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Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future

Cory Doctorow

Information is not a thing. It isn't an object. It isn't something that, when you sell it or have it stolen, ceases to remain in your possession. It doesn't have a market value that can be objectively determined. It is not, for example, much like a 2004 Ducati ST4S motorcycle, for which I'm presently in the market, and which seems - despite variabilities based on, I must admit, informationally- based conditions like mileage and whether it's been dropped - to have a value that is pretty consistent among the specimens I can find for a sale on the Web.

The guys running the Content Industry since it started to die share a doctrinal fundamentalism that leads them to believe that there is no difference between copying a song and shoplifting a toaster. The companies have won most of the legislative battles in US, having purchased all the government that money can buy.

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The piano roll was the first system for cheaply copying music. It was invented at a time when entertainment involved getting a talented pianist to come to your house and pound out a tune while you sang along. Then piano roll companies bought sheet music and ripped the printed notes into 0s and 1s on long rolls. They did this without a penny's compensation to publishers or composers. When the publishers complained, Congress devised a system of compulsory licensing and royalties - had to pay 2 cents for every roll produced. And this system still in place today. Paul Anka gets a royalty when anyone records "My Way" but he can't stop anyone from recording it, even if it's Sid Vicious.

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And this dramatically expanded the market - all of a sudden a lot more money was made by a lot more creators who made a lot more music that reached a lot more people.

When VCR invented, film studios upset - Hollywood claimed it would destroy the studios. But Supreme Court ruled that anything capable of substantial non-infringing use was legal - although it let you play (copied) movies, the time-shifting capability (record then watch later)was enough.

And Hollywood found a new business model, just as the earlier performers had in response to new technology. And, in just the same way, they made more content that paid more artists and reached more people.

New media doesn't succeed bc it's the same as old media, but a bit better. They succeed bc they're worse than old media at the stuff old media is good at, and better at the stuff old media is bad at. Books are high-res, have low infrastructure cost, are cheap and disposable. Ebooks are good at being easily distributed, free if get them off warez sites, and above all, easily chopped up to be cut-and-pasted into blogs or emails.

Ebooks locked into hardware, DRM protected books are cratering sales. If you're only selling books by the ten, that's not even a niche, it's a hobby.

Copyright isn't an ethical proposition. There's nothing moral about paying a composer two cents for piano roll rights; there's nothing immoral about not paying Hollywood to videotape a movie off your TV. It's just the best way of balancing people's rights to use existing technology and paying the artists enough that think it's worth producing more.

Technology that weakens copyright does so bc it simplifies and cheapens creation, reproduction and distribution. But that technology also gives us bigger pies that reach more people and give artists more chances to share the pie.

In his book Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes an experiment where people with delicious lunches in front of them are asked to recall their breakfast. Those with a great meal in front of them remembered a great breakfast, those with a crappy lunch recalled a bad one. We don't remember trivial or routine details - we look at the present and superimpose that on breakfast.

America started out as a pirate nation, freely copying the inventions and books out of Europe. But of course once USA became a source of creativity, out came the copy protection laws and international treaties.

An information economy cannot be about selling information. No matter what you do, it keeps getting easier to copy information. The information economy is about selling everything except information.

Doctrow says "I can't stop people copying the electronic versions of my books so I might as well treat them as an enticement to buy the printed versions."

Teachers benefit from the information economy when they share lesson plans with their colleagues around the world by email. Doctors benefit from the information economy when they move their patient files to efficient digital formats. Insurance companies benefit from the information economy through better access to fresh data used in the preparation of actuarial tables. Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves look up the weekend's weather online and decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend's sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store Western Union terminal. This stuff generates wealth for those who practice it. It enriches the country and improves our lives.

The Napster debacle. That shipwreck took place six years ago, when the record industry succeeded in shutting down the pioneering file-sharing service, and they show no signs of recovery. *The disastrous thing about Napster wasn't that it it existed, but rather that the record industry managed to kill it.* Napster had an industry-friendly business-model: raise venture capital, start charging for access to the service, and then pay billions of dollars to the record companies in exchange for licenses to their works. Yes, they kicked this plan off without getting permission from the record companies, but that's not so unusual. The record companies followed the same business plan a hundred years ago, when they started recording sheet music without permission, raising capital and garnering profits, and *then* working out a deal to pay the composers for the works they'd built their fortunes on.

Most of us won't spend most of our time reading anything recognizable as a book on them. Take the record album. Everything about it is technologically pre-determined. The technology of the LP demanded artwork to differentiate one package from the next. The length was set by the groove density of the pressing plants and playback apparatus. The dynamic range likewise. These factors gave us the idea of the 40-to-60-minute package, split into two acts, with accompanying artwork. Musicians were encouraged to create works that would be enjoyed as a unitary whole for a protracted period -- think of Dark Side of the Moon, or Sgt. Pepper's. No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole - like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through -- they sound like cranky throwbacks. The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago.

Or look at digital video. We're watching more digital video, sooner, than anyone imagined. But we're watching it in three-minute chunks from YouTube. The video's got a pause button so you can stop it when the phone rings and a scrubber to go back and forth when you miss something.

Artists have lots of problems. We get plagiarized, ripped off by publishers, savaged by critics, counterfeited -- and we even get our works copied by "pirates" who give our stuff away for free online. But no matter how bad these problems get, they're a distant second to the gravest, most terrifying problem an artist can face: censorship. It's one thing to be denied your credit or compensation, but it's another thing entirely to have your work suppressed, burned or banned. You'd never know it, however, judging from the state of the law surrounding the creation and use of internet publishing tools.

It used to be that copy-prevention companies' strategies went like this: "We'll make it easier to buy a copy of this data than to make an unauthorized copy of it. That way, only the uber-nerds and the cash-poor/time-rich classes will bother to copy instead of buy." But every time a PC is connected to the Internet and its owner is taught to use search tools like Google (or The Pirate Bay), a third option appears: you can just download a copy from the Internet. Every techno-literate participant in the information economy can choose to access any data, without having to break the anti-copying technology, just by searching for the cracked copy on the public Internet. If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that an information economy will increase the technological literacy of its participants.

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 e-book as a substitute for the printed book - those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book 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.

This isn't the first time creative entrepreneurs have gone through one of these transitions. Vaudeville performers had to transition to radio, an abrupt shift from having perfect control over who could hear a performance (if they don't buy a ticket, you throw them out) to no control whatsoever (any family whose 12-year-old could build a crystal set, the day's equivalent of installing file-sharing software, could tune in). There were business models for radio, but predicting them a priori wasn't easy. Who could have foreseen that radio's great fortunes would be had through creating a blanket license, securing a Congressional consent decree, chartering a collecting society and inventing a new form of statistical mathematics to fund it?

Predicting the future of publishing--should the wind change and printed books become obsolete--is just as hard. I don't know how writers would earn their living in such a world, but I do know that I'll never find out by turning my back on the Internet. By being in the middle of electronic publishing, by watching what hundreds of thousands of my readers do with my e-books, I get better market intelligence than I could through any other means. As does my publisher.

It's good business for me, too. This "market research" of giving away e-books sells printed books. What's more, having my books more widely read opens many other opportunities for me to earn a living from activities around my writing, such as the Fulbright Chair I got at USC this year, this high-paying article in Forbes, speaking engagements and other opportunities to teach, write and license my work for translation and adaptation. My fans' tireless evangelism for my work doesn't just sell books--it sells me. The golden age of hundreds of writers who lived off of nothing but their royalties is bunkum. Throughout history, writers have relied on day jobs, teaching, grants, inheritances, translation, licensing and other varied sources to make ends meet. The Internet not only sells more books for me, it also gives me more opportunities to earn my keep through writing-related activities.

"We may be at the end of the brief period during which it is possible to charge for recorded music." Surely we're at the end of the period where it's possible to exclude those who don't wish to pay. Every song released can be downloaded gratis from a peer-to-peer network.

Before copyright, we had patronage: you could make art if the Pope or the king liked the sound of it. That produced some damned pretty ceilings and frescos, but it wasn't until control of art was given over to the market -- by giving publishers a monopoly over the works they printed, starting with the Statute of Anne in 1710 -- that we saw the explosion of creativity that investment-based art could create. Industrialists weren't great arbiters of who could and couldn't make art, but they were better than the Pope. The Internet is enabling a further decentralization in who gets to make art, and like each of the technological shifts in cultural production, it's good for some artists and bad for others.

Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet. It's the only literature that regularly shows up, scanned and run through optical character recognition software and lovingly hand-edited on darknet newsgroups, Russian websites, IRC channels and elsewhere.

I've discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer's biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn't know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.

No one wants to believe that the book he's brought home is only partly his, and subject to the terms of a license set out on the flyleaf. Customers understand property -- you bought it, you own it -- and they don't understand copyright. Practically no one understands copyright. I know editors at multibillion-dollar publishing houses who don't know the difference between copyright and trademark (if you've ever heard someone say, "You need to defend a copyright or you lose it," you've found one of these people who confuse copyright and trademark; what's more, this statement isn't particularly true of trademark, either).

Look at Apple's wildly popular iTunes Music Store, which has sold over one billion tracks since 2003. Every song on iTunes is available as a free download from user-to-user, peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa. Indeed, the P2P monitoring company Big Champagne reports that the average time-lapse between a iTunes-exclusive song being offered by Apple and that same song being offered on P2P networks is 180 seconds. Every iTunes customer could readily acquire every iTunes song for free, using the fastest-adopted technology in history. Many of them do (just as many fans photocopy their favorite stories from magazines and pass them around to friends). But Apple has figured out how to compete well enough by offering a better service and a better experience to realize a good business out of this.

Let's think a little about what the book has gone through in years gone by. This is interesting because the history of the book is the history of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Pilgrims, and, ultimately the colonizing of the Americas and the American Revolution.

Broadly speaking, there was a time when books were hand-printed on rare leather by monks. The only people who could read them were priests, who got a regular eyeful of the really cool cartoons the monks drew in the margins. The priests read the books aloud, in Latin (to a predominantly non-Latin-speaking audience) in cathedrals, wreathed in pricey incense that rose from censers swung by altar boys.

Then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Martin Luther turned that press into a revolution. He printed Bibles in languages that non-priests could read, and distributed them to normal people who got to read the word of God all on their own. The rest, as they say, is history. Here are some interesting things to note about the advent of the printing press: * Luther Bibles lacked the manufacturing quality of the illuminated Bibles. They were comparatively cheap and lacked the typographical expressiveness that a really talented monk could bring to bear when writing out the word of God * Luther Bibles were utterly unsuited to the traditional use-case for Bibles. A good Bible was supposed to reinforce the authority of the man at the pulpit. It needed heft, it needed impressiveness, and most of all, it needed rarity.

I went to conferences where music execs patiently explained that Napster was doomed, because you didn't get any cover-art or liner-notes with it, you couldn't know if the rip was any good, and sometimes the connection would drop mid-download. I'm sure that many Cardinals espoused the points raised above with equal certainty. What the record execs and the cardinals missed was all the ways that Luther Bibles kicked ass: * They were cheap and fast. Loads of people could acquire them without having to subject themselves to the authority and approval of the Church * They were in languages that non-priests could read. You no longer had to take the Church's word for it when its priests explained what God really meant * They birthed a printing-press ecosystem in which lots of books flourished. New kinds of fiction, poetry, politics, scholarship and so on were all enabled by the printing presses whose initial popularity was spurred by Luther's ideas about religion. Note that all of these virtues are orthogonal to the virtues of a monkish Bible. That is, none of the things that made the Gutenberg press a success were the things that made monk-Bibles a success. By the same token, the reasons to love ebooks have precious little to do with the reasons to love paper books.

Why did Napster captivate so many of us? Not because it could get us the top-40 tracks that we could hear just by snapping on the radio: it was because 80 percent of the music ever recorded wasn't available for sale anywhere in the world, and in that 80 percent were all the songs that had ever touched us, all the earworms that had been lodged in our hindbrains, all the stuff that made us smile when we heard it.

And please, before we get any farther, forget all that business about how the Internet's copying model is more disruptive than the technologies that proceeded it. For Christ's sake, the Vaudeville performers who sued Marconi for inventing the radio had to go from a regime where they had *one hundred percent* control over who could get into the theater and hear them perform to a regime where they had *zero* percent control over who could build or acquire a radio and tune into a recording of them performing. For that matter, look at the difference between a monkish Bible and a Luther Bible -- next to that phase-change, Napster is peanuts.

Artists still hand-illuminate books; master pianists still stride the boards at Carnegie Hall, and the shelves burst with tell-all biographies of musicians that are richer in detail than any liner-notes booklet. The thing is, when all you've got is monks, every book takes on the character of a monkish Bible. Once you invent the printing press, all the books that are better-suited to movable type migrate into that new form. What's left behind are those items that are best suited to the old production scheme: the plays that *need* to be plays, the books that are especially lovely on creamy paper stitched between covers, the music that is most enjoyable performed live and experienced in a throng of humanity.

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