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Publishing News: Tor sets content free

A major publisher drops DRM, Harvard opens up, and a Reuters blogger sparks a news-for-sale debate.

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

Tor breaks the stick

Tor-Forge-Logo.JPGJoe Wikert, O’Reilly GM and publisher, asked this week, “What if DRM goes away?” As kismet would have it, publisher Tom Doherty Associates, which publishes popular science fiction/fantasy imprint Tor under Macmillan, stepped up to drop DRM and find out. An announcement post on Tor.com stated that by July, the company’s “entire list of e-books will be available DRM-free.” President and publisher Tom Doherty said for the announcement:

“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time. They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

Author Cory Doctorow said the move “might be the watershed for ebook DRM, the turning point that marks the moment at which all ebooks end up DRM-free. It’s a good day.” Author Charlie Stross took a look at the big picture and what this might mean not only for the future of publishers, but for book retailers, supply chains and ebook reading technology. In part, he said the oligopoly may be in jeopardy:

“Longer term, removing the requirement for DRM will lower the barrier to entry in ebook retail, allowing smaller retailers (such as Powells) to compete effectively with the current major incumbents. This will encourage diversity in the retail sector, force the current incumbents to interoperate with other supply sources (or face an exodus of consumers), and undermine the tendency towards oligopoly. This will, in the long term, undermine the leverage the large vendors currently have in negotiating discount terms with publishers while improving the state of midlist sales.”

Jeremy Trevathan, publisher at Tor UK’s parent Pan Macmillan, told The Guardian that Macmillan has “no thought of extending [the drop of DRM] beyond science fiction and fantasy publishing. But it’s in the air. We’ve not talked about this to other publishers, but I can’t imagine they haven’t been thinking about this, too.”

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Harvard offers up big data and open access research

Harvard University recently made a couple of notable moves to open up access to its data and research. Last week, Harvard’s faculty and advisory council sent a memo to faculty members regarding periodical subscriptions. The memo opened: “We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.”

Ian Sample at The Guardian reported:

“According to the Harvard memo, journal subscriptions are now so high that to continue them ‘would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.’ The memo asks faculty members to encourage their professional organisations to take control of scholarly publishing, and to consider submitting their work to open access journals and resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access.”

This week, The New York Times (NYT) reported that “Harvard is making public the information on more than 12 million books, videos, audio recordings, images, manuscripts, maps, and more things inside its 73 libraries.” Access to this volume of metadata is likely to fuel innovation for developers. The NYT report stated:

“At a one-day test run with 15 hackers working with information on 600,000 items, [David Weinberger, co-director of Harvard's Library Lab] said, people created things like visual timelines of when ideas became broadly published, maps showing locations of different items, and a ‘virtual stack’ of related volumes garnered from various locations.”

The post noted the “metadata will be available for bulk download both from Harvard and from the Digital Public Library of America, which is an effort to create a national public library online.”

News scoops for sale or rent

There also was a dustup in the news space this week. It began with Felix Salmon’s post at Reuters suggesting the New York Times could rake in revenue by selling advance access to its feature stories to hedge funds. (This was all brought on by the newspaper’s feature piece on a Wal-Mart bribe inquiry on a Saturday and the market response the following Monday.)

Salmon argued:

“The main potential problem I see here is that if such an arrangement were in place, corporate whistleblowers might be risking prosecution as insider traders. But I’m sure the lawyers could work that one out. The church-lady types would I’m sure faint with horror. But if hedge funds are willing to pay the NYT large sums of money to be able to get a glimpse of stories before they’re made fully public, what fiduciary could simply turn such hedge funds away?”

GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram posted a response from a journalism ethics standpoint:

“One of the things that bothers me about this idea is that I think there is still some kind of public-service or public-policy value in journalism, and especially the news — I don’t think it is just another commodity that should be designed to make as much money as possible. And if the New York Times were to take stories that are arguably of social significance and provide them to hedge funds in advance, I think that would make it a very different type of entity than it is now. What if it was a story about a dangerous drug or national security?”

Salmon posted a follow-up argument, in part responding to Ingram:

“The journalism-ethics angle to this hasn’t really been fleshed out, though. Mathew Ingram, for instance, says that if news is being put out in the public service, then it shouldn’t be ‘just another commodity'; if the NYT were to go down this road, then ‘that would make it a very different type of entity than it is now.’ It’s all very vague and hand-wavey.”

All three posts in this back-and-forth exchange (here, here and here) as well as the debate on Twitter that Ingram storified here are well worth the read.

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