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Archive for October, 2010

Twice before I have written about the effects of a non-neutral net in the abstract.  This week, courtesy of News Corp., which owns Fox, we have seen an example of what a non-neutral net would look like.  Recently Cablevision and News Corp. could not come to terms regarding how much Cablevision would pay for airing Fox television programs. With no agreement in place, Fox programming no longer appeared on Cablevision.  In addition, Fox blocked Cablevision subscribers from accessing any Fox content on Hulu’s free service, which is partially owned by Fox.  In this manner, News Corp. prevented Cablevision subscribers from simply streaming Fox’s programming from Hulu.  This gave News Corp. leverage in its negotiations with Cablevision.  In effect, News Corp. said that if Cablevision subscribers wanted Fox programming they should either reach an agreement or go to a different service provider.

Technically, the Hulu content runs over a neutral net.  The network over which the content flows is neutral.  The content provider is preventing certain users from accessing its content, based on their ISP.  Effectively though, this is like a non-neutral net.  Certain customers are not given access to certain content.  Incidentally, the customers who paid for Hulu’s premium service had uninterrupted access to all content.

In effect, Fox’s action hurts Fox as much as it hurts Cablevision.  The free content on Hulu is funded by advertising.  By blocking Cablevision customers, Fox eliminates some of its audience.  The blocking has the greatest impact on the customers though.  As mentioned in an earlier post, when access to part of the Internet is restricted, the customers lose.  Imagine if Cablevision had a problem getting a loan from Bank of A and retaliated by blocking access to the Bank’s website.  Existing customers could not access the website and potential new customers would not be as likely to open an account with the bank…  As the Internet’s importance increases, the potential impact of restricting access increases dramatically.

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A book buyer in the US owns any printed book that s/he purchases.  The owner does not have the right to copy the book but besides that the purchaser can legally loan the book, sell the book, etc.  In contrast, a person who downloads a book on a Kindle or some other form of eReader, is licensing the content.  According to the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use, the content is restricted to personal use.

In the US, the First-Sale Doctrine, a limitation of the copyright law, gives buyers full ownership of books and many other purchases.  Currently, that law is under assault from several directions.  On September 10, 2010, the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court, in Vernor v. Autodesk, said that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply to software, which is licensed rather than sold.  This is problematic because libraries loan software, such as language learning programs and video games.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that in the future even CD’s and DVD’s may no longer be subject to the First Sale Doctrine.

In the library world, where we loan materials, this is of great relevance because many licenses are for personal use only.  Libraries have been exploring the possibility of loaning Kindles and other eReaders preloaded with content.  Intuitively this makes sense.  Loaning a printed book or loaning a Kindle with the same content to one patron at a time seems like it should be equivalent.  But of course loaning something that is licensed for personal use only is  probably illegal.  Complicating matters further is that fact that many licenses provide different restrictions on content use.  So it could be legal to loan one type of eReader but not another type.

Sadly, as we move to a society that increasingly downloads content and gets our information from screens, this could become a larger problem for libraries.  As we offer more digital content, libraries’ content could gradually become more restricted by for profit publishers.

However, there are also other forces working against these potential upcoming restrictions.  Authors and artists are licensing their works using Creative Commons licenses and Open Source software is being written by numerous developers.  Cory Doctorow, the author of young adult fiction who has a book reviewed elsewhere in this blog, uses Creative Commons licenses on  all of his work produced since 2003.  The text of Wikipedia uses a Creative Common License.  The Firefox browser, the Linux OS, Open Office, Android and the Evergreen Integrated Library System are all examples of Open Source software.

As librarians, I believe our efforts should work to mitigate the potential upcoming restrictions from two angles.  First, we should try to work with publishers and resellers to get terms more favorable for libraries.  We should also work in the courts and Congress to get more favorable laws concerning digital rights for libraries.  The American Library Association presented arguments against the court’s decision in Vernor v. Autodesk, so we are already working on this but it seems we are gradually losing ground.  Second, we should support Creative Commons licenses and Open Source causes.  The entire spirit of the library is about sharing for the common good and that is also in the spirit of Open Source and Creative Commons.

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From a New York Times article, I just learned why Reed Hastings decided to name the company he founded in 1997 Netflix.  It’s an odd name for a company that began by renting DVD’s by mail.  When the company was founded Hastings believed that its movies would one day be delivered through the Internet and named the company accordingly.  Netflix thought of itself as in the movie business, not in the DVD business.  A decade later Netflix started streaming movies through the Net.

Recently Amazon announced that it had sold 143 ebooks for every 100 hardcover books.  Although Amazon was in the physical book business, Amazon saw that it wasn’t physical books that most customers wanted.  Rather it was the content contained in the books.  Both Netflix and Amazon realized what their customers actually wanted rather than focusing on the medium.

Books, CD’s and DVD’s are much less convenient in many ways than their online digital equivalents.  Amazon advertises that a customer can start reading the Kindle Edition of a book in less than a minute.  Electronic books through Amazon are almost always available and less expensive.  Downloaded music and movie sales are rising sharply.

When digital content is available through library catalogs, there is often a wait, the content will only work on a select few devices and downloads are cumbersome.  Most content is not available for download.  Our customers are moving.  The question is, how can we move with them given our budgetary constraints?

Fun fact: If a Kindle user downloaded two books per week, it would take about 33 years to fill the 8.5 ounce device.

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