"Paper Books? They’re So 20th Century,"

from the Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2000, at A26,

by Prof. Eugene Volokh, UCLA School of Law,




          When techies announce a revolution, it makes sense for us normal people to be skeptical. This goes double with regard to something as basic as books, a 500-year-old technology and a fundamental part of our intellectual lives. Can Microsoft and Time Warner, which last week announced new electronic-book ventures, really expect us to chuck our beloved paper treasures and shift to electronic words?

          Well, yes. Sure, there’ll be kicking and screaming. And it’ll take some time; e-book technology is still in its infancy. But even now e-books are better than real books in many ways. Just as cars largely displaced horses and lightbulbs largely displaced candles—despite the aesthetic benefits of those old technologies—so e-books will largely displace paper books.

          The modern e-book is a hand-held computer optimized for readability and portability. It weighs about as much as an average hardcover, so you can read it in bed, on the train or on the beach. My Rocket eBook has a 20-hour battery life and is easily recharged. Bookmarking and underlining is easier than with a paper book, though writing notes is still somewhat harder. The main drawback is that once you’ve made the font big enough to read easily, you can only fit about one paragraph on the screen at a time. That’s a problem, though I’m now used to it.

          But consider the advantages. My e-book stores about 10 to 20 book-length texts at once, a great feature for vacationers, business travelers and students with full backpacks. It lets you look up the definitions of unfamiliar words just by touching them—invaluable for children or for people learning a foreign language. It lets you search for words and follow internal hyperlinks, which is especially useful for reference works.

          You can read it silently and in the dark, for instance when reading in bed beside a sleeping spouse. You can also download your own documents—lawyers, for example, can store many case documents and court opinions on one e-book. An e-book text can include sounds and eventually animation and interactive puzzles, which makes it more appealing and educational for children. You can buy e-texts instantly, without driving to a bookstore. And browsing before buying should be easy; some e-publishers already make the first few chapters of their books available at no cost.

          My e-book hardware cost me $250, though the price will likely fall, just as it did for compact-disc players and VCRs. E-texts are cheaper than paper books and should get cheaper still, because publishers don’t need to spend money on printing and physical distribution; many public-domain classics are already available for free.

          Still, some of my friends mutter: "They can have my hardcover when they pry it from my cold, dead hands." Fair enough; there is something appealing and familiar about the look and feel of paper. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that habits long established should not be changed for light and transient causes—many would-be techno-revolutionaries have learned this the hard way.

          But the real benefits of e-books should eventually overcome even the weight of tradition and aesthetics. Schoolchildren, college students and professionals will grow used to e-books. Skeptics will borrow an e-book for a long trip and become comfortable with it. Readers will find that perusing newspapers on e-books is actually easier than on newsprint. The bottom line is that a book’s value is fundamentally in the information and entertainment that its text provides, not in its format.

          For all their virtues, though, e-books are a potential copyright nightmare for publishers. As they become more common, offshore pirate sites will start selling unauthorized editions. Publishers who put their titles online risk having their electronic versions stolen, but publishers who stay offline aren’t safe either. Pirates can cheaply scan paper bestsellers into their computers.

          E-book manufacturers are trying to deal with this problem by letting publishers sell their e-texts in encrypted form. The text is decrypted only on the e-book itself, where it isn’t vulnerable to user copying.

          But this solution might not work for long. If the much-vaunted "convergence" takes place (and it’s starting to), consumers won’t want to carry an e-book, an organizer, a music player and a laptop—they’ll want to carry one computer that does all these things. When an e-text is read on that computer, there is what Temple University law professor David Post calls the "unencrypted moment," during which the user can run another program that copies the decrypted data. And in any event, encryption can do nothing about the risk of pirate sites scanning paper books into the computer.

          What can publishers do? They could compensate for infringement losses by profiting from the benefits of online distribution. Because downloading an e-text is cheaper and easier than driving to the store and buying a paper copy, people are likelier to buy. And, as the price goes down, so does the temptation to go to a pirate site.

          Electronic distribution also makes possible more effective promotion mechanisms. Today if you read a book review or hear a recommendation, you might remember to buy the book next time you visit a bookstore—or you might not. But an online book review or a friend’s e-mail could easily link to a place where you can quickly download the first chapters for free; if you later read those chapters and like them, you could, with a few clicks, buy the entire book.

          Publishers will also push harder to ensure that all foreign nations, no matter how small, suppress infringers: They could lobby (or effectively bribe) the recalcitrant countries directly, or get Western governments to pressure them. And there’ll probably be increased attempts to draft Internet service providers or credit-card companies as enforcers; Congress could, for instance, bar these companies from providing access or financial services to any Web site that’s on a government-maintained list of pirates. The cure of such intrusive regulations might ultimately be worse than the disease, but with billions in sales riding on this, some such cure will surely be discussed.

          In the long run, electronic distribution—of books, music and eventually video—won’t be stopped by either consumer hesitance or by publisher fear. The technological advantages are just too great. One way or another, publishers and the law will have to adapt to the e-book age. And while each of us consumers may choose not to adapt, over time I think most will.