After Hours

Typo in e-book proves that digital content is virtually worthless

TechRepublic member dcolbert thinks that until we can replicate the physical uniqueness and non-retractable quality of physical media, virtual media will continue to be a disposable commodity that has no long-term value. Do you agree?

I'm not putting a special target on Wired Magazine's Steven Levy just because he drinks generously from the fountains of revolutionary magic in Cupertino, California. But in one of his articles, he wrote about finding a typo in a Kindle e-book.

Steven contacted a friend, a publisher at Simon and Schuster, and received a letter back that the error had been corrected and that his Kindle version would soon be updated. But it wasn't. Why? According to Amazon.com's Drew Herdner, "We will update the file for a book a customer has already purchased only when the customer asks us to."

In his post, Steven talked about the well-publicized 1984 Kindle debacle — "when Amazon, realizing that it had mistakenly sold some bootlegged copies of George Orwell's 1984, deleted all of them from customers' Kindles" — but what really got my attention was what he missed in his article.

In the past, a significant typo, an upside-down title page, and even missing or blank pages in a print copy of a popular book could actually increase the value of that particular edition. This is just another example of how digital work is less valuable than print. E-publishing does away with not only the potential investment value of a misprinted edition but with the very concept itself.

I find that I struggle with my position on this issue. On one hand, I realize that if my music is analog on a record or tape, digital on a physical CD, or digital as a file on any number of digital playback devices, it doesn't matter to me. As a matter of fact, in the long run, I believe that digital, DRM-free music is — for all practical matters — superior to any sort of physical media.

On the other hand, written words are a different experience than music, and the intangible nature of e-publishing absolutely removes value from the product. I do not believe that anyone will ever proudly collect digital copies of National Geographic and...

...Wait. I'm going to retract that. When I'm rich and famous, I don't want the previous comment to be "Computers will never need more than 640k of memory." Unless Digital Printing completely replaces print media, I don't see how intangible digital content will ever become collected, displayed, and treasured like traditional, tangible print media. Digital Media is a commodity proposition, a bulk item with a short shelf-life.

A great example of this is Grant Theft Auto - San Andreas. The original release included one of the most notorious "Easter eggs" in the history of gaming, a secret mode called "Hot Coffee" that included sexually explicit and graphic mini-games. When this came to light (some say, as a planned publicity stunt), the publisher Rock Star Games pulled the Hot Coffee editions from all of the consoles where it was available.

Instant collector's edition, right? Evidently not. A quick search of eBay shows countless copies of PS2, Grand Theft Auto, Hot Coffee edition, all going unpurchased.

To some degree, I believe that this is the result of software piracy. Anyone interested in checking out the GTA Hot Coffee edition can simply download a torrent off the Internet. People who have already bought the game probably don't even feel very guilty about doing this. But the end result, the net effect, is that something that should make a valuable collectors item out of digital content doesn't.

I've mentioned before that I'm a retro gamer. I have an extensive collection of ancient console games, going back to the earliest Pong releases. My most valuable classic gaming equipment is a device called the Cuttle Cart 2. It looks just like the classic Atari 2600 game cartridges, but it has a slot in it that accepts an MMC card (the precursor of SD cards). On even the smallest MMC card, you can put the entire combined library of both Atari 2600 and Atari 7800 cartridges, plus every homebrew game ever made, and still have room for every manual for every one of those games ever published.

Because this piece of physical, tangible media is no longer made, this cartridge alone, which originally sold for just over $200, can now command over $600. However, the games that you put on the MMC card can be downloaded from multiple sites on the Internet — virtually legally unchallenged — for free.

When people try selling retro games for money, they almost inevitably fail. There aren't enough casual gamers interested in paying any amount of money for these crude, primitive video games. Yet the physical cartridge, the Cuttle Cart 2, has enough demand and limited enough supply that it's appreciating rapidly. The digital content is virtually worthless, but the physical device continues to increase in value.

Ultimately, until we can replicate the physical uniqueness and non-retractable quality of physical media, virtual media will continue to be a disposable commodity that has no long-term value.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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