Fighting for non-rival pudding

About half a decade ago, my fascination with (and anger about) issues arising from the growing push toward licensing access to library materials, rather than purchasing them outright, pushed me out of a traditional library career path and into one that would allow me to focus more deeply on explication of and advocacy for the liberties libraries have traditionally advanced.

This week, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, librarian Emily Walshe astutely and passionately points out that these issues of access vs. ownership have not disappeared in the five years since I got mad about them.  Indeed, if anything, they have only grown more widespread. In particular, Walshe compares the way that Amazon’s Kindle substitutes access for ownership to the catastrophic financial policies that have led to the recent global recession:

If our flailing economy is to teach us anything, it might be that an on-demand world of universal access (with words like lease, licensure, and liquidity) gets us into trouble. Amazon and other e-media aggregators know that digital text is the irrational exuberance of the day, and so are seizing the opportunity to codify, commodify, and control access for tomorrow. But access doesn’t “look and read” like printed paper at all – just ask any forlorn investor. Access is useless currency.

You should definitely read the article. It’s excellent.

Still, I do have one nit to pick.  That is, I’m not convinced that Ms. Walshe’s other central analogy – based on elementary school lunch-trading – quite works.  She compares trading actual books for Kindle e-books to trading a baloney sandwich for a spoon (and no pudding to eat with it).  But is that really the tradeoff? Keeping her analogical pieces, it would seem to me that the Kindle itself is the spoon – it’s the tool through which access is granted.  But the content…I’m not sure you can actually make a food analogy to the content.  Because unlike food, information is inherently non-rival – if information is pudding, everybody can simultaneously have the same pudding, and eat it too.

I pick this nit not to diminish the point made by the article (with which I entirely agree), but because I think the failure of this analogy points to a further injury to intellectual freedom caused by the trends the article describes.  Walshe’s analogy fails because information, unlike pudding, persists beyond its consumption.  If books are pudding, I could eat all the pudding in my cup a dozen times over, and then sell that pudding-cup to a used bookstore, or donate it to a library, and others could consume the contents of that very same cup hundreds or thousands more times.  If books are pudding, then, they are bottomless cups of it.

When conceived in this way, it becomes even clearer what monumental and egregious harm DRM systems like the Kindle’s may do to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace as they become commonly accepted. When we consent to have mere access to a book rather than full rights to its contents, we turn a bottomless pudding-cup, capable of feeding limitless numbers of pudding-lovers, into a tiny, single-serve container, barely sufficient to feed even one.

This cloistering of intellectual wealth; this abridgement of our existing rights to share, lend, and resell the intellectual goods we legally purchase – it should make us angry.  We should understand what we are losing, and we should be furious. We should learn our rights, and demand that they not be taken away from us.

Again: read the article. And then consider whether by accepting a single-serve pudding cup from Amazon, we might not be imperiling the world of bottomless pudding cups we currently take for granted.

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3 thoughts on “Fighting for non-rival pudding

  1. Interesting article; thanks for the reference. I would add another layer to the great points you and Walshe make. In the pbook world, they were by default standardized. That is, since all books were basically ink, paper, and glue, you could do the same things with your book published by Simon & Schuster as you could with your book published by Wiley: read it in the bathtub, loan it to a friend, write in the margins, take it on a trip, etc.

    The ebook world lacks such standardization, and the openness inherent to such standardization. Now, my rights change depending on whether the ebook I buy is in Kindle eReader, or PDF format. To make it worse, I can only use certain formats on certain devices; it’s as if I could only consume my non-rival pudding in an officially-sanctioned Jello bowl.

    The technology of ebooks is really exciting; I’ve been expermenting with Stanza on the iPhone and have been greatly enjoying it. However, the rights environment of them scares the hell out of me, both as a librarian and a consumer.

  2. Pingback: Non-rival is non-relevant

  3. One other minor comment to add to what I just posted in the comments over at ACRLog: I would love to see someone argue against the points I make above on the merits. It’s just being (I think unfairly) used as a straw man that makes me sad.

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