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A Prison Dilemma

30 July 2014 2 Comments

Saint Foucault

I am currently on holiday. You can tell this because I’m writing, reading and otherwise doing things that I regard as fun. In particular I’ve been catching up on some reading. I’ve been meaning to read Danah Boyd‘s It’s Complicated for some time (and you can see some of my first impressions in the previous post) but I had held off because I wanted to buy a copy.

That may seem a strange statement. Danah makes a copy of the book available on her website as a PDF (under a CC BY-NC license) so I could (and in the end did) just grab a copy from there. But when it comes to books like this I prefer to pay for a copy, particularly where the author gains a proportion of their livelihood from publishing. Now I could buy a hardback or paperback edition but we have enough physical books. I can buy a Kindle edition from Amazon.co.uk but I object violently to paying a price similar to the paperback for something I can only read within Amazon software or hardware, and where Amazon can remove my access at any time.

In the end I gave up – I downloaded the PDF and read that. As I read it I found a quote that interested me. The quote was from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a study of the development of the modern prison system – the quote if anyone is interested was about people’s response to being observed and was interesting in the context of research assessment.

Once I’d embarrassed myself by asking a colleague who knows about this stuff whether Foucault was someone you read, or just skimmed the summary version, I set out again to find myself a copy. Foucault died in 1984 so I’m less concerned about paying for a copy but would have been happy to buy a reasonably priced and well formatted ebook. But again the only source was Amazon. In this case its worse than for Boyd’s book. You can only buy the eBook from the US Amazon store, which requires a US credit card. Even if I was happy with the Amazon DRM and someone was willing to buy the copy for me I would be technically violating territorial rights in obtaining that copy.

It was ironic that all this happened the same week that the European Commission released its report on submissions to the Public Consultation on EU Copyright Rules. The report quickly develops a pattern. Representatives on public groups, users and research users describe a problem with the current way that copyright works. Publishers and media organisations say there is no problem. This goes on and on for virtually every question asked:

In the print sector, book publishers generally consider that territoriality is not a factor in their business, as authors normally provide a worldwide exclusive licence to the publishers for a certain language. Book publishers state that only in the very nascent eBooks markets some licences are being territorially restricted.

As a customer I have to say its a factor for me. I can’t get the content in the form I want. I can’t get it with the rights I want, which means I can’t get the functionality I want. And I often can’t get it in the place I want. Maybe my problem isn’t important enough or there aren’t enough people like me for publishers to care. But with traditional scholarly monograph publishing apparently in a death spiral it seems ironic that these markets aren’t being actively sought out. When books only sell a few hundred copies every additional sale should matter. When books like Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons aren’t easily available then significant revenue opportunities are being lost.

Increasingly it is exactly the relevant specialist works in social sciences and humanities that I’m interested in getting my hands on. I don’t have access to an academic library, the nearest I might get access to is a University focussed on science and technology and in any case the chance of any specific scholarly monograph being in a given academic library is actually quite low. Inter-library loans are brilliant but I can’t wait a week to check something.

I spent nearly half a day trying to find a copy of Foucault’s book that was in the form I wanted with the rights I wanted. I’ve spent hours trying to find a copy of Ostrom’s as well. In both cases it is trivial to find a copy online – took me around 30 seconds. In both cases its relatively easy to find a second hand print copy. I guess for traditional publishers its easy to dismiss me as part of a small market, one that’s hard to reach and not worth the effort. After all, what would I know, I’m just the customer.


  • Jonathan

    The solution to the first case would be to pay for the Amazon copy, then download the PDF to read on the devices of your choice.

    Regional restrictions are ridiculous, though. The film industry has tried to enforce this for years, but it is much watered down now compared to when DVDs first launched (and the encryption swiftly broken). Restricting books by territory is really a form of censorship. If China tries to stop a western book being read, it’s criticised. Yet it’s not so different from an American publisher preventing people in other countries obtaining their texts legally.

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    That would work for Danah’s book but not for Foucault. It only exists online as scanned copies and pretty ropey OCR’d version that I could find.