Exact Editions has been working with a group of publishers to provide a free open and temporary showcase to a selection of books relevant to the COP26 Climate Change conference taking place this Autumn in Glasgow. The showcase has not yet been completely assembled and is still to a considerable degree ‘under wraps’. Exact Editions, the contributing publishers and others will be making appropriate announcements and press releases in September. We occasionally encounter concerns about the suitability of using the Exact Editions Reading Room platform for this kind of time-limited showcase access to full content and this raises some general issues relevant to promotion and digital showcasing. Especially for books that are normally paid for, or behind a paywall.
The main concern seems to be that since the Reading Room platform allows free access to a book for anyone who follows the appropriate access before its time-limit expires, there is a possibility that unscrupulous users might use the ‘print page’ function to assemble a PDF of the whole book from page by page downloads. While this is indeed technically possible, it may be relevant to note that:
(1) it is against the terms of service to download and assemble an entire book in ‘paper or electronic form’
(2) the PDF pages that the system will provide for printing extracts are ‘rasterised’. This means that the page is accurate as a bit-map picture of the page, but the text is not in the page and not accessible to search or to ‘cut and paste’. Except for printing, this is not a useful PDF.
(3) it is also possible to save page images and separately scrape text before attempting to reconstitute them into a facsimile of a book. This sort of manoeuvre is possible with any digital format and via scanning and OCR it is possible to make illegitimate digital copies from a print book.
We already know that digital piracy is possible. We already know that it is possible to produce an ebook from a PDF and ‘sort of’ possible to produce an ebook from an audio book. Or indeed vice versa. Computers can transform and translate between digital formats. Computers are devices for copying stuff. Recognising this was part of the genius insight of Alan Turing that made computing possible.
Perhaps the key point is that although digital formats and services are in principle copyable, the Exact Editions reading room platform offers publishers a time-limited format which allows the publisher to control and manage the degree to which this can/cannot be done by setting temporary windows for access. And this may be an extremely helpful, even necessary, tool as publishers gear up the ways in which digital promotion and access will allow and enable the publishing industry to introduce low, or near-zero carbon, processes at the heart of the digital books business. Having tools for granting high quality but temporary digital access may even cut against the tendency to resort to botched but permanent forms of copying.
In the context of Climate Change the extent to which digital access can be used and controlled by publishers is a key consideration. A digital format which is exact and reliable on the visual quality of a book should be a vital tool as we consider ways in which time-dependent or conditional access to printed books needs to be replaced by an equivalent mode of digital access: review copies, inspection copies, sale or return, book club use, showcasing, archiving, loaning etc. are all time-dependent processes that might be better under the control of the author and/or publisher than left to the whims of Google, Amazon and Apple. In this case better both for publishers and authors and, let us hope, for the planet.