Copyright versus Digital

Copyright is fairly new regulation – philosophers, scholars and entertainers did without it through ancient and medieval times. For them, expressing something for others to hear or writing text down and giving it into other hands obviously meant that there was no way to control what happened to it afterwards. Even the advent of the printing press didn’t change that for the next 250 years, but the spread of literacy eventually created a larger market for books and hence lead to a more organized and consolidated publishing industry. The traditional actors in that space were printers and booksellers until publishers started to emerge. They offered to take care of the two aforementioned functions, but their actual purpose is an entirely different one: they’re risk investors into book projects. They’re out to buy manuscripts from authors, then bring them into proper language, adjust them to the extend that (their) readers might find the result interesting, then pay for the typesetting, then pay for all of the printing (amount of copies depending on their estimates of how much they can sell), then pay for the distribution to the booksellers; out of their own pocket in advance. Too many times the publishers will find that their books don’t sell, in which case the bookstore will strip the books off their covers and send the covers back as proof while the paper ends up in the trash. Every now and then they land a big hit and earn a lot of money to cover the losses from the failed book projects. Over time, printing technology improved, so the price per copy for a publisher is incredibly low now, on the other hand, additional services like marketing eat away some of what would otherwise be profit.

With that kind of business model, publishers understandably wanted to protect their investement into a manuscript because an independent printer could easily take the refined text of a book and reproduce it without the need to ever buy the manuscript from the author or to pay the editor as the initial investor had to. Note that the printer would still have to invest for his own typesetting (until the arrival of photocopying) and the distribution to the bookseller, but he probably wouldn’t take chances and just reprint titles that already turned out to be successful. Also note that an author would not necessarily get a cut of every copy sold beyond the initial payment by the publisher for physically obtaining the manuscript. “Writer” in itself wasn’t a profession to generate income, but what somebody had to become in order to communicate messages to a large audience. Publishers naturally don’t care much about steady royalties for the author at their expense, while it allows for a lower initial payment and transferral of some of the financial risk over to the author as the royalties can be tied to the success of the project. The lawmaker, looking at this constellation, decided to introduce copyright for the publishers that allowed them to prevent other printers and competing publishers from making copies. Such a right however wouldn’t establish itself for the publisher as a matter of fact, instead, it needed to be granted by the author, who himself didn’t have a way to make use of it. The intention might have been to improve the position of authors to negotiate better contracts with publishers, but the same took place when selling the manuscript, and soon the industry came up with a “standard contract” beyond which special conditions only rarely can be arranged. For example, it’s always expected that the contract is an exclusive one, that the author doesn’t grant the right to copy to a second publisher, which is why there isn’t much variation in most commercial literature.

What the legislation did do was to enable the installation of a clear flow of money from the many booksellers to only one publisher. No matter where a reader bought a book, if the publisher had obtained the exclusive copyright, he was empowered to make sure that some of the money would end up in his account. Booksellers were the only source for buying reading material anyway, so if readers wanted to own a text, they were forced to get it as a physical object from those distributors and the physical transfer/exchange of the object was obviously tied to the payment, no matter to what extend the price covers only the production cost or the entire print-based publishing chain or the cross-subsidization of other book projects by the same publisher. Copyright infringement was never an issue because if unauthorized copies popped up somewhere, it was easy to trace back where they came from. From 1887 on, countries can join the Berne Convention, under which participants have to treat citizens from the other signatories according to their own national copyright law, which in effect led to some convergence, but there is no such thing as an “international copyright”. Still, none of this had impact on the public because people didn’t have printing presses. Copying was a fairly large operation and bound by physical limitations such as the capital required to build the equipment, cost per produced unit, location to set it up, required certain craftsmanship by the operators, et cetera. Each copy was a scarce resource. If a print run was sold out, to set up a new one would be expensive and economy of scale only made it lucrative if larger quantities were produced. To make a text available to somebody else meant that the previous owner would loose possession of that text. And then digital technology changed all of that in the most fundamental way.

To be continued…

This text is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License 3 + any later version and/or under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

My Journey Through Text

At first, I did some experimentation with browsergame programming (not casual games, but with server-side persistence) attempting to build/generate “worlds” while avoiding the need to hand-design everything in a time-consuming process. One result was a world editor that served as an image composer (using GDLib for PHP) and primitive image map manipulator at a time where HTML5 canvas wasn’t there yet. It constantly keeps me thinking about HyperCard.

Later, I wanted to improve my note-taking in printed German Bible translations, in particular I wanted to produce my own interleaved editions. Soon I learned that digital Public Domain German Bible texts are usually not true to their printed originals, so I had to start a digitalization and proofread effort (more) first. From a semantically annotated XML source, it was easy to generate a modern XHTML reproduction of the text and then PDF layouts via XSL:FO and LaTeX. I was looking into SILE and recently PoDoFo as PDF generator backends (former accepts XML as input, latter is an C++ API that still needs a XML frontend) but didn’t invest too much into supporting them yet. Finally I achieved the original goal of generating interleaved PDFs for printing, and thanks to the advent of print-on-demand, I’m now able to order hardcover thread-stitched books in a quantity as low as a single copy (not even to mention the magazine variant or the DIN A6 or DIN A4 variants out of my DIN A3 monochrome duplex laser printer).

One proofreader introduced me to EPUB, which of course made sense to add as an output format and eventually got me interested in e-publications, e-ink based devices and the publishing industry in general.

Somehow I discovered a Wiki for creating a new libre-freely licensed German Bible translation collaboratively by using a parser that extracts OSIS from the online Wikitext of the MediaWiki software, and for a church congress event we hacked together a semi-automatic workflow that generated the PDF of the study version of the Gospel according to Mark. As I didn’t want to change my existing tools to OSIS as input format and most of the time I didn’t even need the advanced OSIS features, I just internally converted OSIS to my Zefania-XML-based Haggai XML format and made a few adjustments for being able to produce the usual output formats XHTML, PDF and EPUB. Another project was the conversion from the “verse-per-line” format to Haggai XML, not too different from another similar CSV to XHTML to EPUB project.

In the e-book hype of those days, I failed to see why other publications should be produced in a different way than my Bible reproductions (based on concepts like workflow automatization, digital-first, XML-first, single-source publishing, multi-channel publishing, etc) as generating EPUBs and PDFs could easily be generalized and later the entire workflow (shorter, silent video). I added a converter from ODT to XHTML, so OpenOffice/LibreOffice can be used as a writing tool as long as predefined styles are used to introduce WYSIWYM to the document in lack of a better editor. For being able to offer it as a service to self-publishers, I wrote a frontend in PHP that invoked the very same Java code via system calls on a vServer, only adding administrative functionality like user or publication project management (the latter should have become part of the Java package eventually). I even went to some book fairs and more obscure events of the e-book avantgarde, so I know a few people from those worlds and their mentality.

From such occations, I picked up two of my major projects in that space, one is uploading EPUBs via XHTML to WordPress by using the XML-RPC API (again, there’s an online version of it using the same Java code behind a PHP wrapper), which then wasn’t used in production as the guy who needed it produced EPUBs the WYSIWYG way and naturally wanted this manual typesetting to be preserved in the blog post, while I cared about WYSIWYM instead. With that workflow already available, I got into contact with one of the guys who are behind several amazing projects, and as they went into the business of running an online e-book store, they got a lot of e-books from publishers along with ONIX metadata file(s), so the job was to import all of the ONIX metadata to WordPress and even update existing records. My attempt was never finished because the shop was shut down after some time, probably in part due to my lack of supporting them well/soon enough as I encountered several problems with the testing environment, WordPress and my not-so-hacky, not-so-smart, not-so-agile workflows. But even without completing this mechanism, I went beyond this particular use case and did some general ONIX work.

Smaller projects include the subversion of placebo non-digital whishful thinking by a self-publishing site that disabled the download button without any technical effect, a GUI frontend for epubcheck, a failed attempt to enlist “e-book enthusiasts” for building a digital library, an importer in PHP (SAX) from Twine to Dembelo (was later rewritten by the Dembelo lead developer in more modern PHP), a parser for a Markdown-like note taking language to XHTML and LaTeX (interest for learning about writing parsers for domain-specific languages came from the Wikitext to OSIS parser I still didn’t find the time to revisit), a Twitch Video Uploader using their API (but I guess it’s broken now because of their “Premiere” nonsense) and a Wiktionary Wikitext parser that generates a XML of German nouns with their respective articles plus the Arabic translations from the big monthly backup dump (to be turned into several word lists for learning).

As I grew more frustrated about traditional publishers, self-publishers, e-book “pirates”, the average reader and the big enterprises who use digital to exploit those who don’t understand it properly, the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Africa in Europe forced me to focus on way more serious things than our digital future. Only a tiny fraction of time investment went into software development. All other civic tech programmers lost interest after only 1/2 years, and I joined the game late where the momentum was already gone. Most of my attempts to build software for helping out with solving some of the issues are targeted towards volunteers, for instance the ticket system, the petition system, the AutoMailer for mass mailings via PHPMailer, the asylum event system or the case management system as it turned out to be incredibly difficult to get refugees themselves involved with anything that’s not the Facebook app or WhatsApp, be it the one-way message system or the downloader for the “Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten” by Deutsche Welle via their RSS feed. Even those for the German volunteers were only sporadically used, except the AutoMailer, which was a success; it did its job according to plan.

One project remains incomplete due to lack of time, it’s an attempt to build an online voting system that ended up as a good exercise for learning ReST concepts as a fully functional system would require a lot more conceptual planning.

Entering the Hypertext space, I did experimentation by developing a variant of Ted Nelson’s span selector in Java, a disfunctional text editor that tracks all changes in Java as well as in C++/Qt4, a converter from Ted’s EDL format to XML, a downloader/retriever for EDLs in XML form and a workflow that glues together the retrieval of such EDLs in XML form and the concatenation of text portions from the obtained resources in order to construct the base text of the document. Originally started for the XML frontend for PoDoFo, I completed an early first version of a StAX parser in C++, but then was able to quickly port it to JavaScript, which was handy to handle the embedded XHTML WordPress blog post content as provided via the JSON API as I didn’t want to use DOM, contributing to an independent read-only client for the Doug@50 Journal and HyperGlossary (video). After abandoning the browser due to its CORS nonsense and lack of proper local file access, I finally added a WordPress blog post retriever to be combined with the automatic converters to HTML, EPUB and PDF (video).

I briefly worked on the side on a project to introduce semantic annotation (“linked data”) and tooling for it to Bible texts, using the specific example of marking people and places in the Public Domain German Luther 1912 Bible translation as there was renewed interest as a result of the 500 year anniversary of the reformation. As it turned out to the surprise for some (not me), no digital version of the Luther 1912 text is authentic according to any printed original to our knowledge, so another analysis and proofread effort was necessary. An existing source became usable after a format transformation from flat CSV to hierarchical XML plus wrapping Strong numbers in XML tags instead of XML markers/milestones, plus converting that arbitrary, custom XML format as derived from the CSV to Haggai XML, plus textual correction.

Now, the goal is to build a new and better hypertext system based on ideas by the early Internet pioneers, Doug Engelbart (see Engelbart Colloquium Session 4A from 38:00 on and Engelbart Colloquium Session 4B from 44:00 on, but especially from 49:19), Ted Nelson, web pioneers, David Gelernter and Ward Cunningham, as in part wonderfully presented by Bret Victor.

This text is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License 3 + any later version and/or under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.