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Is the Printed Word Losing Out to the Digitized Word?

Today I got two copies of the newspaper I am currently subscribing, with no extra cost! I wonder why? Is it to artificially inflate the subscription figures? On top of it, there is more than 90% junk, full page advertisement  wrapped liberally as the cover page and every alternate page besides 4 page ads inserted in between. This is in addition to 20 more pages of irritating and even offending ads supplement. Does it portray the pitiable condition of the patient in the last stage of his terminal illness? Gradual closing down of the world’s best newspapers and magazines or their devouring by rivals from the digitized word industry do indicate the sure death of the print media. It can bring about necessary change but do nothing more to sustain the industry. If democracy meant the end of monarchy, commercialization of the print media is bound to end the way news is disseminated.

It is clear that hearing news is better than reading it and seeing news is still better than the two. Digitization has several advantages over the printed word in terms of time invested, aggregation of the relevant content, accuracy of the facts, comparative quality of the material, instant review by other readers, instant dissemination globally as the news happens, check on motivated writing, control on hate mongers, closing the gap between the informed journalist and the uninformed reader making the citizen a journalist also, huge monetary saving by discontinuing buying dozens of newspapers and magazines, saving on precious time which can be devoted for other activities and the added bonus of availing free advertisements. On line shopping, price negotiation, virtual shopping to see the gadget in your home before deciding on buying it make the busy knowledge workers of today their loyal subscribers. The threat is real, the challenge unequal, the change is imminent as only the fittest of the two will survive.

Digitization is threatening the other printed industry: books and publishing industry. Copyright laws certainly provide protection to the author and the publisher against unauthorized commercial use of the contents of the book, but the sheer scale is so large that it is difficult to check it fully. On top of it, there are very strong lobbies against the copyright laws, especially the provisions of copying material from the book for education or other fair use. A film song has the melody in the first two lines, should it be permitted to be freely used as ringtone and sold commercially? A film is liked for some beautiful scenes-should its clipping be allowed for free public exhibition in social gatherings or hotels or aircrafts or television screens? A book is born out of the labour of several years of an author, who might have spent several months or years researching the subject and thereafter arrive at a certain conclusion. Should the conclusions be allowed to be used for free in education, seminars, workshops or training programmes? The book is an “asset or property” of an author and his heirs. As any other property, it can be sold or rented. It ought to be paid. Can a person pluck fruits from a cultivator’s orchard for free or grains from the field? Can a person walk in to the factory of a computer manufacturer and simply pick up a computer and walk away without paying? The answer is obviously no. Then, why is the answer different in the case of a book? Is it because there is someone watching and guarding the property in other cases and can physically handle the non-paying customer, which is not available in case of the theft of the intellectual property or assets of an author from his book? The Copyright laws the world over spread the net of protection over the intellectual property of the author, under the United Nations and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO, Geneva) umbrella. In spite of such strong protection, the printed book industry is under serious threat from the digitization. Both authorized as well as unauthorized loading of the whole book on the internet poses grave threat to the existence and survival of the printed book, publishing industry and the book distribution trade. For comprehensive information on this threat, websites of prominent Publishers Associations( like the  International Publishers Association, Australian Publishers Association, British Publishers Association, American Publishers Association, French Publishers Association etc) and Copyrights Agencies like the CLA, London may be visited.

However, the growing popularity and usefulness of the digital phenomenon cannot be stopped under any circumstances! The same advantages as have been listed in the case of the print media in the foregoing are applicable to the book printing industry. The threat to books, however, is not as great as that to the print media. The secret lies in the longevity of books in comparison to mere news! The news is consumed fully by the book after some time and the news only upgrades its content by devoting some columns to the book! The rivalry between the “printed” and the “digitized” word may end up in the final victory of the digitized format. Technology is going to empower it further. Books can be written in digitized format, read, discussed and evaluated. They can be printed in the most attractive fonts, presented in the best jacket and cover page, priced very nominally as the cost gets drastically reduced on calligraphy and other artist service expenses. Above all, it saves valuable space at homes and libraries. One very serious factor that effectively discourages buying books by the reader is the non availability of even a small shelf for books in small flats of less than 700-1000 square feet carpet area in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. There is no space in these small flats to even keep your laptop, what to talk of space for books. The love of books demands space for a small home library which measures more than a thousand square feet at least! Even libraries are complaining of terrible shortage of space to add more shelves to keep their new acquisition of books.

The environmentalists are sure to chip in more aggressively than at present in favour of digitization over print. The sheer enormity of data is bound to drive the education sector users from print to digitized data accession. One can’t read all the books on any subject, rather a topic in the print format, but the same can be successfully be done through the use of the digitized data. I very respectfully recall the invaluable service of the library attendant in the Reading Room (area stocking books not for issue but reading in the room only) in the University of Rajasthan Library at Jaipur, who would pick up the required books and magazines and also suggest the page numbers where the material on the topic would be available. I don’t remember his name as all the students used to address him as “Panditji”, though I distinctly remember his face even today. He had obviously gained that knowledge from experience of decades serving the academics, researchers and students in the library and through self learning. He did at that time what the internet is doing today- fast access to the required data.

It goes in favour of books that the subject authorities will remain valuable forever, and the topics too will remain relevant with additions or deletions as knowledge growth takes place. Whether in print or digitized format, the book shall always remain valuable. Society will need to devise means to suitably reward the content creator with fair remuneration. The copyright holder will not be a loser, though the book trade may undergo restructuring. But that should be no cause for complaint, as trade, both internal as well as external, has been restructured as and when the economy faced new challenges of social, political or technological nature.

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