Taming Facebook, Google and Amazon

From The Wall Street Journal:

 The internet, the web, all things digital are officially in beta. Because they’re in beta, everything is forgiven—there is absolution for the infelicities, the flaws and the wrongs, intended and unintended. Here we are in the midst of e-evolution, looking for a moral and intellectual GPS at a time when our phone is supposed to measure heartbeat, steps walked, stairs climbed and hours slept, but gives no true sense of perspective or place. Yet there is an awakening, and we are on the cusp of a reckoning.

. . . .

Almost 12 years ago, as editor of the Times of London, I testified to a House of Lords committee: “Facts are incidental if not accidental, and the problem that we have as a society is that there is a significant number of people who have grown up in a different information environment . . . surrounded by much more information, but whose provenance is not clear. . . . The rumors will be believed; the fiction will be thought of as fact; and the political agendas, among other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collective understanding that is founded on falsity.”

The digital world has brought manifold benefits, but it shouldn’t surprise us that there are problems with provenance and opportunities for bad actors to damage democracies.

. . . .

A few facts about the media: Some 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed in the past 15 years. An industry that employed 412,000 people in 2001 declined to 166,000 in 2017. Have the digital natives succeeded where the traditional titles have failed? No. In recent weeks, BuzzFeed, Vice, the Verizon digital properties and others laid off more than 2,100.

The creators are still being slain by the distributors, who are publishers, though they find it hard to pronounce the word. If you are intervening to filter out offensive material, you’re editing, and if you are editing, you should aspire to be a great editor, not selective and reactive but proactive.

. . . .

There is generally an understanding in business that connections lead to partnerships, which lead to relationships with responsibilities. But digital partnerships quickly descended into abusive relationships—serial cheating, digital denials, haughtiness, smugness, playing content creators for suckers. Allowing rampant piracy, sometimes actually encouraging it, was at the core of the business model for some.

. . . .

I’ll highlight one more egregious example—the Amazon Book Summary. These are blatant rip-offs, unauthorized bastardizations of best sellers that sometimes use the same cover art and for which authors and publishers receive no compensation. Amazon leveraged these unauthorized summaries by including them in its Kindle Unlimited and “Audible” subscription services. After complaints from publishers, the company promised to take action—but complaint compliance is not a sustainable strategy for Amazon, Facebook or Google.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG just searched Amazon Books for “Summary” and he was appalled at what he found.

18 thoughts on “Taming Facebook, Google and Amazon”

  1. “Facts are incidental if not accidental …”

    Danged if that don’t sound like any news program on or off the net. As in it’d be nice if ‘The Wall Street Journal’ cleaned up its own act before trying to say others need to be ‘fixed’.

    “If you are intervening to filter out offensive material, you’re editing, and if you are editing, you should aspire to be a great editor, not selective and reactive but proactive.”

    Hmm? Do they mean ‘proactive’ as in what will get them the most eyes and therefore hopefully more ad money?

    How about not editing out any of the facts/details? Lay the whole thing out and let the readers see everything – rather than just what you think will sell your rag.

  2. Aside from using the cover art (which yeah, it seems like they shouldn’t be getting away with that) how are these “summaries” different from the CliffsNotes-type “study guides” that have been around for generations?

  3. You’re right, these are like Cliff’s Notes, but using other people’s words. Amazon tends to think of itself as a book seller/publisher, but the site is less curative, and more like what the British used to call a “jumble sale”. Everything mish-mashed up, no way to determine whether the seller has title to the items.

    Yeah, someone is going to sue the socks off Amazon. I hope it’s soon.

    • Okay, so they’re actually copying content from the original book beyond the boundaries of fair use? Yeah, they should be nailed if they’re doing that, but if these are basically just low-rent CliffsNotes, it seems like it might be hard to stop them. I can’t imagine that the original publishers are thrilled by CliffsNotes, either. 🙂

      (I don’t have a WSJ subscription, so I can’t read the article).

      > no way to determine whether the seller has title to the items.

      I don’t think there’s any easy way to tell that even with a traditional publisher, now that registration of copyright is no longer required, and certainly there have been any number of high-profile plagiarism/copyright infringement cases in the tradpub world in recent years.

    • Amazon thinks of itself as publisher?
      Citation, please.

      Other than APub, which is a vetted tradpub operation, Amazon is just a retailer. KDP and KDP SELECT are not publishing operations.

      And if you are waiting to see them sued you have a long wait. Don’t hold your breath.

  4. I believe that a summary a la Cliff’s Notes would be a derivative use, which would be protected by copyright. The cover art is definitely protected by copyright.

    I got a chuckle out of the original publishers being unhappy about Cliff’s Notes. As I recall, most of what they summarized were classics.

  5. > As I recall, most of what they summarized were classics.

    They summarize any book that is regularly assigned in school. A lot of classics, yes, but also many works that are still in copyright.



    I don’t *think* that a mere factual summary of what happens in a book (without using any of the actual text from the book, or very limited amounts of it) makes something a “derivative work”, but that would be a question for a lawyer.

    Certainly the CliffsNotes people seem to have been getting away with it for a very long time.

  6. Hmm… my previous response seems to have been eaten, maybe because it had a link.

    While CliffsNotes does have a lot of classics, they summarize any book that is widely assigned in schools.

    The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby… are all still in copyright, and all have CliffsNotes version.

    I was under the impression that a mere factual summarization of the ideas contained in a book (without using any of the book’s actual text) did not constitute a “derivative work”, but I could be wrong there.

    Certainly the CliffsNotes people have been getting away with it for a very long time.

    • No, you’re not wrong.

      They fall under criticism as well as educational uses, both Fair Use, which is why tradpubs groan and moan (as they do about libraries) but don’t sue. They know they’d lose.

      It’s not all that different from Google books scanning, indexing, and citing copyrighted works.

      Copyright isn’t absolute.

      • One question would be just how many students would be liable for “infringement” with every book report? (Assuming they actually read the book.) Every assignment I ever did not manage to avoid required a summary of the book.

        By the way, I had a quite jaded and cynical high school English teacher. She kept a copy of the Cliffs Notes for the current assignment prominently displayed on her desk – right under her special pen. Woe to the fool that copied “their” summary from the Notes!

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