Are You Missing the Market, Aspen?

Professors are in an uproar over Aspen Publisher’s new rules for textbooks. In short, if you thought you could buy a book and do what you wanted after that (i.e. sell it used), Aspen wants to change that system. Instead of a true, unbundled digital option, it has a system where students buy both a physical textbook and a “lifetime” digital book. Too bad as there is a market opportunity that they might be missing. On the legal doctrine front, Josh Blackman called it out. James Grimmelmann jumped on the bashing. Rebecca Tushnet has poked at the offer too. But where is the market here? Is there a way Aspen could make this shift work well? If so, would authors (i.e., professors with deals with Aspen) like it? And why not use dollars to tell Aspen what to do? Assign a different casebook from a competitor (FYI there is a free one out there, see below). There are some specific issues that illustrate sme of the problems in this space.

First, what about time and artificial editions? Rebecca nails this point by calling out that some areas of law (e.g., IP) change so fast that new editions and coverage issues make staying up with casebooks a problem. In those areas, does first sale do much work? Maybe it does much work in the few years between editions. But after that, the text is somewhat obsolete. Dusting of an IP text in digital or hardcopy from the 1990s would be dangerous except for fundamentals (and maybe even for those). Still, there are now seven editions for the Dukeminier casebook. Are the updates every four or so years needed? Even in other areas, are authors updating to add value or to create a new text that undercuts the used market? Do publishers lean on authors to issue new editions when there is not much to say as a market window or version control? If so, the publisher is setting up the demand for secondary or alternate markets that cut out the publisher.

So is this system functioning? As I noted before, the OpenStax system offers high quality texts for free and in a modular way. That means sections are updated for free and folks can assemble material as they wish. Law does not have that yet. The folks at Semaphore Press are close however. That press happens to publish a property text by Steve Semeraro (disclosure I am friends with the folks at Semaphore and introduced them to Steve). It is not quite OpenStax, but it is an interesting model with a shareware feel.

Second, what about the cost to write and update a text? I know it takes tons of time. Whether RA’s do some work or it is all by the professors, the time to write a good casebook is real. I am grateful for the good books. A great teacher’s manual is also a huge help. For new teachers and even experienced, a rich manual provides insights about how the author(s) teach the material and where they see the comments to be headed. One can then choose to follow that lead or modify. But is the price point for texts (as many noted often close to $200) sustainable? Would the market collapse if the cost dropped to low or no charge? OpenStax indicates that the system could shift, and a small crowd of experts would be able to offer an excellent, up-to-date text. And as Pam Samuelson and many others have noted, scholarly works pay off in reputation. So having the most assigned text (or specific chapter on a subject) may stimulate just enough competition for reputation to get great texts (or chapters) but not a glut of roughly the same material from many high-priced publishers.

Third, what about that market opportunity? Would a publisher that offered A) a true digital copy for $40, $50, or even a $100 take share from others? B) What if the publisher said rent the hard copy for a reduced price (again it should be low)? Some might hate that idea as a matter of doctrine but that market is emerging on Amazon and at least lets the student know what is going on (though I think a rental model poses some issues for libraries in that no one should say that libraries should just be rental depots that is another debate for another time).

So Apsen, if you’d like to survive I am betting your authors would like that too. But I am also betting they want to work with you to offer much better solutions than the ones you have right now. The life time digital edition and the high price insult the authors and the marketplace. I think others will find ways to route around you. But you could take your current position and parlay it for the future. If not, I think you may have pushed the law text market to Semaphore or OpenStax. Hmm, maybe Aspen should stay with its model after all.

Schneier on the NSA, Google, Facebook Connection But What About Phones?

Bruce Schneier argues that we should not be fooled by Google, Facebook, and other companies that decry the recent NSA data grabs, because the nature of the Internet is surveillance; but what about phone companies? The press has jumped on the Obama administration’s forthcoming plan that

would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.

The details are to come, but Schneier’s point about the structure of the system applies to phone companies too, “The biggest Internet companies don’t offer real security because the U.S. government won’t permit it.”

There are few things to parse here. OK there are many things to parse, but a blog post has limits. First, Schneier’s point about Internet companies is different than his one about the government. His point is that yes, many companies have stepped up security to prevent some government spying, but because Gooogle, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and almost any online company needs access to user data to run their businesses and make money, they all have built “massive security vulnerability” “into [their] services by design.” When a company does that, “by extension, the U.S. government, still has access to your communications.” Second, as Schneier points out, even if a company tried to plug the holes, the government won’t let that happen. Microsoft’s Skype service has built in holes. The government has demanded encryption keys. And so it goes. And so we have a line on the phone problems.

The proposed changes may solve little, because so far the government has been able to use procedure and sheer spying outside procedure to grab data. The key will be what procedures are required and what penalties follow for failing to follow procedure. That said, as I argued regarding data security in January 2013, fixing data security (and by extension phone problems) will require several changes:

A key hurdle is identifying when any government may demand data. Transparent policies and possibly treaties could help better identify and govern under what circumstances a country may demand data from another. Countries might work with local industry to create data security and data breach laws with real teeth as a way to signal that poor data security has consequences. Countries should also provide more room for companies to challenge requests and reveal them so the global market has a better sense of what is being sought, which countries respect data protection laws, and which do not. Such changes would allow companies to compete based not only on their security systems but their willingness to defend customer interests. In return companies and computer scientists will likely have to design systems with an eye toward the ability to respond to government requests when those requests are proper. Such solutions may involve ways to tag data as coming from a citizen of a particular country. Here, issues of privacy and freedom arise, because the more one can tag and trace data, the more one can use it for surveillance. This possibility shows why increased transparency is needed, for at the very least it would allow citizens to object to pacts between governments and companies that tread on individual rights.

And here is the crux of Schneier’s ire: companies that are saying your data is safe, are trying to protect their business, but as he sees it:

A more accurate statement might be, “Your data is safe from governments, except for the ways we don’t know about and the ways we cannot tell you about. And, of course, we still have complete access to it all, and can sell it at will to whomever we want.” That’s a lousy marketing pitch, but as long as the NSA is allowed to operate using secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law, it’ll never be any different.

In that sense he thinks companies should lean on the government and openly state security is not available for now. Although he knows no company can say that, the idea that we should all acknowledge the problem and go after the government to change the game is correct.

The point is correct for Internet companies and for phone companies. We should not over-focus on phones and forget the other ways we can be watched.

Public Service Announcement for Google Glass Team

The Google Glass team has a post about the so-called myths about Google Glass, but the post fails to see what is happening around Glass. That is sad. Instead of addressing the issues head on, the post preaches to the faithful (just read the comments). As Nate Swanner put it “We’re not sure posting something to the tech-centric Google+ crowd is really fixing the issues though.” Google and other tech companies trying to do something new will always face challenges, fear, and distrust. The sad part for me is when all sides line up and fail to engage with the real issues. Some have asked what I did when at Google. Part of the job was to present the technology, address concerns, and then see where all of us saw new, deep issues to come. I loved it, because I knew the technology was driven by high-standards. The problems flowed from not explaining the tech. This post highlights talking past each other. Furthermore the truly wonderful advances that might be possible with Glass are not discussed. That distresses me, as no one really wins in that approach. But I will show what is not great about the post as a possible public service announcement for the Glass Team and others in the tech space.

First, the post sets an absurd tone. It starts with “Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL. A tooth placed in soda will dissolve in 24 hours. Gators roam the sewers of big cities and Walt Disney is cryogenically frozen. These are just some of the most common and — let’s admit it — awesome urban myths out there.” Message: Glass critics are crazy people that by into extreme outlying beliefs, not truth. And if you think I am incorrect, just look at this next statement: “Myths can be fun, but they can also be confusing or unsettling. And if spoken enough, they can morph into something that resembles fact. (Side note: did you know that people used to think that traveling too quickly on a train would damage the human body?).” Hah! We must be idiots that fear the future.

That said maybe there are some myths that should be addressed. Having worked at Google, I can say that while I was there, technology was not done on a whim. I love that about the company and yes, the Glass Team fits here too. Furthermore, as those who study technology history know, even electricity faced myths (sometimes propagated by oil barons) as it took hold. Most of the Glass myths seem to turn on cultural fears about further disconnection from the world, always on or plugged in life, and so on. But the post contradicts itself or thinks no one can tell when its myth-busting is self-serving or non-responsive.

On the glass is elitist issue: Google is for everyone, but high priced, and not ready for prime time. Huh? Look if you want to say don’t panic, few people have it, that is OK and may be true. But when you also argue that it is not elitist because a range of people (not just tech-worshiping geeks) use Glass; yet nonetheless the $1500 price tag is not about privilege because “In some cases, their work has paid for it. Others have raised money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And for some, it’s been a gift” the argument is absurd. That a few, select people have found creative ways to obtain funds for Glass does not belie the elite pricing; it shows it.

The surveillance and privacy responses reveal a deeper issue. Yes, Glass is designed to signal when it is on. And yes that may limit surveillance, but barely. So too for the privacy issue. Check this one in full:

Myth 10 – Glass marks the end of privacy
When cameras first hit the consumer market in the late 19th century, people declared an end to privacy. Cameras were banned in parks, at national monuments and on beaches. People feared the same when the first cell phone cameras came out. Today, there are more cameras than ever before. In ten years there will be even more cameras, with or without Glass. 150+ years of cameras and eight years of YouTube are a good indicator of the kinds of photos and videos people capture–from our favorite cat videos to dramatic, perspective-changing looks at environmental destruction, government crackdowns, and everyday human miracles. 

ACH!!! Cameras proliferated and we have all sorts of great, new pictures so privacy is not harmed?!?!?! Swanner hits this one dead on:

Google suggests the same privacy fears brought up with Glass have been posed when both regular cameras and cell phone cameras were introduced in their day. What they don’t address is that it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is pointing a device they’re holding up at you; it’s much harder to tell when you’re being video taped while someone looks in your general direction. In a more intimate setting — say a bar — it’s pretty clear when someone is taping you. In an open space? Not so much.

So tech evangelists, I beg you, remember your fans are myriad and smart. Engage us fairly and you will often receive the love and support you seek. Insult people’s intelligence, and you are no-better than those you would call Luddite.

The Economist Notes that Patents Do Not Equal Innovation

The Economist had a recent piece about software patents and said, GASP “[P]atent issuance is a poor measure of innovation.” Amen. But wait! Don’t order yet! There’s more! “Patenting is strictly a metric of invention. Innovation is such a vastly different endeavour—in terms of investment, time and the human resources required—as to be virtually unrelated to invention.” (The applause and boos commence simultaneously).

Innovation is meaningless as well, but the first step is to admit the problem. There may be some relationship between patents and incentives to create certain things. But not all patents or all creations show a correlation to a general claim that patents equal innovation or whether innovation will occur without patents. Innovation as “Hey that rally changed the way we do things” probably can’t be identified until much after the event. Innovation as “Hey we made tons and tons of bitcoin, oh we mean cash” is easier to spot but a different metric as far as policy should be concerned. The better disposable razor or even iPhone is incremental while also important. Parsng the differences amongst what types of innovation is well-beyond a blog post. But should folks want to hurt their head and wear out their hands, please write at length. I will look forward to reading what you find.

Yep, There It Is, Amazon Embraces 3D Printing

In the mists of yore (i.e., December 2, 2013), I wrote that Amazon seems well-placed to embrace 3D printing to cut labor costs and offer same-day and/or back-catalog things, as in physical goods; now Amazon has. Similar to Amazon’s move of buying one of the major on-demand publishers of books, it has partnered with 3DLT which has been called thethe first store for 3D products. Amazon has also opened a 3D printing store-front. WaPo’s Dominic Basulto gets the point that Gerard and I have been making in our paper Patents Meet Napster, and I keep seeing in so many areas of technology. Basulto notes that just in time retail could take on a new meaning. As he puts it:

[T]he future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

Yep. That’s about right. And as Gerard and I argue, this shift will highlight questions about patents and also trademarks. Folks may want to know that the files and the materials for the things they print are safe and trust-worthy. Enter brands and enter Amazon (and eBay to be fair) which have been brilliant at setting up online trust-systems so that we can do business with random company in random place and have a high probability that the deal will occur, be as promised, and not leak our credit cards (Amazon does this by not sharing your credit card with third parties last I checked).

Now all we need is nano-goo-fueled replic– er uh, excuse me, 3D printers — and the Diamond Age will be here.