A Chunk of History: The Medieval Roots of Digital Publishing

One of the wonderful paradoxes of the digital era of media is its retrograde quality. We tend to think of inventions like the internet and peer-to-peer digital networks as apotheoses of modern communication, but their economic impact on many media industries has been to unravel their modern industrial structures and to resurrect many of their pre-industrial, folk foundations.

Nowhere has that been more true than in the case of music. MP3 files, P2P networks, and now streaming have blown up the multi-song bundle we called the album — and the profit margins that came with it — and restored the single to prominence, as it was in the days before the invention of the long-playing record (LP).

The much-derided phenomenon of unlicensed “sharing” of music over P2P networks also carries echoes of music’s past. Until the Gramophone and the Phonograph made private performances of music practical, music was almost always shared, in the sense that it was usually experienced as part of a public performance. While the industrial technologies of recording and playback made private performances lucrative the instinct to share music never really went away.

Even modern notions of musical authorship are in part a function of industrial technology and are now being challenged by digital technology. Prior to recording, many forms of folk music (think traditional American blues) held standard lyrical tropes and even entire verses as part of a commons that were recycled and rearranged by performers as needed. It wasn’t until recording technology enabled the fixation of a canonical version of a performance that many folk artists began to think seriously about authorship.

Today, EDM DJs treat recordings as part of a commons, recycling and reassembling their elements into unique performances.

The film and television industries haven’t experienced the same retrograde dislocation as the music industry has, in part because the media themselves are products of industrial technology. Film and TV have no pre-industrial past to resurrect. But even then, they have felt the tug of digital technology against the industrial economics of bundling, as programs are disaggregated from channels and channels are disaggregated from pay-TV tiers.

As a sometime-student of media history, I came across a fascinating recent example of digital technology’s pre-industrial DNA in an interview with David Hetherington, North American COO of Klopotek, ahead of the upcoming London Book Fair.

Klopotek AG, is a German software company that provides CMS and rights management technology to the book publishing industry around the world. Here is Hetherington’s description of one way Klopotek helps academic publishers monetize their works, taken from Publishing Perspectives:

“Typically, thinking in the book business,” Hetherington says, “has started with the book. And I think our view of it is that it really has to start with the grain of content…

“So the idea of taking content from various products and pulling it together means that the initial block of content is no longer sold as it is. It means that the content is able to be parsed and re-assembled.

“The users—whoever wants to re-assemble that content—can identify the pieces they want, can specify the part numbers. This, in effect, means that the owner of the content must give it a unique part number and pass that part number to the potential market.

“At times, in some markets, this has been called the “chunking” of a book, breaking it into salable sections that fit users’ needs. Nowhere is this more easily understood than on campuses, where professors can effectively build their own textbooks for courses by piecing together parts of existing works, a “chunk” at a time, to match the needs of a given set of students.

Klopotek’s sophisticated software helps publishers “chunk” their books and license the chunks separately into customized bundles. It creates a licensed alternative to the “course pack,” in which professors would assemble their custom bundles at Kinkos and then distribute them to students. It also provides a defense against book rentals and used-book sales by providing students an affordable option.

Any 14th Century university scholar, however, would immediately recognize Hetherington’s description as an example of the pecia system.

With the rise of Medieval universities in Europe, the demand for books for use by students increased dramatically. But in the years before Gutenberg made it possible to produce identical copies of texts at scale, reproducing books was a laborious, manual process, carried out mostly by monks or itinerant scribes, and incapable of meeting the demand.

A solution emerged in Italy in the 13th Century and spread quickly to other countries. Books were chunked into pieces (pecia) for copying by individual students, and the pieces were then passed around in what amounted to a peer-to-peer network until each student was able to assemble all parts of the text required for his course work (women were not permitted to attend university).

The system became formalized and regulated in the early 14th Century, beginning at the University of Paris. Certain book mongers were licensed to provide students with pecia rentals for copying taken from master texts certified by members of the university faculty. The rates that could be charged for each work were set by the university, and as demand grew and more master copies were needed to supply pecia, the texts were regularly inspected by scholars to make sure they did not become corrupted through the accumulation of copying errors.

The scholars who oversaw the pecia system were not concerned with authorship per se, of course, let alone droit d’auteur. The concept barely existed at the time, and in any case the texts in question were mostly classical or the works of the early Church fathers. The scholars’ interests were pedagogy and preserving the integrity of the texts, not rights management. But it shows that the use of chunking to affect the economics of academic publishing has a long history.

The printing press, many early examples of which were established in university towns, eventually did away with the need for the pecia system by introducing industrial economies of scale to the reproduction of books, although the system survived well into the 16th Century in some areas.

The mechanical press made the complete text the anatomical unit of the commercial publishing industry — “starting with the book,” in Hetherington’s formulation. But it wasn’t always that way, and with digital technology it need not be that way now.