Chained Libraries

Thursday, August 12th, 02010 at 12:21 UTC

WGBH Boston produced a TV show called History of the Computer in 01992 for PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, in the US. It’s a quirky look into the past which now seems incredibly outdated, while still an interesting resource and does stay true to its title. It is a history, just up to a certain point. The reason I mention it, is because in this video there was a brief clip about chained libraries.

Watch on YouTube

Their analogy was that as the book was becoming more and more accessible to the masses, it exploded in popularity. Seeing that video, my immediate thoughts were about DRM, Digital Rights Management. This was 16th century equivalent of DRM, preventing you to do what you wanted with the object.

Admitably, the analogy isn’t the same. The reason these books were chained was because they were incredibly valuable in material costs. By chaining them-up it prevented theft. What is more interesting is that they didn’t see the printing press revolution around the corner or the fact that these physical artifacts would be come cheaper and cheaper to produce, to a point where they are just ones and zeros which cost effectively nothing to duplicate. Yet, in this day and age, we are still putting immense value on these digital artifacts and adding DRM which does exactly the same thing as the chain to keep people from running off with the object, except now, what it is trying to prevent, the only existing copy of the book from disappearing, is moot when you can digitally create an exact replica.

There was an anti-copying propaganda film which say “You wouldn’t steal a car, so why should you steal music?“. Except, if I could 100% replicate that car and leave the owner with the original, not depriving them of the use of it, then sure—that’s not theft. DRM is attempting to be like that chain, keep the valuable items from disappearing, but in a digital world, they don’t “disappear” they are simply replicated.

The problem arises that there is a lot of hard work that goes into the creation of both physical and digital objects. With eBooks being pushed out by Apple’s iBooks app, Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s Nook, they are finding their way into more and more people’s daily lives. No one knows exactly how to price these eBooks, but the market is showing that they should be less than the physical paperback. The problem, and I never realized this, but it make sense, is that the vast majority of the cost of a physical paperback book, isn’t the material cost, it is everything else; marketing, editors, authors, design, layout, etc. Not the paper or ink. This means that those costs still transfer over to digital objects as well. To copy a text file takes about as much energy and cost to copy a music file or a photo, but there is a lot of “hidden” cost in the time it took to create the originals.

Then there is the bizarre aside, that people sometimes buy physical books without the intent of reading them. Just having them on their shelf, in plain view, is the goal. They are status symbols, decoration as well as art. This is something the digital world can’t accomplish.

Back in 02007, the artist known as Prince gave away nearly 3 million instances of his newest CD, Planet Earth. He gave them away with every copy of that week’s British tabloid, The Mail on Sunday. Strangely, just recently, Prince has denounced the Internet as a fad, so I’m not sure if he is very forward thinking, crazy or a bit of both. Back in 02007, Prince probably woke-up one day and realized that he personally wasn’t making money off the CD sales, someone else was. His cut of the final sale price was a fraction of the total. Much like a paperback book, most of the cost was hidden cost of time, energy, marketing, etc. elsewhere, not the physical plastic CD or digital MP3. He probably looked at where was making money, in this case concerts and thought about how he could position himself to sell more concert tickets and at a higher price! He probably realized what every grade-school kid learns about supply and demand. If things are in high supply you can’t charge that much and if things are in low supply you can charge more—given there is a demand. Prince then would think to himself, what do I have that is in abundance supply, the ability to infinitely copy his songs at no cost, versus what is in short supply, face-time with Prince himself – his concerts. Prince the man can only be at one place at a time, whereas his songs could be played on thousands of radio stations simultaneously. So he gave away what was abundant—his songs and demanded a higher cost for what was in limited supply—his concerts.

While this makes complete sense to normal people, companies are still attempting to lock-up what is cheap with DRM because we don’t know how to make money from the limited resources of the person. This new methodology can be successfully executed by people who already have a large persona, such as Prince, but how do you get that large persona? This is the chicken and the egg question.


One solution, which hasn’t really taken off is the idea of ransomware also referred to as a threshold pledge system. This is where you sell your product to the first X number of people. Once you have covered your costs, you set the object free to everyone else. This is a happy medium which enables new content creators to risk less and still give away what is abundant for cheap. This is partly the idea of a book advance. You are given some money to support yourself and focus on the creation, but instead of getting royalties from your creation immediately, you have to first pay-down your advance before making any scratch.

Ransomware is called such because it holds the free object for ransom. Once you have paid the ransom, it is released to the general public. I wish more projects where like this. It helps the developers cover their costs, the people who really need it pay, and the rest of us get the benefit of using it for free, but only once the newness utility has worn off.

Chained Libraries

Books that were chained to the wall were a necessary evil, it was the best way to both allow access to the valuable objects while at the same time preventing theft. Had chains not been used, they would have either disappeared quickly or never been put on display in the first place. Having some restrictions, in their bizarre way, actually made them more available to the public. That demand then turned into the publishing industry which in turn increased the availability and drove down the price.

Looking around, on the Internet, it is interesting to think about what stage are we in. What stage should we be in? DRM locks-up contents because the perceived value of the object is high, but as we are seeing that is in direct competition with reality. We get to listen to TV and Radio for free, or via a licensing fee, taxes, or commercials. That content is not directly paid for so we perceive the value as less than when it is the same content being pushed to us on CD, DVD and other mediums.

There are still a few chained libraries in existence, but mostly their utility of protecting expensive books has been exhausted. Books are inexpensive to reproduce, so theft is not an issue. We are much more concerned about the intellectual property behind the object than the physical. The first computer’s hardware was vastly more expensive than the software. Now, you can get a cheap netbook for less than some operating systems. The percentages have completely flipped. The same has happened with books. The cost of a book versus the cost of the author (or early monk transcribers), was a very different percentage than it is today.


So what is the solution? It is very hard to say. Chaining digital objects up like 16th century books isn’t working. Treating all your patrons as if they are thieves isn’t sending the right message, especially when the perceived costs of the objects are so low. Many people have done well by giving their work away for free, but these are certainly the exception more than the norm. You always need to respect the will of the authors, publishers and companies who own the copyright, but at the same time there is a fight between the economics of the situation and control of the content. As history is beginning to show us, more open content is a better solution, but that’s not a justification, rather a starting point.