Steal This Book, But Buy Me a Beer

The Economist’s Babbage has written a sardonic critique of Amazon’s recently announced decision to allow its customers to lend e-books to one another:

AMAZON.COM says soon you will be allowed to lend out electronic books purchased from the Kindle Store. For a whole 14 days. Just once, ever, per title. If the publisher allows it. Not mentioned is the necessity to hop on one foot whilst reciting the Gettysburg Address in a falsetto. An oversight, I’m sure.

Enumerating the ways in which this current offer fails, he correctly notes that time is running out for publishers. Perhaps it’s already too late.

This prompted a fair amount of back-and-forth among geeks, along fairly predictable lines. The majority riffed on the mantra that Information Wants to be Free, while others tried to find some accommodation between droit d’auteur, commerce and society’s fundamental desire to share:

I realize Slashdot has a certain “information should be free” ethos, but it doesn’t make much sense to build in the ability to give unlimited copies to everyone and think that it won’t undermine the business. While the publishers “wish you to engage in two separate hallucinations”, it seems like lots of other people want us to engage in another hallucination: that giving out unlimited copies won’t turn into a financial problem for booksellers.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s accept that assertion as truth: Infinite distribution necessarily causes financial problems for publishers. That doesn’t explain why they would choose to give fewer lending rights to possessors of digital copies than to those who buy the paper object. Nor does it explain why they charge pretty much the same price for this reduced capability.

We seem to be dealing (yet again) with anti-features: The publishers are actually adding to the consumer’s burden in exchange for nominally lowering the cost and ‘allowing‘ them the convenience of reading an electronic copy of a given book.

As the Economist rightly notes, this won’t stand. Anti-features (including DRM) only need to be removed once. Argue however much you like about the rights of the author. As a writer, I’m pretty damn sympathetic. But realistically, creators have to adjust to the world as it is. People will share things that delight them. They do so with photos, with posters, books, music, TV shows and movies… in short, with everything they can.

And there will always be someone willing to feed that desire.

Yes, it puts creators in a quandary. Yes, it threatens livelihoods and, potentially, might even prevent the next great opus. But to attempt to remodel the world to fit an outdated vision? That’s just insane. I don’t mean stupid -it actually requires a fair amount of imagination to get there- I mean insane, nuts, cuckoo. The idea is premised on the fact that all of society (save the poor, beleaguered author) is wrong, and must change. Even if the first clause is correct, the second does not follow. And even if we accept it logically, we still have no hope of effecting that change through technical means.

I suppose it is possible that we could change society. It’s happened before. But we will not do it with DRM and anti-features.

So what, then, is a creator to do? The best I can come up with right now is enough to make most established professional creators despair: Rely on the kindness of strangers.

Let’s face it; as Adrian Hon says, rampant sharing of books (and music, and TV shows, and movies, and photos, and… well, everything digital) is a fact of life. Some publishers will fail. Some (more) newspapers will die.

But surely there must be some way to extend the practice of gift culture[*] beyond the geek world? Surely there’s a way to turn social approbation into status and status into success?

It already happens in the celebrity world. People will go out of their way to provide goods and services for free -even to pay handsomely- solely because they want appropriate someone’s popularity for their own purposes, be it more guests at a restaurant or more people buying their shirt. Interestingly, celebrity endorsement’s success is inversely proportional to its relationship to straight-up capitalist quid pro quo. We like both the celebrity and the product less when we know their relationship is strictly economic.

Let’s take a perverse example for a gedankenexperiment: Imagine if the Star Wars kid had not only received millions of views, but millions of pennies from people willing not only to laugh at him, but to show a little fellow-feeling as well? Ignore the mechanics for a moment; just imagine what society would be like if our online status were directly related to economic and social standing?

Follow that scenario far enough and one arrives at some fascinating places, not all of them pretty. Jealousy, gossip, pretension and slander become more influential. One has only to get a certain number of people to dislike someone to limit or even end their ability to profit.

Worse yet, if we make it possible for people to take their pennies back, we quickly approach the tyranny of the small town. Life would at times resemble a Hawthorne novel more than anything else.

But it might easily create a few Shakespeares (or more accurately, Lord Chamberlain’s Men) as well, with the populace more than willing to toss a penny[**] each their way and society figures vying to be seen supporting and associating with them.

The mechanisms by which this could be achieved are not hard to imagine. An iPhone or a Facebook app would suffice – if online commerce could ever be wrested from the banks and credit card companies.

The unpredictable part is the non-technical side. Making it not only Good but Desirable to be seen associating one’s wealth with popular figures of all stripes would require a quantum shift in online society. I’m sure if a poll were conducted, most people would agree with the idea of rewarding those who have delighted, entertained or enlightened us in some small way. But as every busker will tell you, there’s an immense gap between the idea and the practice.

I’m going to offer a prediction: Something like this will –must– happen. And sooner rather than later. I await the change with mixed apprehension and excitement.

[*] Eric Raymond may be a kook, but he’s right about this.

[**] According to my admittedly poor math, about 1/2000th of a prosperous merchant’s monthly income.

Rights and Wrongs

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

Following a recent workshop on copyright, the plight of the local reggae group Naio was used to demonstrate how copyright legislation could improve the lot of struggling Vanuatu artists.

Unauthorised copying, they claimed, had so reduced income from CD sales that the band simply couldn’t make a living on recording alone.

While the principle of respecting creative works is one I support wholeheartedly, I need to make this clear: Recent copyright reform has done little to change the plight of performers elsewhere in the world.

There are numerous interwoven ideas wrapped up inside what people call ‘Intellectual Property’. The World Intellectual Property Organization, a UN body, clumps many of them them together under the term Copyright. In essence, it says that Copyright – the right to exercise control over one’s creation – can be exerted over any creative work, its production or its broadcast.

The idea here is quite simple: Artists deserve to be rewarded for their work. Because they share their work with the world, and because we all benefit when they do so, they should be allowed a limited monopoly on the right to reproduce the work in question.

Well, that seems perfectly reasonable.

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ACTA Without an Audience

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

News has leaked out in dribs and drabs over the last several months about a US-led drive to negotiate an international treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Conducted under a veil of secrecy, these negotiations have been the source of considerable speculation and not a little alarm among advocates of online freedom.

Part of the reason for the alarm is the utter lack of publicly verifiable information concerning the content of the treaty. When US organisations attempted to gain access to a copy of the draft, their government withheld them, citing national security, of all things.

Intellectual Property expert professor Michael Geist writes, “The United States has drafted the chapter under enormous secrecy, with selected groups granted access under strict non-disclosure agreements and other countries (including Canada) given physical, watermarked copies designed to guard against leaks.”

In spite of their best efforts, however, details of the online enforcement aspects of the treaty leaked out last week, following a negotiating round in Seoul, South Korea.

The details don’t look good.

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Copyright and the Social Contract

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. It’s a somewhat fleshed out and more rounded version of this essay.]

Since the arrival of the Internet, there’s been unceasing talk about the imminent demise of traditional publishing models (especially newspapers), the subversive effect of ‘free’ online content and the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘pirates’ sharing music, movies and other creative works. At the centre of all this debate over the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the oft-ignored conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

Pundits, lawyers and media distributors the world over continue fighting the tide, thinking they can shape the Internet to match their expectations concerning copyright. Instead, they should be shaping their expectations to match the Internet.

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Creativity and the Social Contract

Tangled up amidst all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers, the subversive effect of Free, the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘leeches’ and various other riffs on the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the often unexamined conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

That leaves us with two options: We can continue to tinker with copyright, attempting to redefine fair use, to place reasonable penalties (or at least disincentives) on unauthorised copying… ultimately, to renegotiate the compromise that lies at the heart of the concept.

That’s a commendable, fundamentally reasonable approach that unfortunately ignores the fact that digital information is immune to copyright enforcement. The practical ‘right’ to make copies is the very essence of digital technology. Its usefulness is predicated on the fact that data is infinitely mutable and that copies cost as close to nothing as makes no difference. To pretend that we can place anything more than voluntary limits on this capability is dangerously naive.

Alternatively, we can scrap copyright, go back to first principles and examine in detail what the rights of the creator really are.

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Pink Dolphins

Pink dolphins are my idea, and I refuse to let anyone else think of them. Anybody who does think of pink dolphins must pay a royalty fee for each time they think of pink dolphins, multiplied by the number of pink dolphins they think of.

That last paragraph is a simple – and absurd – example of why so-called intellectual property is an oxymoron. If it’s intellectual, it can’t be property. The concept is based on the premise that ideas can be treated as things, and that’s just not true.

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