Friday, June 29, 2012

On Becoming Unglued...

On June 20th, the e-book world changed: One innovation cut through the fog of the discussions on copyright, digital rights management (DRM), and various other real and perceived problems of digital books. It did not take a revolution, angry protests, lobbying of politicians, or changes in copyright law. All it took was a simple idea, and the talent and determination to implement it.

Gluejar is a company that pays authors for the digital rights to their books. When it acquires those rights, Gluejar produces the e-book and makes it available under a suitable open-access license. Gluejar calls this process the ungluing of the book.

Handing out money, while satisfying, is not much of a business model. So, Gluejar provides a platform for the necessary fundraising. When proposing to unglue a book, an author sets a price level for the digital rights, and the public is invited to donate as little or as much as they see fit. If the price level is met, the pledged funds are collected from the sponsors, and the book is unglued.

Why would the public contribute? First and foremost, this is small-scale philanthropy: the sponsors pay an author to provide a public benefit. The ever increasing term of copyright, now 70 years beyond the death of the author, has long been a sore point for many of us. Here is a perfectly valid free-market mechanism to release important works from its copyright shackles, while still compensating authors fairly. Book readers that devote a portion of their book-buying budget to ungluing build a lasting free public electronic library that can be enjoyed by everyone.

The first ungluing campaign, “Oral Literature In Africa” by Ruth H. Finnegan (Oxford University Press, 1970), raised the requisite $7,500 by its June 20th deadline. Among the 271 donors, there were many librarians. Interestingly, two libraries contributed as institutions: the University of Alberta Library and the University of Windsor Leddy Library. The number of participating institutions is small, but any early institutional recognition is an encouraging leading indicator.

I hope these pioneers will now form a friendly network of lobbyists for the idea that all libraries contribute a portion of their book budget to ungluing books. I propose a modest target: within one year, every library should set aside 1% of its book budget for ungluing. This is large enough to create a significant (distributed) fund, yet small enough not to have a negative impact on operations, even in these tough times. Encourage your library to try it out now by contributing to any of four open campaigns. Once they see it in action and participate, they'll be hooked.

Special recognition should go to Eric Hellman, the founder of Gluejar. I have known Eric many years and worked with him when we were both on the NISO Committee that produced the OpenURL standard. Eric has always been an innovator. With Gluejar, he is changing the world... one book at a time.