Friday, May 15, 2009

More unfairness from Google book settlement

A few more thoughts to add to my recent post about the proposed Google books settlement:

Libraries are incurring significant unreimbursed costs as they provide books for scanning. Rick Prelinger (a board member of the Internet Archive) recently pointed out to me that it costs several dollars per book for librarians and conservators to inspect books, OK them for scanning, and reshelve them upon return. He says large libraries are running up costs in the millions, and some libraries are unlikely ever to agree to similar deals in the future. Thus, not only are our tax dollars and donations further supporting Google in their efforts, the fact that these costs are never recovered means that Google's effective monopoly is even more entrenched.

I noted in my earlier post that authors and publishers will receive a share of the revenues derived from books which were written and published by others. You might ask "why" or "how can this be"; both are good questions which deserve to be addressed in more detail.

The answer to "how" is fairly simple: for all books still under copyright protection, Google will report and remit revenue to a yet-to-be-built Book Registry. Authors and/or publishers of books under copyright must register their books with the Registry in order to receive their fair share of revenues. Any books still under copyright but not claimed by any author or publisher comprise what have become known as "orphan" books. Google will report and remit monies derived from orphan books, along with other books; in fact, Google may not even know which books are orphans. Any money that is derived from orphan books will first be put toward defraying the Registry's operating costs; any remaining "orphan" monies will be split between suitable charities and all registered authors/publishers by some "fair" formula. Thus, authors and publishers will receive funds for books to which they have no relation at all.

The answer to "why" is not so simple, except that the authors and publishers were the parties who filed the class-action suit. Libraries were not a party to the suit, so they're effectively left out.

Given that (a) the libraries (as supported by our tax dollars and donations) have preserved the books for decades to make scanning possible, and (b) given that the libraries have spent significant amounts of their own money preparing and shipping the books for scanning, doesn't it thus seem fair that the libraries ought to get a chance at the revenue stream? Perhaps a share of the "orphan" book money? Or a small (single-digit) percentage of all the money flowing into the registry? After all, without the work of the libraries, none of this new revenue-stream would have been possible.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Help! I'm being held hostage by cable sports channels

I'm a movie fan. Decades ago, in college, I learned to run 35mm projectors (we also ran 70mm, and we had variable-speed controls for silent pictures...but that's another story). As a kid, I borrowed 8mm versions of classics from the library, and ran them on the home-movie projector. I'm not (too) embarrassed to admit that I still have a library of LaserDiscs at home (LaserDiscs were effectively the 8-track tapes of the video business, a format that never caught on).

This is all to explain why I had no choice but to "upgrade" my cable package, because that was the only way I could keep Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the best channel around.

I didn't want the extra half-dozen sports channels that came with this "upgrade". I never even wanted basic ESPN, let alone the various ESPN spin-offs that are part of the new package. But I'm now paying much more, mostly for channels I don't watch and didn't want, just so I can keep TCM.

Why can't we buy cable channels a la carte? (I know the standard argument, and I'll get to it shortly.) Why can't I drop ESPN, which charges cable operators roughly $3 per cable-subscriber whether we watch or not? If I could drop ESPN, I ought to be able to cut my monthly bill by at least $3, perhaps more. If I could drop all the other sports channels, maybe I could save another $10-15.

I would happily pay $10 per month for TCM, if I could simply add it on the cheapest basic cable package.

The arguments about why a la carte pricing will inevitably lead to ruin for everybody run along these lines : The practice of "bundling" allows cable operators to use the popular channels to subsidize the less popular channels. Without bundling, only the popular will survive, the niche will die, and there will be fewer choices for all.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I'm sure there are far more households that would want ESPN than would want TCM. But maybe the way to balance this out is to charge variable pricing. If I want just one channel in addition to the basic package, maybe I pay $10 for it. If I want 5 channels, maybe they're $4 each. If enough fans of a "niche" channel are willing to pay more for it, perhaps it can survive.

None of the analyses I've seen considers variable pricing. Ardent fans of a channel could pay more (note that some tests of "free" song downloads with a price of "pay what you want" have actually generated significant amounts of money). And the price per channel could vary based on number of channels, similarity (or difference) of channels, any number of variables.

Until we see some tests and hard data on this, I'm not convinced that a la carte is a bad thing.

And the ability to stopped getting fleeced for a dozen sports channels I never watch would be fabulous!