- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking about digital rights. Lots of folks are getting exercised about their digital rights, including authors and publishers. Nascent proposals by Google to digitize millions of out-of-print and so-called “public domain” books, the growing popularity of e-readers, and even the predicted end of paper-and-ink publishing overall loom large in the information firmament.

No less an ink-stained billionaire than Rupert Murdoch, arguably one of the savviest media moguls in the history of the world, told an investors’ conference in New York on Sept. 15 that paper-based newspapers eventually will crumble in the face of the Kindle and Sony’s Reader. According to a report in London’s Financial Times, which Mr. Murdoch doesn’t own, it might take two decades, but the paper newspaper is on the wane. (Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, among other dailies, as well as vast electronic holdings, including Fox News Channel, and book publishers HarperCollins and Christian literature house Zondervan.)

Mr. Murdoch also slammed the financial model for Amazon’s Kindle, which the PaidContent.org Web site says is “generally” 70 percent of an e-book’s sale price, saying the Sony Reader offered better terms to publishers such as News Corp.’s book ventures. According to the FT report, Mr. Murdoch asserted his firm “will do everything we can” to push business toward the Sony products.

That’s all fine and good, and I wish Mr. Murdoch and Sony well. But if Mr. Murdoch - or any other publisher - really wants to set the world alight, I have a couple of ideas, free of charge.

For starters, talk about pairing digital and print books. At one point, ironically, Amazon did this: Buy certain titles online and, for a few dollars more, you could buy a “digital” copy to read on your computer, right now, while waiting for the printed volume to arrive. But buy a book for Amazon’s Kindle, and you won’t get any break on the printed doppelganger - or the audio one, either. Amazon seems to have missed a lesson they’ve learned with audio CDs, where you can buy the CD for X, but often get the MP3 download of that same album for $3 or so less.

Why pair such offerings? Sometimes, you might want to read a book digitally, and sometimes you might want the hard copy. Having both also can encourage couples, or families, to share a book. And if, heaven forbid, your digital device is lost, or you lose interest in it, or Uncle Charlie has borrowed it for his trek to Nepal, you can turn real pages instead.

Another idea, this one for publishers, especially reference book publishers, is to try and find better ways of coping with change than just locking everything down tighter than the National Security Agency’s encryption center.

I’m interested in postage stamp collecting. The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, produced and published by Amos Press of Sidney, Ohio, remains the top reference for collectors in this country. Buying all six volumes of this annual reference work, in print, would set you back nearly $480 at list price. Most discounters will trim that collective price to around $360, but that’s still a chunk of change.

Enter the DVD-ROM, which Scott had offered for the 2008 and 2009 catalogs. Instead of bulky, unwieldy volumes, there was one slim disc, which could be read on-screen, but was limited to use by one Windows computer per purchaser in 2009. Customers could not print out pages from the catalogs for their own use.

The firm has opted not to offer a DVD for the 2010 catalog, although an online subscription to the catalog information “will be … available later in the year,” according to a customer service rep, who answered my e-mail inquiry.

She asserted the tight lockdown on data the Scott customer paid handsomely to obtain - the DVDs ranged in list price from $65 to $175 apiece, depending on what was contained on each disc - “due to a problem with piracy.” If that was the case, then that was sad; perhaps a Web-based product will alleviate some of that.

But the consumer who buys an information product, presumably, wants to use that information. Locking it down, or making certain formats unavailable or inaccessible with ultratight security procedures, may be necessary, but it isn’t customer friendly.

And for publishers who are trying to sell information, particularly in declining markets such as, sad to say, the stamp collecting hobby of today, it may not be the best tactic.

E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com

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