The start of the end for publishers acting like dinosaurs?

Ramblings and rejoicing that the Dutch are releasing their research for free. I explain, with some details, why I’m happy about this. I give the example of Questia as a case of bad publishing.

Yay! The Dutch are releasing their research for free.

I’m happy about this for 2 reasons:

  1. The price is right. I’m not advocating that all research everywhere be made free. I realize, even if digital formats are used, that there are costs associated with publishing. However, I think that the cost savings resulting from the move to digital publishing are not shared with the consumers. This is mainly a problem with big, established publishing companies and, since they have a lot of control over the market, that doesn’t leave much room for other alternatives. (Note here that I’m talking about the world of scholarly publishing, not mass-market genres.)

  2. This kind of move changes the power relationship in the author-publisher-reader triangle in favor of the author and the reader. Besides pricing issues, I do think traditional publishers, and digital publishers that act like traditional publishers, are impediments to access to materials rather than enablers. Contracts are signed to protect the publisher’s interests rather than those of the authors and readers. A case in point is Questia, which I find particularly harmful to users. They offer digital versions of regular paper books but what they are also doing is trapping the reader into their own little system. The first problem is that it is not possible to download a book to a laptop or PDA for offline reading. Actually, quoting from their FAQ (accessed 12 May 2005):

    Are subscribers able to download books?
    No. Questia will serve only one page at a time to a user. Users cannot download any pages from the server, and can only print the one page they are viewing. This approach is designed to protect publisher rights.

    They can’t be clearer than this! It is to “protect publisher rights”, not the reader’s rights or the author’s rights but the publisher’s. Printing is also crippled so then how does one take notes? Well, Questia comes to the rescue with their own web based system for taking notes. Ok, who legally owns the notes? Can Questia legally search through my notes without my knowledge? Looking at points 7 and 9 of their Subscriber Agreement (accessed 12 May 2005; you need to go past the Terms and Conditions of Use), I interpret it as meaning that they own your notes and can search through them at will. Point 7 says that “all content and services available on this site are property of Questia Media America, Inc.”. When you put your notes up, aren’t those also “content”?

    Then, if I’m tired of Questia and want to stop subscribing, what happens to my notes? Right now, I don’t see any way to export the notes in any useful format… so I must assume that if I stop subscribing, I lose my notes. All my hard work flushed down the drain…

    Someone might object that Questia is not a publisher but I don’t agree. They are what I would call a “secondary publisher”. Also, even if one doesn’t consider Questia to be a publisher, the root of the problem here is that they are protecting the rights of the original publishers of the works they are offering online.

I hope other entities which have the power to follow the Dutch lead will do so.

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