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Sic Transit Gloria Sony

Finally, a post that has something to do with law. At least sort of, and it's a long way in, but bear with me.

I've just gotten back from Akihabara. I forgot how big the electronics district of Tokyo actually is, and much of it has changed. What hasn't is the fact that there are literally hundreds of shops there selling almost exactly the same set of goods.

What shocked me was that one of my co-worker's observations last week was correct: there really wasn't a 'must buy' Sony product. And while I'm hardly the first to notice that Sony's diversification from hardware into media and entertainment has killed its edge with lifestyle products, it really hit home today.

For most observers (I read it first in the Economist) the story goes something like this: Sony used to make really hip gadgets that everyone had to have, and that redefined our lifestyle: portable stereos, boom boxes, and most significantly, the walkman. But then, in order to expand its market share, it started into media, and now the digital rights business (which wants to restrict anything that could copy data) in in conflict with its hardware side.

You can debate it around the edges, but it's a fairly solid story. And there's nothing that makes me more convinced than looking at the Librie (link run through Babelfish for my non-Japanese audience), a product that would do everything I'd dearly want it to, if only Sony would sell its content wing.

As an e-book reader, the Librie has a brilliant e-ink technology. Sure, it won't look half so good two years from now, but trust me, right now it looks as close to paper as you'll get in an electronic format. And unlike Sony's new answer to the I-Pod, it looks like the engineers actually questioned what users wanted and provided it: an interface that's usable whilst standing on the train, a paper-back sized reading area, and about as cunning a dictionary lookup function as you can get without a touchscreen.

I'm tempted to buy it. It would do what I want: provide an easy and portable way to take Japanese books with me, together with a dictionary feature that would cut down the time it takes to read them. For under $400, I shouldn't have had any second thoughts at all.

Oh yes, except for Sony's content gurus.

You see, Sony is committed to its OpenMG solution for digital rights management. I've been reading about it today at a number of Japanese websites, and it appears that the same strategy underlies their music, data, and video solutions. Despite its name, OpenMG seems to be 'open' in the same way that Microsoft is 'dedicated to open source solutions.' After a good half-hour of trying, I can't find software that will let me publish a document into BBeB (Sony's E-book format) or add a custom dictionary to the machine.

There's no technical reason this isn't feasible. It's simply that Sony owns a lot of content, and book publishers have been loathe to make content available in a format that's easily copyable. On the one hand, I can see there point: unlike music or videos, books are relatively bandwidth-light, and once digital, it would be easy to distribute them on the sly.

On the other hand, the device's usefulness to me is correspondingly reduced: imagine how nifty it would be if I could shift PDFs from my computer to my Librie. Particularly with difficult-to-read documents, this kind of tool would be a real charmer. And just imagine the boost that Sony would get if its document format became ubiquitous: people might be willing to exchange documents between, say, lawyer and client via memory-sticks. (As it is, they're basically a Sony technology.) Actually, you don't have to imagine the boost: just think how much mileage Adobe gets out of Acrobat.

More than that, I have to worry about what happens if this experiment of Sony's fails. At the moment, I'm limited to the Ebooks I can buy at Timebook Town. If for some reason--say the e-book equivalent of MP3--this format doesn't go over very well, I've got a $400 lemon.

It's still tempting. At the end of the day, it's the kind of tech I've wanted to have for ages. But if any of my readers know anyone at Sony, please, please, please tell them to divest their content business. It's just a distraction.

As for the promised legal topic: I've said for quite a while now that the way in which we handle copyright needs to be changed. At the moment, a number of artists and authors get very, very rich, and many stay in penury, but who really profits from the system are distributors: record labels, publishers, those who make sure that the limited shelf space we have for records and movies, the limited paper we have to print books, is used for more or less good stuff. As we move into a digital world, though, these roles become disintermediated. In an era in which the internet makes direct publishing a possibility, and every form of information reduces more or less seemlessly to digital data, the gatekeepers are no longer needed.

I don't know what such a system would look like, yet. Maybe writing would change such that editors would work for freelance, and authors would pay them to make something marketable. I don't know. What I do know is that the system as it stands is keeping new technologies from developing, technologies that make our lives fuller, better, and easier. When copyright law is no longer fulfilling that purpose, it's time to change.

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Comments

I agree completely. Technology has made the old business model that depends upon distribution to generate revenue obsolete. Since copyright should be a tool, and not an end in itself, you're right to say it's time to change.
For copyright reform Creative Commons is a good start. I'd be interested to know what you make of it. http://www.creativecommons.org It also has one of the best flash movie presentations I've ever seen explaining their ideas.
Your taking law? Wanna be famous before you finish? Write up a citizens arrest form on my behalf for Rush Limbaugh. Charged with crimes he openly admitted. And never charged. Seems this should set the precident for all other first degree felons in the State of Florida. Confess, rehab, realease. No probation, no booking, no bail. Seems to me if the police won't enforce the law a concerned citizen could, and dang the fame element alone. Nice "devilish" start to a young lawyers career.
Sony's got a long history of shooting itself in the foot by being overzealous about intellectual property: just remember Betamax. From everything you say, I fully expect devices like the Librie to be ubiquitous in a few years, for some other standard to be well-established on them, and for Sony to make some of the best devices with the new standard.

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