Musing lazily about catch-and-release and its application in the digital world

Some time ago I had the opportunity to go fly fishing for the first time, in the Provo, near Salt Lake City in Utah. It was an exhilarating experience, just what I needed at that particular time in my life. I hope to repeat the experience soon.

Beginner’s luck meant that I caught quite a few fish that day. Something far more important happened to me that day, though. I learnt about the joy of catch-and-release firsthand. There was something immensely satisfying about the process of making sure you took the hook out carefully, then let the fish go and watched it disappear at speed. There was a real sense of stewardship when you did it. In fact the whole experience was about stewardship. You had to be licensed before you fished, which meant there was some modicum of accountability and responsibility for the environment even before you began. It made sense that the money collected for the licence would go towards the upkeep of the environment. When you entered the water, you could see just how pure and clear it was, an eye-opening experience for someone like me, brought up with the Hooghly as the river of reference.

More recently, I was checking out how BookCrossing was doing. 735,000 members in 130 countries. Not bad. If you don’t know what BookCrossing is, here’s what they say on the site:

BookCrossing is earth-friendly, and gives you a way to share your books, clear your shelves, and conserve precious resources at the same time. Through our own unique method of recycling reads, BookCrossers give life to books. A book registered on BookCrossing is ready for adventure.

Leave it on a park bench, a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation. Share it with a friend or tuck it onto a bookshelf at the gym — anywhere it might find a new reader! What happens next is up to fate, and we never know where our books might travel. Track the book’s journey around the world as it is passed on from person to person.

Join hundreds of thousands of active BookCrossers daily in our many forums to discuss your favorite authors, characters and books in every genre throughout history right up through current releases.

Join BookCrossing Join BookCrossing. Help make the whole world a library and share the joy of literacy. Reading becomes an adventure when you BookCross!

Then, a day or two ago, I was browsing the Good Magazine site, and I saw this article. And in it BookCrossing was mentioned, using the phrase “read and release”.

And that made me think. I can only listen to only one thing at a time; I can only read one thing at a time; I can only watch one thing at a time; I can only mash up a small number of things at the same time.

Maybe I could buy the right to hold m songs and n books and p films “in the cloud” concurrently at any given time, as a bundle. Maybe, separately, I could buy the right to fiddle around with q digital objects at any given time, on an “if you change it you must pay for it” basis.

Maybe I can check these digital objects in and out as I please, constrained only by the total I can have, which in turn is related to the bundle I signed up for.

I’m still free to buy the physical disks as normal, this is just about cloud libraries. Maybe there’s room for a small number of players to be the safety deposit vaults for these digital objects, to collect the rents for their usage and to disburse it amongst the long tail of creators, much like a library would do. Maybe the Cloud gives us opportunities to do something about new business models for digital “content” by connecting price to capacity and metering usage simply as a result. [Yes I still believe there is a long tail, despite everything I have read. People are not measuring unfulfilled intentions properly, so the exercise often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those that do not want the long tail to be true].

All this is amorphous, poorly formed, still inchoate. There’s just something about the catch-and-release model I like, something which I feel is applicable to digital objects. Something that resonates with the “extreme nonrival good” nature of information, particularly digital information.

So why am I sharing it here and now? Precisely because it is amorphous and poorly formed and inchoate. So that people like you can comment on it, criticise it, negate it, improve on it, make it your own, do something with it. Ideas are free. So steal this book.

As I said, musing lazily.

4 thoughts on “Musing lazily about catch-and-release and its application in the digital world”

  1. JP: thought provoking. I thought–oh, something like Netflix? But that is where I got stuck, because digital media and DVDs are different kinds of obejcts. This are really Lawrence Lessig’s observations I’m paraphrasing.

    DVDs, books, CDs are physical containers for information. We access the information through these containers. They are physical objects constrained to be in one place at one time. We can extract the information, or duplicate the container (more or less) and everything inside, but that takes extra effort, and it’s more natural to move the container from one place or another.

    Digital media is already pure information. We largely no longer deal with the containers—the hard drives, flash memory, volitile RAM, etc. Sure, we reference them by files or packets, but that’s meta-level organization that is also just pure information. The only way of taking information in one place and placing the same elsewhere is making a copy. “Moving” it is another step—we copy, then delete the source.

    We can see why trying to regard already pure information like physical containers feels so unnatural. And we’ve heard the discussion about DRM—and the dangers it imposes.

    I’m guessing you’re not trying to get at some specific DRM model.

    Maybe the main cool thing about BookCrossing we’re trying to reproduce translates to local caching of only the stuff you’re using at the moment. I really respect that point. Streaming media aims to do the same, but is only useful when there is a sufficiently fast and reliable network connection, something not always possible or convenient. So having an entire working copy is often much better.

    But this working copy takes up space, so when it’s not being used, we get rid of it. But why impose a system that forces you to do so? (Not saying you’re necessarily requiring this.) Is mainly to make the content providers happier? Automate the process as you’d like, it amounts, again, to deleting a copy. Anything further, and we’re back at DRM.

    Using the example of music, the DRM version of this is, from what I know, the download portion of the Rhapsody music service. It seems nice until you realize that you’re very limited in how you can listen to music—only through the Rhapsody program, or in approved players. It tries to reproduce the behavior of physical containers, but it doesn’t map.

    With Netflix, you get the DVDs, and you can play it in any DVD player you want. (Region coding and DeCSS issues aside.) With BookCrossing or even the public library, you can read the books you acquire standing up, lying down, in red light, through a magnifying glass. You can have someone else read it aloud to you.

    We need to get away from confusing physical objects with the information they contain, and also recognize that digital content (below the level of the hard drive) is already free of physical constraints (in itself).

    So what I can salvage is really the part about storage. I think this reduces to better stream-on-demand. This depends on a faster, more robust connection between the endpoint and the cloud, and ensuring that the content is delivered in a standard, open way (across content providers).

    There’s a chance I completely misunderstood this whole thing. I’m also musing lazily.

  2. Apologies for the serial comment, JP. I was not only musing lazily, I was also reading lazily (more likely, sleepily: I haven’t yet had more than three hours of sleep this weekend.)

    I didn’t notice that you had tagged this post with DRM and IPR. So it is a particular usage of DRM you’re suggesting (rather than a general idea that might require DRM). I guess, scratch the whole part where I assumed otherwise. My criticism of DRM still stands, but let’s put that aside for the time being.

    Interestingly, with catch-release, the issues surrounding accessibility of content you buy, when the technology changes, is less of an issue, because there is no ownership of the copies. Now I see what you were getting at (I think?)

  3. You’re getting closer to what I was going for. I too am no fan of DRM because it pollutes the path, so I was looking for something like a library card, letting me use 10 books at a time, merged with the read and release model of bookcrossing, all against the backdrop of the cloud.

  4. JP: Happy New Year to your family and self from snowy Milwaukee!

    There is an ancient Brahmin saying that goes like so: “When the desire to possess disappears – The joy appears”

    The concept of the catch-and-release model may be much older than we think!

Let me know what you think

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