Whose book is it, anyway?

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.

Until now.

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.

15 thoughts on “Whose book is it, anyway?

  1. Dan Miller

    Honest question–how is X-ray any different from, say, Annotations to Finnegan’s Wake or similar works? In both cases, elements are added to another author’s work, and the original author isn’t compensated or consulted. It’s a slightly different mode of presentation, but this doesn’t seem too different from other things that have come before and been found largely acceptable.

  2. Nick Carr


    That’s a book about a book, which, as a separate work by another author, strikes me as an entirely different matter. (I’m certainly not opposed to exegesis or criticism.) If you were to put out, say, an annotated edition of The Remains of the Day, you’d need to get Ishiguro’s permission (so long as he holds copyright).

    But your question is certainly a fair one, and it underscores how assumptions about the print world may not hold in the digital world.


  3. Dan Miller

    This seems similar in spirit at least to the artificial sportswriter (it’s a little buried in that story, but worth reading); or, for that matter, the controversy over whether the police can use GPS to track your car. In all three cases, something used to take human effort, and was thus limited in practice; automating it, even if the job isn’t done as well as a human would, changes the nature of the task completed so much that it’s arguably a qualitative shift. Very interesting post, Nick–thanks.

  4. Lloyd Fassett

    Thanks for the response to my comment in “Remains of the Book” (I ride a bike for my andomorphin / dopamine kicker actually, but the link did work a little too. I could feel it)

    The feeling I get from that post and this one though is that we’re coming out of an era of prohibition and I feel like you think everyone is going to go on a huge bender and we’ll never have nice social conversations over beer again. Is that it?

    Some day I’m sure I’ll get a tablet and hope I won’t lose all control.

    By odd coincidence, this month’s New Yorker Fiction Podcast is a Ishiguro short story. It’s really good and even better the second time you listen to it.

  5. Nick Carr


    Yes, I think that’s part of it. Readers are free to read in any way they choose, including doing web searches on character names as they read a novel. But that’s different from a third party incorporating (in effect) a particular set of searches into the book itself. To give another example: Once I buy a book, I can underline stuff, cross stuff out, and make notes all over the pages. But that doesn’t mean a retailer can do such things before selling the book. (Actually, I’m making an assumption here. Maybe a retailer is free, legally, if not ethically, to write notes in a book before selling it. Does anyone know?)

    More broadly, this ties back to the question of how one defines a book’s edges, which I touched on earlier. With a physical book you can see and feel the edges, which makes their definition fairly easy. As soon as you digitize a book and put it onto a networked device, the edges get blurrier. But for legal and contractual reasons, you still need to be able to define the edges. And I don’t think that’s happened yet. If, for example, you add hyperlinks to the text of a digital book, have you modified the text of the book, or do the hyperlinks exist in a separate sphere from the underlying text? I would say that you’ve modified the book, but I’m sure a lawyer could argue the opposite.


    Is that it?

    No, I think it’s very different – more like the way the introduction of the automobile changed personal behavior and social norms in ways that were considerably more far-reaching than the makers and drivers of cars anticipated early on.

    Bottoms up,


  6. Nick Carr


    So you’re saying (I think) that any ebook distributor should be free to distribute any kind of supplementary material with a book, and to integrate that material, through accessory apps or device functionality, with the main text of the book in any way it sees fit – without requiring any sort of authorial review or permission.

    I have to say that, as a writer (and as a reader, for that matter), that makes me really uncomfortable. Though I also have to say that, so far, the drift of things seems to be in your direction.


  7. Dan Miller

    I am not 100% sure of the legality, but I know that efforts like RiffTrax are legal and ethical, and something like this might fall under the same exception. I’m largely OK with the process, as long as it’s not presented as the author’s original work.

  8. Klaus Baumgartner

    Wikipedia beat Encarta. And I have my bet on that “augmented” information will beat books as we know them.

    I think we’re heading towards a world where the edges you mentioned have to be established artificially. And I am not talking about DRM or laws.

    I welcome a world with truly accessible information. One very important aspect for me is that I can always tell the origin (or at least the fact that the origin is unknown).

    In this concrete case: I welcome additional comments, as long as they are optional (opt-in) for the reader and easily distinguishable from the original author’s content.

  9. Marcy Dunagan

    If you buy a physical book that has been marked up and scribbled in, you are buying a used book. If you change text into hypertext, you are modifying the text. Some kind of doublethink is going on when the supposed superiority of hypertext to plain ol’ text is proclaimed and then denied in the attempt to draw readers into a particular, branded way of “experiencing” a book. Perhaps Captain X-Ray wants to be the “man behind the curtain”?

    To make a less sinister comparison, this reminds me of the common scene where two people are competing to tell a story and one continues to interrupt the other.

    Y: And then, the giant elephant bought a dune buggy…

    X: …and drove it off the White Cliffs of Dover!

    Y: Do you want to tell the story?

    X: No, no, you tell it.

    Y: OK, where was I? Oh yes, the elephant in the dune buggy plunged into the English Channel…

    X: Historically symbolic as the site of threatened invasions, not to mention numerous attempts to swim across it…

    Y: Are you sure you don’t want to tell it?

    X: No, no! You tell it so well! You’re the storyteller! Go ahead.

    My point, of course, is that there is a legitimate question of “Who’s telling this story, anyway?” I’m not against new ways of telling a story, like audiobooks or ebooks, some of whose purchasers would not buy the traditional book for various reasons. They help authors sell more books, in other words. Still, I imagine authors of mystery/suspense/thriller novels, and of works that have a surprise ending, or a surprise middle, or any kind of twist anywhere in the book, cannot be terribly pleased at this development, though they may feel financial pressure to go along with it.

  10. Aristotle Pagaltzis


    Why would someone who chooses to read a mystery/suspense/thriller novel reflexively click a button that robs them of the very enjoyment for which they bought the book in the first place, just because the button is there?

    Do you compulsively fast-forward to the end of every detective film you rent before you start watching, just because you can?

  11. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    You speak of links the entire time, Nick.

    I did not see a single link in the demo.

    I did see a separate pop-over/sheet where the “interesting terms” were listed and the supplemental information shown.

    By what I can see of the presentation, there is no doubt at any point in time about whether the information you are looking at is part of the book, i.e. something that came from the author, or additional supplementary material.

    This is not at all like someone adding text to a book. This is more like someone selling a set that includes the book and at no extra charge a few sheets of glossary and the Cliff’s Notes.

    In whatsoever form would you argue is copyright touched upon if a bricks-and-mortar retailer sells such a bundle?

  12. Nick Carr


    From what I’ve seen, it’s a hypertext system that’s tightly integrated with the book. You tap on a page, which brings up a set of menu links, including an x-ray link at the bottom the page. You click on the x-ray link, and you get an overlay of topic links (or “interesting phrases,” in Amazon’s terms) that appear as part of the page and that are generated via a computerized analysis of the text. You click on a link, and you get a snippet of explanatory text, drawn from a source like Wikipedia, which is again displayed as an overlay on the book page, which includes snippets of the book text, and which has been included as part of the book when you downloaded it from the Amazon store. So there are indeed a lot of links here, and they are much more integrated into the book text (and the reading experience) than a separately bound and printed supplement.

    Now it may be that the x-ray system will come to be seen, legally and culturally, as a contemporary version of a “bundle” of discrete products. But to pretend that there’s no difference between the X-Ray hypertext overlay and a couple of books sold together is silly. There is a difference, and it’s a pretty stark one. The X-Ray system is very much about adding text to a book.

    And, as I pointed out, X-Ray is just an early manifestation of what seems likely to be an ongoing trend of device makers adding additional “enhancements” to a book in order to gain a competitive advantage. So if you say, “X-Ray’s dandy,” you will soon be greeted by more intrusive apps.


  13. Keenan Parsons

    I am writing a research paper on this (and how copyright law has shaped digital publishing – and the other way around) for my Advance Intellectual Property class in law school.

    I believe that Amazon is infringing on the author’s (or publisher’s) copyright by integrating this feature with the original work, i.e., Amazon is creating an unauthorized derivative work (although it might not even be a derivative work since the “annotations” are culled from the public domain).

    I’ve tried finding Amazon’s standard contract for publishing ebooks but have been unsuccessful so far. I did, however, find their direct publishing contract and there is no mention of the X-Ray feature.

    Btw, after reading The Shallows I quit reading assigned cases of my computer screen. Without the distractions (which included hyperlinks within the opinions), my retention really did improve. Thanks.

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