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Michael Hiltzik: Which last longer, ebooks or physical books? The answer may surprise you

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The internet engineer and entrepreneur Brewster Kahle took a shot at the book publishing industry a few weeks ago by pointing out something well-known to technologists but unappreciated by the general public: that ebooks and other digital artifacts have shorter lifespans than the physical items.

"Our paper books have lasted hundreds of years on our shelves and are still readable," Kahle observed in a post on the website of the Internet Archive, the invaluable historical repository of old web pages and other digital artifacts that he founded in 1996. "Without active maintenance, we will be lucky if our digital books last a decade."

It may be misleading to say that Kahle took a shot at the publishers. More accurately, he took another shot at them. That's because for more than two years Kahle has been embroiled in a bitter court fight with the industry over his effort to make digital copies of copyrighted books and lend them out for free.

Kahle says he's just doing what public libraries do. The publishers who have sued the Internet Archive in federal court in New York — Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons and Penguin Random House — have a different take.

They say the Archive is engaged in "willful digital piracy on an industrial scale." (HarperCollins is my book publisher.)

What's really happening here is that everyone involved — publishers, online distributors, authors and readers — is trying to come to terms with the capacity of digital technology to overthrow the traditional models of printing, selling and buying readable content.

 

Publishers and authors are predictably, and rightly, fearful that they'll lose out financially; but it's also quite possible that, properly managed, the technological revolution will make them more money.

To see how this may unfold, let's start with some fundamentals of digitization. Kahle's recent post is a good jumping-off point.

New technologies allow us to convert what's on the printed page into bits and bytes readable by computer. The process can reproduce a printed page exactly, or only the text. Some content begins as a computer file produced by a writer at a keyboard, which can then be used to produce a bound book.

The product can be an ebook, which can appear on the screen exactly like its paper analog, or can provide only the text or a nearly infinite variations of format.

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