Digital dilemmas of publishers

Tags: Knowledge
Technology has changed the world in unprecedented ways over the last few decades. Change, though, is usually a mixed bag and rarely comes without its bumps—just ask the publishing business. Some of the burning questions on the transformations taking place in publishing and opinions on where the way ahead lies were showcased and debated at the GLOBALOCAL conference in New Delhi last week.

This was the fifth edition of this annual conference, organised by the German Book Office. It saw presentations, roundtables, workshops, business matchmaking and networking opportunities for publishers, industry experts, practitioners and partners. It also threw up some interesting insights. The CEOs’ roundtable and the STM (scientific, technical and medical publishing) roundtable discussed some of key challenges of the day, including the emerging copyright scenario and the notion of open access.

Copyright and


Michael Healy from the Copyright Clearance Center, New York, spoke at length on the changing notion of copyright at the STM roundtable: “Historically, copyright and allied tools were understood to be protectors and enablers of creators. But In recent years, we have come a full 180 degrees on this, and for some, copyright is actually an impediment, a ‘nuisance’, that if dismantled, will allow innovation to flourish.”

Copyright laws across the world are dated and reform is critical or “we’ll look back and identify this as a missed opportunity,” said Healy. Already, the theft of digital content is widespread, he said. “Yet, it is imperative that we make it easier for paying consumers to access content easily. To this end, the greatest contribution we can make is licence content easily and inexpensively. That is the path to protecting content.”

“Young people have a sense of the internet being a free space,” said Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan Books, at the CEOs’ roundtable. Keeping that in mind, she stressed on the need to make content available in different ways to readers. She spoke of Zubaan’s decision to sell their ebooks free of digital rights management (DRM), so that readers who legitimately buy their content aren’t hindered by restrictions on how to read their books.

Open access

A debate that is raging in academic publishing around the world is one centred around the concept of open access (OA). Emma House of the Publishers’ Association, UK, recounted the UK’s journey with OA. In lay terms, open access enables publicly funded research to be accessible to everyone. Broadly speaking, there are two OA models — gold, where the author pays (usually via a research grant) to put their content on an OA platform, which is free for end-users; and green, where there is an embargo period before the content is freely accessible — with many hybrid models in between.

The idea behind OA is that scholarly research, which is usually funded by public money, should be accessible to everyone. This, of course, implies easy access for the research community in general; which translates into a wider audience for the researcher and their work. Some of the obstructions include lack of funding and questions on sustainability of OA models, the embargo periods, and a lack of quality control. Michael Healy mentioned “polarising debates” taking place in the US on OA at present. In India, said Puneet Mehrotra of Consortium eLearning, OA models may need to change for their adoption. There is, of course, the fear of piracy, but as David Appell from Bookmate, Russia, observed, “The fear about open access will not cure piracy.”

Just as a generation and a half ago we saw fierce debates on whether television was killing the print media, today’s battle lines are drawn between print and digital. And just as TV and books figured out how to coexist, there is little doubt the current tussle will sort itself out. The way to help that along would be to approach technology as an enabler and not a threat. zz

(The author is a freelance

technology writer)


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