Universal Access to All Knowledge (and other ambitions)

I got a chance to say hello again to Brewster Kahle a couple of days ago. The last time we met was in the early 1990s, during the Cambrian Explosion phase of the Web. This was when alternative protocols like Gopher and his WAIS still roamed the Internet.
I’ve used and appreciated the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine but hadn’t fully grokked the breadth of the his vision around providing access not just to the Web per se but also to books and other texts. This is a worthy project that truly merits the community’s assistance.
Brewster is also pushing the envelope on the legal front of copyright doctrine. As I see it, even though DRM is now common in the audio world, and iTunes is a $500M+ business for Apple, this licensed content model couldn’t gain a mass market until “open” MP3 audio had become widely utilized. Most law-abiding users iPods have many more MP3s ripped from their CDs (fair use), than FairPlay AAC files bought on iTunes. IMO we need to (metaphorically speaking) establish the MP3 for e-Books. Open access to a body of uncopyrighted texts is a key piece of that puzzle.
My touchpoint for the legal issues in enabling mainstream adoption of e-Books, including parallels and non-parallels with other media types, is Clifford Lynch’s seminal paper The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World. Long, but definitely recommended reading.

5 Responses to Universal Access to All Knowledge (and other ambitions)

  1. You say:

    IMO we need to (metaphorically speaking) establish the MP3 for e-Books. Open access to a body of uncopyrighted texts is a key piece of that puzzle.

    Is this just PDF? PDFs can be created by almost any software on any platform. And when you need more capabilities, I know you guys have embedded the ability to lock the files down.
    I would have loved to purchase a sony libre, but they had crappy drm and no compatibility.
    It would be trivial to convert the massive Gutenburg collection to PDFs to include on the ebook devices.

  2. John Dowdell says:

    Hi Bill — The phrase “open MP3 audio” can be read in several ways… here’s an overview of the licensing issues:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP3#Licensing_and_patent_issues
    Key line: “Until the key patents expire, open source / free software encoders and players appear to be illegal for commercial use in countries that recognize software patents.”
    Practically speaking it’s what many people would call “open, not proprietary”, but a closer look makes things more complex again.
    (I’ve paid attention to this because Macromedia Shockwave was the first widely-used MP3 player, and SoundEdit 16 the first popular encoder. Macromedia still licenses Fraunhofer technologies for encoding and usage. These tools were in wide public distribution before general public use of term “MP3”. It’s hard to find links on that old stuff these days though… here’s a CNN use from 1996… I need to find better source links before editing that Wikipedia article.)
    Anyway, the “needs an open format” argument may or may not hold up, but MP3’s actual history is a bit cloudier than what many people understand today.
    … hmm, there are differences between text and audio ownership too… there’s a large body of literature which passed into public domain before Sonny Bono and the other copyright changes… PDInfo.com has a lot of info on the complex situation of using recordings or tunes created by others. I think MP3 is popular despite the actual legal dictates…? 😉
    jd/mm

  3. While I agree that eBooks need more free content (and better content, Project Guttenberg’s plain text is not going to make eBooks any more popular), I think that there’s more to it than just more/better content. They also need a ubiquitous device with the right ergonomics for reading – see “Why eBooks Still Suck” over at Tom’s Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com/mobile/20050908/index.html). Perhaps TabletPCs will be this platform (if Microsoft’s predictions hold true), but without a hardware form factor that’s more convenient than your average notebook, I don’t think we’re going to see eBooks taking off any time soon.

  4. bowerbird says:

    there already _is_ an “open standard” for e-books. it’s called “ascii”. or “unicode” if you prefer. it is their adherence to that standard that has made the project gutenberg e-texts the premiere e-library in cyberspace.
    i know what you’re thinking: uni-sized and unstyled text does not represent the _typography_ that you expect from something you call “a book”.
    i agree with that sentiment. that’s why i worked out a system (which i call “zen markup language”) of formatting plain-ascii files in a way (mostly via conventions that are oft-used in arenas like e-mail) such that — when loaded into an “intelligent” viewer-program — that plain-ascii text-file is transformed into a typographically-pleasing e-book with an extemely powerful feature-set.
    and yes, i’ve actually programmed that “intelligent viewer” too, and it’s going through beta-testing right now…
    -bowerbird

  5. It seems that your fearless leader shares the point of view I expressed in my previous comment. In this article, http://news.com.com/Adobe+under+construction+-+page+2/2008-1082_3-5843856-2.html?tag=st.next, Bruce indicates he also thinks that the primary thing holding up eBooks is the lack of a good device for reading them on. If there was such a device, I’m sure the “open content” would follow quickly (although I agree with Jesse that there’s already plenty of open content out there if you count PDFs in your definition of what an eBook is).