Thanks for Nothing

If you want to see how counterproductive the current intellectual property environment can be for scholarly publishing, take a gander at the ACLS Humanities E-Book website. I foolishly inflicted an assignment on my students using this for today’s class, since there was a link to it out of our catalog. “Why make a .pdf for our reserves,” I wondered, “since there’s already this nice electronic version available to us.” Serves me right for not checking out exactly what that involved.

You can’t print from that site. You can’t link to a specific section or passage of text. As far as I can tell, you can’t even adjust the placement of text in the browser window so that you don’t have to scroll down to see the bottom of a page. If you try to go back to the site home page after accessing one text, the frame with the text you read remains.

The 1996 book I assigned there is no longer in print, and when it was, it was priced only as a library edition, never as something you could assign students. So what is the publisher of the book protecting, exactly? They are not going to bring this book back into print. They’ve made whatever money they’re going to make off of it. And now students who want to read it and teachers who want to teach it, acts which benefit the academic authors of the book, have to read it in this crippled format if they want to look at it as an ebook. There’s some nice stuff built into this ebook project–full MARC records, links to reviews of the text, search within the text. But basically: yuck.

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7 Responses to Thanks for Nothing

  1. Doug says:

    What’s the name of the book and the publisher? A little shame is in order here.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s not the author’s fault! The publisher is Cambridge University Press, though.

  3. jim says:

    Nothing’s actually being protected either. You want to print some of it? OCR a screen cap or three. Print the result. Actually, once you’ve OCR’d some screen caps, you can do anything you want with the resulting text.

    So, as usual, the publisher (actually probably the ACLS ) is making life difficult for the law-abiding while not preventing law-breaking.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    One of my students printed every page one at a time, just because she really felt she needed to read it that way. The interface for this thing is either a case of technically inept design or every aspect of it has been made intentionally inconvenient as a way to convince the publisher to play along.

  5. eb says:

    My guess is that it’s a mixture of the two. The Making of America sites are similarly frame-heavy, but they use the public domain and it’s possible to get the uncorrected OCR and pdfs of individual pages. I wonder if they were designed around the same time, back when frames were more common.

  6. Doug says:

    No, not the author’s fault at all. In fact, the author is probably bound by contract to let the publisher screw up this aspect any way it wants.

    On the other hand, if the book has been out of print for a sufficient period, the author can claim the rights back from the publisher and set the book free, look for another publisher, whatever.

    Charlie Stross has been on about publishers’ cluelessness about e-books a number of times. Bruce Sterling has been on it for about a decade now. Publishers still not clueful.

  7. Rana says:

    if the book has been out of print for a sufficient period, the author can claim the rights back from the publisher

    True, but increasingly, publishers are finding ways to keep books nominally in print (say, 10 on-demand copies a year) and thus retain title. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if e-books constitute a form of perpetual “in-print” status.

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