15 January 2013

Sausages, Sausages, I'm All Through With Sausages, Sausages

Today's platter is especially chunky.

  • Publishers are finally starting to wake up to the idiocy of DRM. Ironically, one of the first "market leader" publishers in Europe to do so is in the Netherlands, a notorious pirate haven... and isn't really abandoning DRM in concept at all. Many people assume that "DRM means ways to prevent making copies," which is as much an all-inclusive description of "digital rights management" as is the claim that "leadership means boot-camp-like assholery." If you have to do DRM at all, it seems to me that the least-bad way of doing so is with traceable watermarking — so long as the watermark does not include any personally identifiable data, such as a credit-card number used to purchase that digital copy at the outset. If the "watermark" is a record that refers back to the publisher/vendor's internal order number, and all of that other personally identifiable data is kept offline, that's probably acceptable.

    My concern about watermarking has to do with the collateral damage that is going to arise from the inevitable watermark-removal programs that will be popping up as fast as DeCSS did. Some people are simply not going to want a watermark on their e-books. Consider, for example, someone moving to Singapore (or another police state), who doesn't want a track record of where he/she has shopped to result in an invitation to assist the ministry with certain inquiries. More darkly, if that watermark does contain private data, the ability to remove it also implies — with a large-enough database of watermarks, perhaps silently gathered and sent to a zombie server by that DeCSS-like program — the ability to understand its content, probably to decode it, and to misuse that personal data contained in the watermark. Or, in a Spy versus Spy-style scenario, the White Spy can discredit the Black Spy by substituting the Black Spy's extracted personally identifiable watermark for that on the White Spy's copy, which will then be released into the wild as a "free" e-book. In short, watermarking is a less-intrusive, but equally futile, form of DRM. In principle, it cannot work, and particularly not in a neighborhood in which everyone not only has a master key to every house, but can construct one from scratch without extensive training.

  • As usual, a Wired columnist manages to get just about everything wrong in his screed about the purported barriers to open access scholarship. Since owner Condé Nast started paying more attention to Wired as a brand a few years back, I've found that the publication's ability to go through the ready-fire-aim cycle for anything relating to intellectual property has achieved nearly 90% inaccuracy... which links back to yesterday's comment (second sausage), and points out the source of this columnist's error.

    The problem is not with the authors of articles. With all due respect to Mr Cohen — which is to say not a whole lot — it's quite apparent that he has spent virtually no time whatsoever hanging around faculty lounges, or any part of academic conferences that does not appear on the public agenda, or in graduate-level seminars, or in any of the other places that academics (whether in the sciences, the humanities, or whatever) actually communicate with each other on a personal level. Not to mention the still-active Usenet and mailing lists, which (because they're not based on GUIs) are entirely beneath notice at Wired. If he had, he might have observed (if he was paying attention to facts instead of to ideology) that there has been a strong tradition of doing "post-publication peer review" as the primary means of establishing and enhancing reputation since the drop in photocopy prices (due to patent expiration) in the early 1990s, which only accelerated with the adoption of PDF as a default file format that maintains some semblance of layout and footnote fidelity. Technically, these authors are violating copyright every time they do so... because they don't own their copyrights.

    The real problem is that academic publishing is, with only a few exceptions (ironically enough, the student-edited law journal system being the most prominent and coherent), a vanity-press niche in which the copyright gets transferred, too. That reality makes Mr Cohen's screed largely irrelevant: As long as the academics themselves do not control either the copyrights in their mixed-fact-and-expression works (which present fascinating-to-nerds-like-me copyright problems in the first place) or the means of distributing those works, there will be distribution problems of the kind that played a part in Mr Swartz's spiral. The problem is not private ownership of mixed-fact-and-expression pieces, but with who owns those pieces; straw doesn't cause cameloid spinal dysplacia when it is spread on the floor, or even gathered into a trough or manger, but only when gathered into discrete bundles and thrown on the cameloid's back for transportation elsewhere. This was Marx's fundamental error: Private ownership of the means of production has virtually nothing to do with unjust distribution of economic benefits; problems arise almost entirely from private, oligopolistic ownership of the means of distribution in a postsubsistence economy. Just determine where the money accretes in academic publishing (hint: even if you treat journal articles as "advertisements" that result in grant disbursement, it's not the authors of those journal articles); it's the same place as in architecture.

    There probably isn't a good retrospective way to fix the past inequities of the academic journal system... and the buggywhip manufacturers are going to shriek at anything that comes even close. Instead, there needs to be a very simple change to copyright law as it stands now that prohibits transfer of copyright or claim of work-for-hire status for nonemployee authors in stand-alone works (ever), and limits periods of exclusivity imposed by contract. In short, if the problem is the distribution system, attack the distribution system. Mr Cohen (and the editors at Wired), however, have a different objective entirely... as is apparent from the magazine's ownership's policies.

  • At the Grauniad, Lyn Gardner ponders the ease of trashing bad musicals because they're musicals (and those of you with a disturbing sense of humor concerning bad Broadway musicals will now understand this platter's title, and how easy it is to use Broadway hits for evil). This has some interesting resonances in category fiction: It's also "easier" to trash bad science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, etc. than it is strictly naturalistic, noncategory fiction and/or literary fiction (the Bad Sex Awards notwithstanding). That's primarily because category fiction often demands more of the setting than does strictly naturalistic and/or literary fiction... leaving one more place for mistakes to be made, just as is at issue with musicals. Then, too, there's the pernicious effect of misguided marketing memes upon both content and availability (scroll down to her last point): If there is a problem with so-called "YA speculative fiction," it is that so much of the marketing and content get determined by people other than the writer and the editor, and that tends to both overwhelm the "careful" practitioners and poison the marketplace itself with the equivalent of Max Bialystock's effort, which the current commercial publishing environment would no doubt turn into a six-to-eleven-novel teen sequence with CW/soap-like quasi-sexual-quasi-romantic undercurrents.

    But then, there are probably worse themes for musicals than that in Springtime for Hitler. Further, not all publicity is good — just ask South America's Team.