Even after I wrote a couple of posts about Amazon’s Kindle announcements last week, something still nagged me – I sensed there was an angle I was missing – and two nights ago it finally hit me. I woke from a fretful sleep and discovered a question pinballing through my synapses: What the heck does Kuzuo Ishiguro think about this?
Or, more generally: Whose book is it, anyway?
You might have thought that question was put to rest a few hundred years ago. For quite a while after Gutenberg invented the printing press, the issue of who controlled a book’s contents remained a fraught one. As is often the case, it took many years for laws, contractual arrangements, business practices, and social norms to catch up with the revolutionary new technology. But in due course the dust settled, and control over a book’s contents came to rest firmly in the hands of a book’s author (at least through the term of copyright). Which seems like the proper outcome. You probably wouldn’t, for instance, want book retailers to be able to fiddle with the text of a new book at their whim – that would be annoying, confusing, and wrong. And even if you did want it, it wouldn’t have been particularly practicable, as it would have required a retailer to invest in printing a special edition of the book or to have its employees go through every copy of the standard edition and mark it up with a Sharpie. Not only was authorial control over a text secured through laws and contracts, but it was also reinforced by the fact that printed books resisted easy emendation.
Case closed. Done deal. Everyone’s happy.
At Amazon’s announcement last week, one of the things CEO Jeff Bezos introduced was the company’s new X-Ray feature – essentially a proprietary hypertext system for Kindle touchscreen ebooks. He demonstrated the feature by “X-Raying” Ishiguro’s acclaimed 1989 novel The Remains of the Day. With X-Ray, you tap on a page of a book, and you get a list of salient terms that appear on the page – character names, historical events, places, and so forth – along with a graph (an “X-Ray”) that indicates the frequency with which the terms are used throughout the book. You can then tap on a term to call up an explanatory article from Wikipedia (for glosses of facts) or Shelfari (for characters and other literary devices). To speed the hyperlinking process, Amazon does a technologically nifty trick: it bundles the relevant text from Wikipedia and Shelfari with the text of the book when it downloads the book to your Kindle. The company determines which supplementary text to include, as well as which terms to highlight, through a computerized textual analysis, which identifies what Amazon terms the “interesting phrases” in the book.
In one sense, X-Ray expands a feature that has been common in early ebook readers: the ability to call up a dictionary definition of a word. But X-Ray goes much further, both in augmenting the author’s original text and in integrating the additions into the reading experience. Some may see the additions as enhancements, others as irritants, but whether good or bad they represent an editorial intrusion into the contents of a book by a third party – a retailer, in this case. As such, they exist, I think it’s fair to say, in an ethical and perhaps legal gray area. That seems particularly true of novels, where the addition of descriptions of characters and other fictional elements would seem to intrude very much into the author’s realm. (I have to think X-Ray will make a lot of novelists nervous.) The fact that the supplementary text is sold along with the actual text makes the intrusion all the starker.
There are some obvious practical questions stemming from X-Ray, though I don’t see any evidence that Amazon or publishers have grappled with them yet:
Does the X-Ray system and its textual additions violate copyright controls or contractual arrangements?
Should Amazon be required to secure an author’s permission before X-Raying the author’s book? Should, in other words, X-Ray be opt-in? And if it’s not opt-in, should an author (or publisher) be able to opt-out?
Should an author be able to vet (or even add to) the supplementary information included with a book?
If, eventually, product recommendations or advertisements are included in the supplementary material triggered by X-Ray, should the author share in any resulting revenues?
There are also more theoretical questions, having to do with the aesthetics of literature, the integrity of works of art and craft, and the ethics of writing and reading.
I suspect that all these questions, and other related ones, will only become more salient and more complicated in the years ahead. Should X-Ray prove to be even a modest competitive advantage to the Kindle (or to Shelfari, which is owned by Amazon), we can expect other companies that provide e-readers or e-reading applications – Apple and Barnes & Noble, for instance – to introduce their own proprietary systems for amending and augmenting the text of a book. And we can expect Amazon to continue to extend the functionality of X-Ray. The intrusions onto the author’s traditional territory will only grow, and go deeper.
So whose book is it? Suddenly, that’s an open question again.