A library on your computer - part three

12/28/2006 – In the continuing series on using a database as your personal chess library, we examine some legal issues regarding fair use of an author's work, as well as how to create a new database in both ChessBase and Fritz. Read all about it in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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In the previous couple of ChessBase Workshop columns we've been discussing the concept of viewing a chess database as a library. We've already talked about "bookmarking" games and creating personal selections of games you find interesting. This time around we're going to talk about books, that is, the paper variety.

About a decade ago I was once asked on a chess message board, "If electronic databases are so great, why would you want to use paper books?" This was back during a time when there was actually something of a split between two camps; one group was arguing that electronic chess teaching tools were destined to replace books, while their polemic opponents were arguing that books were innately superior to their electronic "rivals".

I thought that argument was kind of dumb; both sides had valid points but they missed something which I thought was pretty fundamental: who says it has to be one or the other? Why not use both? Anything that'll help you improve your chess ability is a good thing. Each form of electronic instruction has advantages and disadvantages. I can text search a database faster than I can find a quote in a book, but I can find a quote in a book faster than I can find one on a video (even on a DVD that has a "scene selection" feature). Books require you to shuffle pieces on a physical chessboard or at least shuffle them around on a computerized version, while chess videos only require me to sit back, watch, and learn. I could go on, but you get the idea. Each form has advantages and disadvantages, but all have something to offer.

For years now in my weekly columns I've been advocating the joint use of chess databases and physical paper books. Let's say that you're reading a chess book containing a particular heavily-annotated game, the kind with lots of text but also containing piles of variations, sub-variations, and sub-sub-variations. You could use a physical chess set to navigate your way through the game, but you'd really need multiple sets: one for the main line, one for "first level" variations, another for replaying the "second level" variations nested within the "first level" ones, and so on. What a grind! Why not just fire up ChessBase or Fritz and replay the moves on your "electronic set" instead? You can easily enter the moves by hand as you read, add variations to any depth of "levels", and then instantly return to the main line with just a mouse click? Much easier, much faster, much less effort than replaying a heavily-annotated game using physical boards and pieces.

Furthermore you can then save the game into a database when you're finished, keeping it handy for future reference.

And that, friends, is where we hit a very slippery slope regarding legalities, e.g. copyright law. We'll need to talk about this as preparation for what's to come later in our discussion. I'll tell you up front that I'm not a copyright attorney, but I am a professional writer and my trade requires that I know a little something about copyright law (and, yes, I've had a couple of past legal entanglements regarding the rights to my work). The exact nuts and bolts of copyright law are recognized by most countries but not all countries (unfortunately). In any case, copyright (and I'm speaking here specifically about copyright as it applies to the written word) basically boils down to a couple of key common-sense concepts:

  1. If somebody writes something, it belongs to him/her (or that person's publisher, if that's the contractual agreement). It can't be reproduced or reused without the creator's permission.
  2. If you didn't write it, it's not yours to distribute, duplicate, plagiarize (i.e. try to pass it off as your own work), make copies of it and pass it around to your friends, republish it (no matter whether it's free or for a fee), etc.

In other words, if it ain't your work, don't steal it.

Now I'll tell you straight up -- if you're one of those types who thinks that something can be reproduced and passed around simply because it's not under lock and key under the hoary old cliché that "information yearns to be free", I'm not even going to bother arguing with you (so if you e-mail me with that garbage, your missive goes straight to the "Trash" folder with no reply -- in other words, don't bother). You can't swing a "virtual stick" online without hitting an argument/flamewar about the concept of intellectual property rights, so I'll refer you, dear reader, to any one of the thousands of such arguments online (all of which eventually degenerate into the thief's final admission that they're indeed a thief "but you can't stop me, ha ha". If somebody's morally bankrupt but doesn't care that they're morally bankrupt, there's no point in arguing with them [unless you're bored and want some cheap chuckles]; "never try to teach a pig to sing" and all that).

That's not really my point anyway. Most (online) writers are pretty cool with the idea of somebody using a printer to crank out a paper copy of their words for offline personal use (a bunch of people have told me they do that with my columns and that's fine with me), or similarly making an image/doc/pdf of the web page for the same strictly personal use. I've seen people cut and paste short passages excerpted from a column I've written into a message board post (I saw one of these just the other night) and that's no big deal. A couple of sites have asked my permission to reproduce one of my columns verbatim in its entirety on their own site and I'm OK with that (as long as they ask first and I say "yes"). The people I've gone after legally are the ones who reproduced large chunks (dozens of columns) I've written on their own sites without my permission or, in one memorable case, took some of my work, put their own name on it, and tried to pass it off as their own. That's just dead wrong. And it's also illegal.

So how does all of this tie in with this particular ChessBase Workshop column? There are two areas in which this connects to what we're discussing:

  1. Reproducing an author's words or chess analysis in an electronic database;
  2. Reproducing a specific set of games in an electronic database.

And that's where the "slippery slope" comes in. I need you to understand that I'm not talking about copyright and intellectual property rights just from the author's standpoint -- I'm also trying to keep your butt out of a sling. If you make an electronic copy in ChessBase format of a printed paper chess book you've legally purchased and keep that electronic copy for yourself, for your own personal use (not for your buddy's, not for your student's, and damn sure not for thousands of people to download online), I don't know too many authors who are going to have a beef with that. But if you start spreading that copy around, you might look like a hero to a few folks, but most people'll think you're a scummy goat; worst of all, you're leaving yourself open to legal action by the author/publisher/aggrieved party. It doesn't matter whether or not you think you can win the case -- the legal fees will break you regardless. So your best bet is to not do it.

I'm going to show you how to create a (partial) electronic copy of a printed work to add to your personal library (why not a full one? We'll discuss this after a bit -- and the answer isn't what you're thinking). This is an "honor system" thing; I'm trusting you to use a book you purchased legally and keep your electronic copy for your own use, not distributing it to others, under the premise that most authors see this as a "no blood, no foul" sort of offense.

But as a last look at the legality issue, we'll consider both of the above pair of issues individually:

Reproducing an author's words or chess analysis in an electronic database

When we proceed with the discussion, I'll show you how to add some variations and brief commentary to a database game. What about adding an author's complete text? (In other words, putting the whole freaking book into an electronic database). That's just crazy. I'm serious. It's hideously time-consuming to type all of that in (and even if you scan the text, you still have to proofread and correct it before pasting it in to a game block by block) and it's a pile of work that takes time away from you actually learning anything. It's best to just save the parts that are particularly relevant -- a variation or three and the accompanying commentary. It's quicker, easier. more useful, and keeps your butt covered under "fair use" practices.

Reproducing a specific set of games in an electronic database

Technically this is a copyright violation. Years ago when I wrote an online book called Battle Royale (a fictionalized account of the New York 1924 tournament as "sugar coating" to make the chess instruction go down easier) I took pains to make sure that my sequence of games did not match game for game that of the printed Dover Books edition of the official tournament book. My book still covered the tournament round by round in numerical order, but I juggled the sequence of games within a round in a few places to make sure that my game order didn't match Dover's game order.

Keep in mind, though, that this was a publically-distributed work I was writing. Let's say that I want to create a database of the 1991 Linares games and include some short commentary from Inside Chess' printed coverage, and then keep this database myself for my own personal use, not distributing it in any manner. I seriously doubt that I'm going to get a midnight phone call from Yasser Seiarwan's lawyers if I keep the games in the same order in which they appeared in the magazine.

It's the "no blood, no foul" thing. Even if I distribute all of the games from NY 1924 online with no commentary, just the moves of the games, it's best for me to juggle the game order to keep Dover off my back. Would they care about a matching game order? Doubtful. But the letter of the law states that a collection of specific games is copyrightable, even if unannotated, down to the order in which those games appear. If I create a database of entirely unannotated NY 1924 games in Dover's exact order and keep that collection to myself, it's "no blood, no foul" and fairly safe.

It might look like we're splitting hairs here, but I'm desperately trying to keep you the reader clear of any legal hassles.

Let's move onward and talk about how to actually do this thing. We're going to use one of my favorite chess books as an example: Bruce Pandolfini's Russian Chess. It's now out of print and that's a crying shame; for my money it's simply the most instructive chess book ever written for the low intermediate player. I learned a lot from that book and my game results reflected it -- using that book I made the major jump from being a bad chessplayer to being a halfway competent one (where I remain to this day, more's the pity).

The first step is the "prep" work. My personal preference is to keep my games derived from chess books in separate databases, one per book, rather than just annotating a game in my master database. We discussed that point in a previous column in the series and need not repeat it here. But I'm also organized enough to keep these "book" databases in a separate folder designated for that purpose on my computer. Thus the first step is to create a folder named Books, using Windows Explorer or My Computer. If you make this a sub-folder of a larger folder, remember its location -- you'll need to know it later.

Next we'll need to create a new database to house the games. In ChessBase, fire up the program, go to the File menu, select "New", then "Database" from the submenu. The Windows File Select dialogue will appear; use it to navigate to your Books folder, then type in a name for the root/base .cbh file for the database you're creating. This does not need to be the complete title of the book in question, just something that allows you to remember what database this is. You might use Russian_Chess.cbh or Rus_Chess.cbh or Pando_Rus.cbh -- whatever you desire, just as long as you remember what the filename signifies.

You'll see a new (generic) icon for this database appear in your database window. You can right-click on this icon, select "Properties" from the popup menu, and get the following dialogue:

This is a handy dialogue which we've encountered before when we've discussed reference and repertoire databases, but it also lets you customize a database icon's appearance. In the box under "Name" you can type in the database's name as you want it to appear in your database window (this is where we use a book's full title instead of trying to make a filename out of it). You can also select the picture that will be displayed as part of the icon. Since this is an instructional book, I've selected the "Training" icon (even though there won't be any timed training questions in the games); it seems to me to be the closest match among the descriptive icons. But you can use any of the many icons provided -- this is strictly a cosmetic thing and has no bearing on the actual functionality of the database.

Before closing the dialogue and saving the changes (by clicking "OK"), note the box at the upper part of the dialogue: it shows you the drive path to the database's file. In this case, I know that the database is saved in the \BOOKS subdirectory of the \BASES directory on my C:\ drive.

If you decide to keep your electronic books in a separate folder from other databases, there's another good tweak you can use to prevent your database window from becoming populated by too many icons. You can go back to the File menu, select "New" and then "Add folder shortcut" from the submenu. This brings up a dialogue in which you can designate a whole folder to appear as a single icon in your database window. After adding such an icon, you'll see a folder icon appear among the other icons in your database window:

Double-clicking on this icon will display all of the databases in that specific folder:

When you want to return to your main database view (showing all of your database icons) just select "My Databases" from the lefthand pane in the database window.

For Fritz users, the idea is the same but not quite as flexible since Fritz isn't designed to open/access multiple databases at once. Start Fritz, click "Play Fritz" in the splash screen, and hit F12 on your keyboard after the main chessboard screen appears. This opens the game list window. Go to the File menu, select "New", and then "Database" from the submenu. As previously discussed, use the File Select dialogue to create your new database. It's even more important in Fritz than it is in ChessBase to remember the location of your databases; although your list of recently-used databases is accessible through a pulldown menu in the upper righthand corner of Fritz' game list screen, you may have to go back and find that database again manually (File/Open/Database) if you don't use it for a while.

Of course, in both cases your new database won't have any games in it. We'll talk about that next week. Until then, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. All responses will be read, and sending an e-mail to this address grants us permission to use it in a future column. No tech support questions, please.

© 2006, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Topics: ChessBase 9
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