What is Freedom of the Press in the Electronic Book Era?

Freedom of the press belongs to whomever owns the press.  Which was, at the time words were physically applied to paper by printing presses, another way of saying that the only way you can be guaranteed to speak your mind and be heard is to control the means of production.

In the modern networked world, this means that freedom of the press belongs to whomever owns the delivery system and ultimately, the customer relationship. 

Publishers used to bump up against printers who had different values than they did, and were sometimes told that the printing company would not accept the job.  That was the printer’s right, and the publisher’s response then was to find a printer more willing to print unpopular or even unappealing words or images on paper.  This made sense, of course, only because there was a reasonable number of printers competing for work.

A similar situation exists today, except the "presses" are devices and networked delivery systems, Amazon and Apple being the two most obvious.  However now, if you want to publish electronic books, you’re pretty much at their mercy.

If being a “publisher” is defined by the act of making written works public, then is it possible to be a publisher without distribution?  Obviously not, otherwise the publisher is no better off than the creator.

In the electronic content environment, distribution is determined by the entities that own the customer relationship, i.e., the means to reach them.  Doesn’t that make publishers dependent on Amazon, Apple and to a smaller extent, the other myriad of niche sites where readers are willing to give up their credit cards and private information in order to be able to safely download content?

Freedom of the press belongs to any publisher whose technology enables readers to access that publisher’s work.  No publisher has that freedom today, nor does any author.  Are there sufficient protections for publishers, authors and readers to guarantee that freedom of expression will actually exist in a digital publishing environment?

Recently, as part of the battle over pricing and terms, publishers have found themselves pincered between Apple’s terms for the new iPad based iBookstore, and Amazon’s terms for doing business with their currently dominant Kindle store. 

Publishers who thought that Apple was their savior are learning that it will not be that simple. 

The story has not yet fully unfolded, but it appears to me that publishers and authors are soon going to learn the extent of their weakness in an arena where larger entities own the roads they need to travel to reach their customers.

Can we trust the market to protect 1st Amendment rights?  There’s no evidence that large corporations value freedom over profits.  We may need to rethink the rules that apply to near monopolies in the electronic distribution environment, and it is very possible that only the threat of regulation will ever cause Apple and Amazon to tread more lightly when it comes to doing business with writers and publishers.

Posted by David Wilk on 03/23 at 04:55 AM
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