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Publishing News: Publishing’s worst-case fate, Amazon as US Steel

Possible fates of the publishing industry, Google appeals court ruling, an open source book scanner, and your textbook may be looking at you.

Here are a few stories from the publishing space that caught my attention this week.

Applying an historical perspective to the fate of the publishing industry

NPR’s Adam Davidson looked this week at the Penguin-Random House merger from an industrial historical perspective. In a piece at the New York Times, Davidson looked at the effect of mergers in other industries, such as U.S. Steel — instead of competing by innovating new and cheaper ways to make steel, owner J. P. Morgan opted to merge three companies and buy most of the iron ore range from which most steel companies purchased materials. The consequences were dire all around. Davidson writes:

“As a result, the company hardly worried about competition; it had little need to innovate or compete on price, which made everything from cars to soda cans more expensive. Worse, it left a massive industry unprepared for the growth of innovative Asian companies during the 1970s and 1980s. By then, U.S. Steel all but collapsed, and a chunk of the U.S. economy went down with it.”

Davidson notes that some companies, such as Sears with its innovation in sales and delivery models, were able to innovate to stay ahead and says that the publishing industry is falling somewhere in between. He presents an interesting look at possible paths, but concludes with a warning of a worst-case fate for the publishing industry:

“Reuters recently reported that Amazon (which somehow holds a patent for the “one-click shopping” button) was hiring several high-profile patent lawyers with the mandate to ‘identify and evaluate strategic I.P. acquisition and licensing opportunities.’ The company has argued that it buys up patents to defend against the lawsuits of others. That may be partly true, but the worst fate for readers isn’t the merger of a few struggling companies in a diminishing business. It’s the threat of another U.S. Steel.”

You can read Davidson’s piece in its entirety here — it’s this week’s recommended read.

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Google appeals class-action lawsuit, Google dev open sources $1,500 scanner

In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the Authors Guild could move forward with its class action suit against Google. This week, Google lawyers appealed the ruling on the basis that the book scanning project is protected by fair use. Jeff John Roberts reports at PaidContent:

“Ordinarily, copying an entire work is not fair use but Google argues that its scanning qualifies because the digital copies don’t compete with the existing books but add ‘something new’ — ‘a greatly improved way of finding them.’ The company also argues that the scanned books, which can be seen only in small snippets, do not hurt the market for the original book.”

Additionally, Roberts reports, Google lawyers are arguing that a class-action suit isn’t appropriate because “most authors actually approve of the scanning, and that these authors shouldn’t be dragged into a legal action with those who don’t.”

In loosely related news, Google Books engineer Dany Qumsiyeh put the work perk Google provides — allowing employees to spend 20% of their work time on other projects — to good use: Along with his fellow teammates, he’s developed an open source book scanner with a $1,500 price tag. Jeff Blagdon reports at The Verge:

“The scanner uses air suction from an ordinary vacuum cleaner to isolate individual pages, scanning the front and back in one pass along the device’s prism-shaped body. After a quick 40-second setup, it can digitize a 1000-page book in a little over 90 minutes (although that could be easily improved with a faster motor), and unlike many popular scanners on the market it doesn’t require anyone to man the controls once it’s been set in motion.”

And because the plans are open source, you’re free to tinker to your heart’s content. You can see Qumsiyeh present the prototype in a talk from May in the following video:

Big Brother goes to school

TechDirt’s Glyn Moody took note this week of a recent article at The Chronicle of Higher Education about startup CourseSmart’s newly released smart textbook system, which is designed to data mine students’ reading habits.

According to the Chronicle article, the system will track students’ notes, highlights, pages read and time spent reading. The idea, CourseSmart executives say, is to help professors identify and reach out to students “showing low engagement.”

Moody points out several ways the tool could spin out of control and be abused — tracking cheaters, identifying “unauthorized readers” (read: a student who hasn’t paid for the text), or to make demands on or control students’ reading time. He argues:

“What’s really tragic is that digital textbooks have the potential to be used in all kinds of truly innovative ways … Instead, publishers are obsessed with tracking users and controlling how they use ebooks, largely out of an absurd, underlying fear that somewhere along the line somebody might be doing something without paying for it.”

The system will be available in 2013, according to the Chronicle post, and CourseSmart CEO Sean Devine noted that the system is set up so students who don’t want to share their data can opt out.

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