Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Future of Publishing - Part 2

The Free Software movement has seeded many other movements that strive for freedom in creativity. These include Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Open Access in scholarly publication, and so on. Some music groups have said that it is better for them if free download of music is permitted because that helps their music reach more people, which, in turn, gets them more concerts which brings them more money.

The growth of Free Software is astonishing because it did not give any financial incentive to people who contributed. It was purely voluntary work and the only gain was some recognition and possibly fame. No theory known earlier could explain this phenomenon. It was widely believed that any effort needs financial incentives. So no one could believe that good software could come from people working part time, as a hobby, and not paid for their efforts. People firmly believed that no one would do anything without money. And the growth of Free Software proved them wrong.

But Wikipedia has proven to be a much bigger blow to the above idea than even Free Software. In Free Software, contributors are acknowledged and they may even earn fame. But, in Wikipedia, the contributors are not even known. Their names are not mentioned anywhere, let alone becoming famous. Yet, more than three million articles in English got written! And millions more in other 250-odd languages! Something unimaginable till a few years back. Ten years back, no one would even have dreamt of such a possibility. So humanity have proved all those economists and others who extolled the virtues of financial incentives utterly butterly wrong. Anyone seen them around recently?

So we see that things are changing. Copyright may not be the most important issue in the future. Creators may want more people to enjoy their creations rather than hold on to copyright. And the best medium to spread the word is the Internet. So authors would want their books to be available freely. Musicians would want their music to be downloadable freely. And movie makers ...., hmmm, would they want their movies to be downloadable freely? I hope so. Otherwise, they may lose their job!

But let us concentrate on what will happen to books. In spite of all technological advancements, books are still printed and distributed.And people prefer to read printed books, not pdf files on computers. But book readers are coming, are already here. They may soon become popular. But it surely will take some more time before the printed book disappears. Older people, such as yours faithfully, would still like to enjoy a printed book lying on an easy chair and flipping through the pages. But today's older people, being older, would have to say goodbye one day. And so, gradually, more and more people are bound to get used to electronic books carried around in an electronic book reader. And then, what will the publishing companies do?

Well, in the short term, I think publishers, at least some of them, will slowly have to move to a dual system. On the one side, they will provide electronic books that can be downloaded at a price initially but freely later, depending on how the outlook of authors change. On the other hand, they will provide printed volumes on demand. Since the technology that makes it easy to print single copies on demand already exists, they can support even low volume sales. We already have a publisher doing that. And the advantage here is that no book will ever go out of print! So long as anyone anywhere in the world has an electronic copy of the work, it can always be given to others. And this applies to other electronic media too. At least some music and some movies are still not lost only because a number of people around the globe have "illegal" copies! Unlike the libraries of Nalanda and Takshashila, these can never be destroyed by any army.

So the message to publishing companies is this: change with the times. Don't stick to the old model dominated by the printing press and the copyright act. People may throw out these things sooner or later. Technology is for the benefit of people, and not just for companies. And people are some day bound to empower themselves with the new technologies that come up. So embrace change, and be with the people. Otherwise, you may lose your jobs.

In the long run, I believe that people will move to a peer to peer world, where people create and distribute all kinds of works without copyright and other restrictions -- a world that Michel Bauwens and others dream of. I may not live to see such a world, and so may many of us living today. But I am reasonably sure that the world is moving towards something like that.