excerpt, with a link back to the newspaper’s website.

“Judge Roger Hunt’s judgment confirms that an online forum is not liable for its users’ posts, even if it was not protected by the safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s notice and takedown provisions. The decision also clarifies that a common practice on the Internet — excerpting a few sentences and linking to interesting articles elsewhere — is a fair use, not an infringement of copyright.”

The EFF post dives deep into the background of the case — and the copyright troll — and is well worth the read.

In other copyright news, aggregators and search engines are being called to the carpet in Germany to pay publishers for “reproducing even short snippets of articles” — the same practice the Nevada court just deemed fair use. PC World reports that proponents of the new copyright law, being written by the German ministry of justice, argue that search engines like Google make a lot of money from digital content and those revenues should be shared. Proponents also point out that such a law will “hopefully also make publishers better equipped when they need to take on sites that abuse their content, which is a problem at the moment.”

Those against the law argue that publishers are shooting themselves in the foot. The PC World post reports:

“It is just a comically stupid policy, according to Joe McNamee, advocacy coordinator at European Digital Rights (EDRi). The reason publishers put their content on the Internet is so that people can access it, and punishing companies for helping people to find content is nothing short of absurd, he said via email.

“Also, if the publishers’ inability to evolve in the digital environment leads to policies that allow them not to evolve, then this will ultimately be bad for them, according to McNamee.”

Officials told PC World that the law could be published by April, but likely wouldn’t go into effect until next year.

And in downright weird copyright news, the Belgian copyright society SABAM wants to start charging libraries fees for having volunteers read books to children. Robin Wauters at The Next Web reports:

“Twice a month, the library in Dilbeek welcomes about 10 children to introduce them to the magical world of books … SABAM got in touch with the library to let them know that it thinks this is unacceptable, however, and that they should start coughing up cash for the audacity to read stories from copyrighted books out loud. The library rep calculates that it could cost them roughly 250 euros (which is about $328) per year to pay SABAM for the right to — again — READ BOOKS TO KIDS.”

Cory Doctorow describes the situation poignantly: “The technical term for this is ‘eating your seed corn’ (a less technical term might be ‘acting like a titanic asshole’).”

PayPal comes to its senses

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpgIn a follow-up to recent PayPal news, in which PayPal attempted to establish itself as the content police, the company has decided to rescind its censorship demands. PayPal’s new-new terms are described in a post at TechDirt:

“Under the new policy, only books with graphic images that fall under the US-based Miller test will be affected. Going forward, PayPal will also be taking a more targeted approach to enforcement. Instead of focusing on entire classes of fiction, it will work on a book by book basis. This specific change should allow for a better process in which the affected authors can appeal the decision to remove their works while getting the individual focus such decisions deserve.”

In an email sent to authors and publishers, Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, a company directly affected by PayPal’s policy changes, sums it up:

“This is a big, bold move by PayPal. It represents a watershed decision that protects the rights of writers to write, publish and distribute legal fiction. It also protects the rights of readers to purchase and enjoy all fiction in the privacy of their own imagination. It clarifies and rationalizes the role of financial services providers and pulls them out of the business of censoring legal fiction.”

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Photo (top): UBN Encyclopaedia Britannica by Ziko, on Wikimedia Commons

Photo (bottom): Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour, on Wikimedia Commons

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