Monthly Archives: January 2012

No SOPA, But OPEN Maybe?

OPEN

So, the minions of the Web rose in fury to stymie passage by the United States congress of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, thus ensuring freedom of Internet Service Providers from curtailment of their First Amendment rights. Beneath the blare of the victors’ trumpets, however, the pained cries of piracy victims were completely drowned out.  Does no one speak for them?

A recent editorial in the Sunday New York Times, “Beyond SOPA”, reminds us that some legislators speak for those whose right to earn an honest living has been pillaged by unscrupulous criminal syndicates, some of which are supported by foreign governments. “Piracy by Web sites in countries like Russia and China, which offer high-quality bootleg copies of movies and music, is a real problem for the nation’s creative industries,” said the editorial, pointing to “legislation that could curb the operation of rogue Web sites without threatening legitimate expression.”

The bill the editorial referred to also sports a four-letter acronym, but one that we hope will not be as dirty a word as SOPA.  This one is called OPEN: the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. Here’s how it is designed to work: “Content owners could ask the International Trade Commission to investigate whether a foreign Web site was dedicated to piracy. The Web site would be able to rebut the claim. If the commission ruled for the copyright holder, it could direct payment firms like Visa and PayPal and advertising networks like Google’s to stop doing business with the Web site.”

The Times thinks that OPEN offers solutions that do not have the same pitfalls as those of SOPA, and we share the editorial’s support. We just wonder, though, why all the attention is focused on foreign pirates when a domestic piracy industry continues to thrive. And why just movies and music? What are we authors – chopped liver?

Richard Curtis

For a complete archive of E-Reads postings on piracy, visit Pirate Central.

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Scotland Yard Has Never Been Sexier

With publication of An Affair with Mr. Kennedy, the first novel in her “Gentlemen of Scotland Yard” series, Jillian Stone makes her auspicious debut. The book may take place in Victorian times but there is nothing Victorian about the hot affair between Yard Man Zeno Kennedy and the adventurous Cassandra St. Cloud.

London, 1887. Part stoic gentleman, part fearless Yard man, Zeno “Zak” Kennedy is an enigma of the first order. For years, the memory of a deadly bombing at King’s Cross has haunted the brilliant Scotland Yard detective. His
investigation has zeroed in on a ring of aristocratic rebels whose bloody campaign for Irish revolution is terrorizing the city. When he discovers one of the treacherous lords is acquainted with his free-spirited new tenant, Cassandra St. Cloud, his inquiry pulls him unexpectedly close to the heart of the conspiracy—and into the arms of a most intriguing lady. Cassie is no Victorian prude. An impressionist painter with very modern ideas about life and love, she is eager for a romantic escapade that is daring and discreet. She sets her sights on her dour but handsome landlord, but after she learns their meeting was not purely accidental, she hardly has a chance to forgive her lover before their passionate affair catapults them both into a perilous adventure.

We greet Jillian Stone on her first publication day.  Watch her website for news of new Yard adventures as well as another series in the pipeline.

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Will Our Children Read E-Books?

The latest statistics tell us more kids are reading e-books.  But the progress bar has not advanced nearly as far as prognosticators expected or manufacturers hoped.  A Bowker executive, addressing a recent Digital Book World conference, reported on findings culled from a survey of about 1,000 teens and some 2,000 parents and caregivers of young children.  Among older kids, 19% have tried e-books but only 6% read them witn any regularity. As for younger ones, only 25% of parents even own an e-book reader.  Among children 7 to 12 only 13% read on e-readers and 11% on tablets.

Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Though more and more adults are adopting digital reading habits, they are encouraging their kids to read print books and in fact promoting something akin to Luddism, such as sending them to schools where no digital devices are to be found (see High-Tech Kids in No-Tech Schools).  At bedtime they will put their Nook or Kindle down and go into their child’s bedroom to read a print-book bedtime story. So  when it comes to e-books it’s a matter of Do as I say, not as I do. And though picture book apps, including stories that “tell” themselves without parents present, are great fun, they just don’t seem to have the same appeal as the warm body and familiar voice of mommy or daddy.

Schools and libraries do not seem to be tripping over themselves to promote e-reading either. One good reason is that the children’s print business is one of the few sectors of the publishing industry that are thriving, so there is a strong financial incentive for publishers to maintain the p-book status quo.

But children form their own opinions about e-books and many reject them for very practical reasons. Because mobile phones are the device of choice for teens, the small screen size and short battery life are deterrents to e-reading.  The price of e-readers is prohibitive for many kids, who get along fine with borrowing books from the library or from each other.  And speaking of borrowing, DRM restrictions on sharing e-books is another dampening factor for teens, just as it is for adults.

For years we have expressed skepticism that, due to their high distraction quotient, screens are the best medium for young readers (see The Medium is the Screen, the Message is Distraction), and (with the exception of autistic children), there has been little recent evidence to the contrary.   In a recent New York Times article, K, J. Dell’Antonia reported an observation by Lisa Guernsey of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative that “when we read with a child on an e-reader, we may actually impede our child’s ability to learn.”

“Children sitting with a parent while an e-reader reads to them, Dell’Antonia writes, “understand significantly less of what’s read than those hearing a parent read. Researchers at Temple University, where the study was done, noted that parents reading books aloud regularly asked children questions about the book: ‘What do you think will happen next?’ Parents sitting with the child while a device read to them (like a LeapPad or some iPad apps) didn’t ask these questions, or relate images or incidents in the book to the child’s real life. Instead, their conversation was focused on how to use the device: ‘Careful! Push here. Hold it this way.’” (Details in Why Books Are Better than e-Books for Children)

Does that mean that the next generation will reject e-books?  Not likely.  But as research develops about the reading habits and learning and retention of children using e-books, we may see a greater balance between electronic and printed books than the e-fatuation that has us in its grips today. If we don’t – well, see Digital Distractions Producing a Nation of Morons?

Richard Curtis

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Dave Duncan’s New Novel, “Against the Light”, Released by Amazon

47North, Amazon’s science fiction imprint, has just released Dave Duncan’s extraordinary new novel Against the Light in paperback, audio and e-book, with a promotional giveaway of the e-book for Prime members.

In Against the Light  the Hierarchy, high priests of the religious order the Light, has installed King Ethan as the monarchical figurehead, ruling both the magical kingdom of Albi and its predominant religion. Scattered throughout the land, worshippers in the old ways of the Earth Mother are persecuted as heretics. And when young missionary student Rollo Woodbridge returns home to Albi, he is immediately arrested for heresy and treason, setting off a chain of events that plunges the land into utter chaos.

The Hierarchy has more treacherous motives, however, and when Rollo is rescued from jail, his family’s home is destroyed—but Rollo and his siblings are left alive. While Rollo tries diplomacy to end the religious and political conflict, his brother and sister swear vengeance. With the hours to deliverance counting down and their lives hanging in the balance, they must decide whether to stay and fight or leave Albi forever in the suspenseful, action-packed Against the Light.

If you like Against the Light as much as we think you are going to, you’ll find lots more Dave Duncan fiction on his author page on the E-Reads website.

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Best Flippin’ Interface of All Time

Why can’t an e-book be more like a book?  People have tried to make it look like a book, sound like a book , autograph like a book and even smell like a book (See Aerosol Makes Your Nook Smell Like Crunchy Bacon). Now someone has come up with a way to make e-books feel like books.

KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence has applied for a patent for its Smart E-Book Interface. “The interface uses the private Apple API for the page flip,” writes Kelly Hodgkins on tuaw.com, “and turns it upside down and inside out. Not only do you get a beautiful page flip like the one in iBooks, you also get page flipping that lets you scan 20 or 30 pages at a time, multiple page flips that are controlled by the speed of your finger swipe, and a way to hold your thumb on one page and flip through the book with your fingers. You can see it in action in the video below to marvel at how the interface mimics the way most people flip the pages of a softcover book.”  Below is a cool demo of the interface.

What the interface seems perfectly suited for is boring books that you just want flip through in big chunks.

Is there any e-book that incorporates all the book-like sensory experiences in a single device?  The only one we can think of is the Flopatronic Fleeber. Check it out.

Richard Curtis

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Spooked by Megaupload Shutdown, Filesonic Takes Itself Down

FileSonic, a filesharing website has voluntarily disabled itself, obviously scared out of the game by the Justice Department’s shutdown of MegaUpload and the arrest of its principals.  “FileSonic has disabled all file sharing functionality on its website, restricting access so that users may only download their own files,” reports Ars Technica.

Ryan Paul, reporting on the self-inflicted takedown, expressed puzzlement that Filesonic “already has strong procedures in place to combat piracy” such as digital fingerprinting to detect attempts to upload unauthorized files, and observes the takedown procedures prescribed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Paul should not be nonplussed that a so-called law-abiding website is taking itself down.  The DMCA’s procedures, watered down by powerful web carrier lobbies, has become a travesty, making it so hard for piracy victims to get satisfaction that many give up in frustration. (See Takedown Notices: Antipiracy Weapon or Exercise in Futility?)

Another leading file locker provider, RapidShare, does not seem prepared to follow FileSonic over the cliff.  “Legitimate hosting providers have nothing to fear,” they told Ars Technica, “as long as they comply with requests from rights holders and don’t turn a blind eye to piracy conducted with their service.”

Read details in FileSonic has disabled file sharing in wake of Megaupload takedown

Richard Curtis

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Time for More Transparency for Those Glossy Screens

They say you shouldn’t look to closely at how laws and sausages are made. To that short list we have to add many modern conveniences and appliances. Among these are tablets and e-book readers. Evidence is mounting that beneath their glossy screens are disturbing tales of labor abuse, exploitation of the poor, and dumping of toxic waste on helpless communities far from our shores. People are getting hurt and sick and some of them are dying  just so that we can read conveniently on a digital device. “We’re all so dazzled by our new digital toys.” we wrote last fall, “that we’d rather not think about these tragedies.”

A number of recent exposés have penetrated the slick surface of electronic appliances and the revelations are pretty sickening. The New York Times‘s David Barboza reported on environmental abuses perpetrated by e-book and tablet manufacturers, and in particular Apple.

We have cited what happens to your Kindle, Nook, or iPad when the next generation of e-readers replaced them. “If what’s happening in Europe is any guideline,” we wrote “it will end up in a toxic e-waste landfill in Asia and Africa where the destitute, many of them children, will scavenge it for scrap. These scavengers incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments from the plastics, metals and gases that go into discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, keyboards, monitors, cables and similar e-scrap.” (See Getting Rid of E-Trash? Dump it on Asia’s Poor)

Just as we think more greenly about energy, it’s time to Think Green about our e-books.  Under pressure from investigative journalists, the secretive Apple corporation has for the first time made available its records concerning its suppliers, and the revelations confirm concerns about the company’s labor practices.  Apple audits, as Nick Winfield and Charles Duhigg reported in the New York Times, “revealed that 93 supplier facilities had records indicating that over half of workers exceeded a 60-hour weekly working limit. Apple said 108 facilities did not pay proper overtime as required by law. In 15 facilities, Apple found foreign contract workers who had paid excessive recruitment fees to labor agencies.And though Apple said it mandated changes at those suppliers, and some showed improvements, in aggregate, many types of lapses remained at general levels that have persisted for years.”

Though this was a good start, labor industry critics didn’t feel Apple’s “supplier responsibility progress report” went far enough, as some of the suppliers,  particularly subcontractors, were not easy to trace, and inadequate measures had been taken to regulate the either contractors or subcontractors. “In the last two years at companies supplying services to Apple, “the Times reporters state, “137 employees were seriously injured after cleaning iPad screens with n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis; numerous workers have committed suicide, or fallen or jumped from buildings in a manner suggesting suicide attempts; and in two separate explosions caused by dust from polishing iPad cases, four were killed and 77 injured.”

To its credit, Apple conducted many more audits in 2011 than previously, resulting in fewer violations, and joined the Fair Labor Association in an initiative to improve conditions for its workers.

Though Apple has taken the brunt of criticism, it is by no means the only manufacturer whose labor practices and environmental controls need to be examined. If similar problems are discovered at the factories where Kindles, Nooks, Sonys and other reading and computing devices are manufactured or where superannuated models are disposed of, the industry must take care of them and include the costs in their price structures even if it means that we have to pay more for our e-book readers.

Read Apple Lists Its Suppliers for 1st Time by Nick Winfield and Charles Duhigg.

Richard Curtis

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Mr. Megaupload Sticks His Head Up One Indictment Too High

The news of SOPA’s likely defeat by Internet activists contrasts bizarrely with the arrest of one of the Web’s most flagrant and flamboyant copyright violators.  Even as the massed forces of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and other popular Web interests laid siege to proposed government restrictions of their freedom, the US Justice Department and the FBI terminated the freedom of the notorious Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload, an Internet locker service that facilitates anonymous transfer of movie, music, text and other files.

The indictment against Dotcom and six cohorts, issued by a grand jury, states that they criminally conspired to infringe copyrights to the tune of $500 million. They face 20 years in prison. Dotcom’s website has been shuttered. If you click on megaupload.com you’ll get the above banner.

It will be interesting to see whether the Internet community, so passionate in its defense of freedom – including the freedom to link to alleged infringers (see Game Over: Google Insists on Linking to Pirate Sites) – will rally to the defense of the Megaupload gang. Will Dotcom and Co. be considered brethren to the innocent and ignorant folks who unknowingly download copyrighted music and movies? Or will the immense scale of megaupload’s allegedly illegal traffic cause the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters to distance themselves from the defendants?  It will be instructive to see how it all plays out.

It will also be instructive to see whether the Justice Department’s indictment against the Megauploaders will stick. The case of Pirate Bay, formerly the world’s largest BitTorrent file-sharing tracker, might shed some light on these speculations. In 2009 four men involved in Pirate Bay’s website were arrested, tried, sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay about $4.5 million in damages. After their release, the website (apparently under new management) was relaunched from a venue in the Ukraine, then moved again to Netherlands where it is now headquartered in Cyberbunker, a military nuclear warfare bunker built by NATO to withstand a nuclear war and now used as a webhosting data center according to TorrentFreak.

But there’s more: in 2009 Sweden’s Pirate Party seized on the high profile Pirate Bay suit to rally supporters to a victory in the European Union’s parliamentary elections, winning a seat.  (See Swedish Pirate Booty: a Seat in Europe’s Parliament).

Ever since Robin Hood and his merry band roamed Sherwood Forest, the noble, romantic bandido has been a staple of our imagination. So, the reward of a short sentence, a modest fine, and a seat in government for Kim Dotcom will come as no surprise.

For a detailed account of the arrest of Mr. Dotcom and his companions, read Founder of Shuttered Web Site Sought Limelight by Kevin J. O’Brien in the New York Times.

Richard Curtis

Piracy is an extremely controversial and complicated subject. For a complete archive of E-Reads postings pro and con, visit Pirate Central.

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New Apple Educational Tool Needs to Educate Users about Copyright

In a much-anticipated press event, Apple today introduced a textbook app it calls iBooks2. The company described it as an educational tool and, given how quickly and completely kids take to the iPad, it may well crack open the e-textbook market in a way that all prior efforts failed to. (See Surprise: Students Prefer Print Textbooks.)

One significant feature of iBooks2 is that it enables students to create their own books, enhance them with pictures, music, movies, videos, and texts from other sources and publish them, thus “inspiring kids to want to discover and want to learn,” as the Apple executive put it.

All well and good.  But isn’t it likely that the pictures, music, movies, videos, and texts from other sources published in these books will belong to somebody else?

These books will be published, uploaded into the iBooks store and sold there.  Unless the authors clear the rights to that content, such sales may be infringements of someone’s copyrights and Apple will be faced with the same kind of spamming that Kindle is combating.

Apple has the obligation to review the content it posts on the iPad and make sure that it does not infringe on the copyrights of others.  Will Apple have the time and manpower to police countless books and vooks, texts and theses? Not likely.  But surely they will not risk incurring liability for selling stolen goods.

If kids want to discover and learn, then the most important educational tool Apple could offer, as an adjunct to its iBooks2, is a primer on copyright. If Apple doesn’t instruct users on that fundamental legal principle, it will need to create an app for defending itself and its authors against copyright infringement lawsuits.

Richard Curtis

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E-Reads Acquires SF Grandmaster Brian Aldiss Backlist

E-Reads, a leading independent e-book publisher and a powerhouse in fantasy and science fiction, has acquired US e-book and print rights to fifteen titles by British science fiction Grandmaster Brian Aldiss, winner of two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Included in the trove are his Helliconia trilogy, the Squire quartet, and such other classics as Greybeard, Dark Light Years, and Galaxies like Grains of Sand. E-Reads will also publish a new work, Finches of Mars.

The reissue program will begin with fifteen titles, but E-Reads has an option to acquire the balance of Aldiss’s enormous output. The author is writing new introductions.

The deal was handled by John R. Douglas of E-Reads and Robin Straus of the Robin Straus Agency, Aldiss’s United States literary agent. Says Douglas, “I’ve been reading Aldiss for more than forty years and had the pleasure of working on the original publication of some of his works. It’s a privilege and delight to bring his books back as e-books. And to publish an original work of his – Finches of Mars – is a huge bonus.” Finches of Mars, Aldiss recently explained at a writers conference, is about a predominantly female colony on the red planet where some men are kept for reproductive purposes.

To read E-Reads’ press release in its entirety click here.

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