The tangled thicket of copyright

Let me start by saying that I’m not a lawyer, and I never will be. My understanding of precise legal terminology is limited or nil. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Canadian and US copyright law. I know only what I’ve been able to decipher from what I’ve read.

That said, what I’ve read over the last little while about the issue of copyright has been interesting, to say the least. And given my position as a) someone who wants to write for a living, b) someone who wants to publish real-life books, c) someone who writes things on the Internet, and d) someone intensely interested in the possibilities of digital media, this whole “copyright” thing sounds kind of important.

So here’s what I’ve learned.

At the surface, there are two major sides to the copyright debate. On one side are Creators, writers and musicians and media conglomerates, who say that in order for them to make money, they need to control who can copy their stuff, and make sure than anyone who copies it gives them money. On the other side are Consumers, who want to buy things, and when they buy them, want to do things with them — beyond using them, they might want to lend them, give them, resell them, post them online… And people, generally, don’t like spending money they don’t have to.

However, things are a little more complicated than that. Turns out all that kind of worked a hundred years ago, when people couldn’t just go and republish a book someone else wrote. In today’s digital age, when everything you do with a file on a computer is, technically, copying, it doesn’t really work anymore.

I could try to explain why, but other people — smarter people, who really know their stuff, like lawyers — have explained it far better than I ever could. And so I direct you to exhibit A: Getting our Values around Copyright Right, by Lawrence Lessig. In this very smart-sounding article, he explains, among other things, how the needs of copyright have changed, and what we can do about it. (You may have seen something called the “Creative Commons” license around the internet; well, he was part of the group that created it. He knows his stuff.)

For a further look at the difference between the so-called Creators and Consumers, I point you towards exhibit B: an article from Ars Technica about the best copyright policies in the world — and importantly, how we judge “best.” Because while the US government — with “incentive” from big media conglomerates — might say the ability to pirate things is bad, consumers might take a different view. There also needs to be an important focus on reasonable exceptions to copyright law — like the US “fair use.” Which leads briefly to exhibit C: wherein we learn that this supposedly-important “fair use” thing contributed trillions of dollars to the US economy every year.

These last two suggest to me that even as an author, a creator, I should maybe think about possibilities outside my own realm of desire (what?? see both sides of an issue? never!). Looking back at the Lessig article, I can see that maybe there are ways I can hop aboard the copyright revolution (which, let’s remember from having read the article, isn’t the abolishment of copyright, just a reconstruction) without giving up my ability to maybe one day get paid (more than a stippence) for what I do.

So, I should write things, and put them online with a CC license, and then fill them with DRM so people have to pay me for it and can’t pirate it, right?

Well, no. Sure, every time someone “pirates” something I’ve created maybe I don’t get paid for it. But,

[Wil] Wheaton, who sold thousands of copies of his book “Sunken Treasure” in PDF,  explained that he isn’t worried about book piracy: “People who don’t want to give a creator money,” he said, “are never going to give a creator money.”

This, from an article here, is important — and something I can relate to from the point of view of an internet consumer. People download stuff for free off the internet. Nothing will stop some people from doing that. If you put some kind of lock on content to prevent people from doing that, either they will crack it, or they just won’t download it at all. They’re not going to then pay for it instead (or at least, many won’t).

But perhaps Cory Doctorow — “a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger” — explains it best. In an essay called Giving it Away, collected in a book called Content (which, by the way, can be downloaded for free from his own site), Doctorow writes,

I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.

When my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published by Tor Books in January 2003, I also put the entire electronic text of the novel on the Internet under a Creative Commons license that encouraged my readers to copy it far and wide. Within a day, there were 30,000 downloads from my site (and those downloaders were in turn free to make more copies). Three years and six printings later, more than 700,000 copies of the book have been downloaded from my site. The book’s been translated into more languages than I can keep track of, key concepts from it have been adopted for software projects, and there are two competing fan audio adaptations online.

Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free ebook as a substitute for the printed book — those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the ebook as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I’m ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

(Every essay in that collection has something to say about this issue, and they’re all pretty good. I highly suggest at least reading the rest of this essay. Did I mention you could download it for free?)

No DRM. He doesn’t worry about piracy. And it’s given him an even larger audience for his writing, and more money than otherwise. Wow.

Ok, but hold on just a gosh-darn minute. He gives e-books away for free? What about the growing e-book market? What about $9.99 from Amazon — or wait, even more than that with the agency model for the iPad? That’s lost royalty money for an author, and isn’t that the way things are going, all digital and stuff?

Well, BookExpo America is going on right now, and as an article on Publisher’s Weekly says (I guess this is exhibit F now?), “[Penguin Group CEO David] Shanks had little to say about e-books in general, continually noting that print books still make up “90-plus-percent of our business.”" So maybe it’s not a problem at all. Or, is this just a short-sighted observation?

Let’s say that in the near future, with the advent of the iPad and all the stuff going on in the publishing world, e-books really do become the majority of book sales. Can giving them away for free really be viable?

Well first of all, one could still have a price on officially-sanctioned e-books, and just not worry about DRM and piracy, going by Wheaton’s observations. And after all, mp3′s are easily available for download all over the place, but the itunes music store is still wildly profitable.

On top of which, innumerable internet entrepreneurs have proven that giving away content for free can still be a viable business model. Perhaps the key for my future will involve giving away lots of what I write for free (like, hey! a blog!), and making money in other ways. Advertising, for instance (certainly something I’ll look at more closely when I start getting more than a dozen readers a day). A boatload of webcomics are completely (or nearly) self-sustaining, making money by selling “swag.” And let’s not forget — there are actually some people out there who believe that a creator should get money for his creation, and would donate to well-liked authors out of the pure goodness of their hearts. (It happens, really.) Perhaps doing things like creating extra content for those who pay a premium — hyperlinked texts, embedded video or audio, and other transmedia possibilities — will be widely adopted, if the business model is right.

This is an ongoing debate. There’s a new bill in the Canadian House of Commons right now that’s looking at these issues (though perhaps not carefully enough). The best thing we can do is stay educated about the issue — because yeah, it does affect us.

I don’t know exactly how it will all work. But I do know that it can work — and it can work without screwing over consumers, and without dealing with arcane systems of law. And I’m excited at the possibilities for my future.

(And finally, take note! I’m updating this site to make use of the Creative Commons lisencing.)

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  1. Pingback: eBook Formatting Standards: What do we want from books? « Words and Things

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