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The Past | The Previous

Doctorow Part Two

Back to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Well, not yet. I want to convey to you the depth of the panic in my field over ebook piracy, or "bookwarez" as it is known in book-ripper circles. Writers were joining the discussion on alt.binaries.ebooks using assumed names, claiming fear of retaliation from scary hax0r kids who would presumably screw up their credit-ratings in retaliation for being called thieves. My editor, a blogger, hacker and guy-in-charge-of-the-largest-sf-line-in-the-world named Patrick Nielsen Hayden posted to one of the threads in the newsgroup, saying, in part:

Pirating copyrighted etext on Usenet and elsewhere is going to happen more and more, for the same reasons that everyday folks make audio cassettes from vinyl LPs and audio CDs, and videocassette copies of store-bought videotapes. Partly it's greed; partly it's annoyance over retail prices; partly it's the desire to Share Cool Stuff (a motivation usually underrated by the victims of this kind of small-time hand-level piracy). Instantly going to Defcon One over it and claiming it's morally tantamount to mugging little old ladies in the street will make it kind of difficult to move forward from that position when it doesn't work. In the 1970s, the record industry shrieked that "home taping is killing music." It's hard for ordinary folks to avoid noticing that music didn't die. But the record industry's credibility on the subject wasn't exactly enhanced.

Patrick and I have a long relationship, starting when I was 18 years old and he kicked in toward a scholarship fund to send me to a writers' workshop, continuing to a fateful lunch in New York in the mid-Nineties when I showed him a bunch of Project Gutenberg texts on my Palm Pilot and inspired him to start licensing Tor's titles for PDAs, to the turn-of-the-millennium when he bought and then published my first novel (he's bought three more since -- I really like Patrick!).

Right as bookwarez newgroups were taking off, I was shocked silly by legal action by one of my colleagues against AOL/Time-Warner for carrying the alt.binaries.ebooks newsgroup. This writer alleged that AOL should have a duty to remove this newsgroup, since it carried so many infringing files, and that its failure to do so made it a contributory infringer, and so liable for the incredibly stiff penalties afforded by our newly minted copyright laws like the No Electronic Theft Act and the loathsome Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA.

Now there was a scary thought: there were people out there who thought the world would be a better place if ISPs were given the duty of actively policing and censoring the websites and newsfeeds their customers had access to, including a requirement that ISPs needed to determine, all on their own, what was an unlawful copyright infringement -- something more usually left up to judges in the light of extensive amicus briefings from esteemed copyright scholars.

This was a stupendously dumb idea, and it offended me down to my boots. Writers are supposed to be advocates of free expression, not censorship. It seemed that some of my colleagues loved the First Amendment, but they were reluctant to share it with the rest of the world.

Well, dammit, I had a book coming out, and it seemed to be an opportunity to try to figure out a little more about this ebook stuff. On the one hand, ebooks were a dismal failure. On the other hand, there were more books posted to alt.binaries.ebooks every day.

This leads me into the two certainties I have about ebooks:

1. More people are reading more words off more screens every day

2. Fewer people are reading fewer words off fewer pages every day

These two certainties begged a lot of questions.

[CHART: EBOOK FAILINGS]

* Screen resolutions are too low to effectively replace paper

* People want to own physical books because of their visceral appeal (often this is accompanied by a little sermonette on how good books smell, or how good they look on a bookshelf, or how evocative an old curry stain in the margin can be)

* You can't take your ebook into the tub

* You can't read an ebook without power and a computer

* File-formats go obsolete, paper has lasted for a long time

None of these seemed like very good explanations for the "failure" of ebooks to me. If screen resolutions are too low to replace paper, then how come everyone I know spends more time reading off a screen every year, up to and including my sainted grandmother (geeks have a really crappy tendency to argue that certain technologies aren't ready for primetime because their grandmothers won't use them -- well, my grandmother sends me email all the time. She types 70 words per minute, and loves to show off grandsonular email to her pals around the pool at her Florida retirement condo)?

The other arguments were a lot more interesting, though. It seemed to me that electronic books are different from paper books, and have different virtues and failings. 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:

[CHART: LUTHER VERSUS THE MONKS]

* 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.

* The user-experience of Luther Bibles sucked. There was no incense, no altar boys, and who (apart from the priesthood) knew that reading was so friggin' hard on the eyes?

* Luther Bibles were a lot less trustworthy than the illuminated numbers. Anyone with a press could run one off, subbing in any apocryphal text he wanted -- and who knew how accurate that translation was? Monks had an entire Papacy behind them, running a quality-assurance operation that had stood Europe in good stead for centuries.

In the late nineties, 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:

[CHART: WHY 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 orthagonal 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.

[CHART: WHY EBOOKS KICK ASS]

* They are easy to share. Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood went from a midlist title to a bestseller by being passed from hand to hand by women in reading circles. Slashdorks and other netizens have social life as rich as reading-circlites, but they don't ever get to see each other face to face; the only kind of book they can pass from hand to hand is an ebook. What's more, the single factor most correlated with a purchase is a recommendation from a friend -- getting a book recommended by a pal is more likely to sell you on it than having read and enjoyed the preceding volume in a series!

* They are easy to slice and dice. This is where the Mac evangelist in me comes out -- minority platforms matter. It's a truism of the Napsterverse that most of the files downloaded are bog-standard top-40 tracks, like 90 percent or so, and I believe it. We all want to popular music. That's why it's popular. But the interesting thing is the other ten percent. Bill Gates told the New York Times that Microsoft lost the search wars by doing "a good job on the 80 percent of common queries and ignor[ing] the other stuff. But it's the remaining 20 percent that counts, because that's where the quality perception is." 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. Those songs are different for all of us, but they share the trait of making the difference between a compelling service and, well, top-40 Clearchannel radio programming. It was the minority of tracks that appealed to the majority of us. By the same token, the malleability of electronic text means that it can be readily repurposed: you can throw it on a webserver or convert it to a format for your favorite PDA; you can ask your computer to read it aloud or you can search the text for a quotation to cite in a book report or to use in your sig. In other words, most people who download the book do so for the predictable reason, and in a predictable format -- say, to sample a chapter in the HTML format before deciding whether to buy the book -- but the thing that differentiates a boring e-text experience from an exciting one is the minority use -- printing out a couple chapters of the book to bring to the beach rather than risk getting the hardcopy wet and salty.

Tool-makers and software designers are increasingly aware of the notion of "affordances" in design. You can bash a nail into the wall with any heavy, heftable object from a rock to a hammer to a cast-iron skillet. However, there's something about a hammer that cries out for nail-bashing, it has affordances that tilt its holder towards swinging it. And, as we all know, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

The affordance of a computer -- the thing it's designed to do -- is to slice-and-dice collections of bits. The affordance of the Internet is to move bits at very high speed around the world at little-to-no cost. It follows from this that the center of the ebook experience is going to involve slicing and dicing text and sending it around.

Copyright lawyers have a word for these activities: infringement. That's because copyright gives creators a near-total monopoly over copying and remixing of their work, pretty much forever (theoretically, copyright expires, but in actual practice, copyright gets extended every time the early Mickey Mouse cartoons are about to enter the public domain, because Disney swings a very big stick on the Hill).

This is a huge problem. The biggest possible problem. Here's why:

[CHART: HOW BROKEN COPYRIGHT SCREWS EVERYONE]

* Authors freak out. Authors have been schooled by their peers that strong copyright is the only thing that keeps them from getting savagely rogered in the marketplace. This is pretty much true: it's strong copyright that often defends authors from their publishers' worst excesses. However, it doesn't follow that strong copyright protects you from your readers.

* Readers get indignant over being called crooks. Seriously. You're a small businessperson. Readers are your customers. Calling them crooks is bad for business.

* Publishers freak out. Publishers freak out, because they're in the business of grabbing as much copyright as they can and hanging onto it for dear life because, dammit, you never know. This is why science fiction magazines try to trick writers into signing over improbable rights for things like theme park rides and action figures based on their work -- it's also why literary agents are now asking for copyright-long commissions on the books they represent: copyright covers so much ground and takes to long to shake off, who wouldn't want a piece of it?

* Liability goes through the roof. Copyright infringement, especially on the Net, is a supercrime. It carries penalties of $150,000 per infringement, and aggrieved rights-holders and their representatives have all kinds of special powers, like the ability to force an ISP to turn over your personal information before showing evidence of your alleged infringement to a judge. This means that anyone who suspects that he might be on the wrong side of copyright law is going to be terribly risk-averse: publishers non-negotiably force their authors to indemnify them from infringement claims and go one better, forcing writers to prove that they have "cleared" any material they quote, even in the case of brief fair-use quotations, like song-titles at the opening of chapters. The result is that authors end up assuming potentially life-destroying liability, are chilled from quoting material around them, and are scared off of public domain texts because an honest mistake about the public-domain status of a work carries such a terrible price.

* Posterity vanishes. In the Eldred v. Ashcroft Supreme Court hearing last year, the court found that 98 percent of the works in copyright are no longer earning money for anyone, but that figuring out who these old works belong to with the degree of certainty that you'd want when one mistake means total economic apocalypse would cost more than you could ever possibly earn on them. That means that 98 percent of works will largely expire long before the copyright on them does. Today, the names of science fiction's ancestral founders -- Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, HG Wells -- are still known, their work still a part of the discourse. Their spiritual descendants from Hugo Gernsback onward may not be so lucky -- if their work continues to be "protected" by copyright, it might just vanish from the face of the earth before it reverts to the public domain.

This isn't to say that copyright is bad, but that there's such a thing as good copyright and bad copyright, and that sometimes, too much good copyright is a bad thing. It's like chilis in soup: a little goes a long way, and too much spoils the broth.

From the Luther Bible to the first phonorecords, from radio to the pulps, from cable to MP3, the world has shown that its first preference for new media is its "democratic-ness" -- the ease with which it can reproduced.

(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)

Back to democratic-ness. Every successful new medium has traded off its artifact-ness -- the degree to which it was populated by bespoke hunks of atoms, cleverly nailed together by master craftspeople -- for ease of reproduction. Piano rolls weren't as expressive as good piano players, but they scaled better -- as did radio broadcasts, pulp magazines, and MP3s. Liner notes, hand illumination and leather bindings are nice, but they pale in comparison to the ability of an individual to actually get a copy of her own.

Which isn't to say that old media die. 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.

Increased democratic-ness translates into decreased control: it's a lot harder to control who can copy a book once there's a photocopier on every corner than it is when you need a monastery and several years to copy a Bible. And that decreased control demands a new copyright regime that rebalances the rights of creators with their audiences.

For example, when the VCR was invented, the courts affirmed a new copyright exemption for time-shifting; when the radio was invented, the Congress granted an anti-trust exemption to the record labels in order to secure a blanket license; when cable TV was invented, the government just ordered the broadcasters to sell the cable-operators access to programming at a fixed rate.

Copyright is perennially out of date, because its latest rev was generated in response to the last generation of technology. The temptation to treat copyright as though it came down off the mountain on two stone tablets (or worse, as "just like" real property) is deeply flawed, since, by definition, current copyright only considers the last generation of tech.

So, are bookwarez in violation of copyright law? Duh. Is this the end of the world? Duh. If the Catholic church can survive the printing press, science fiction will certainly weather the advent of bookwarez.

#

Lagniappe

We're almost done here, but there's one more thing I'd like to do before I get off the stage. [Lagniappe: an unexpected bonus or extra] Think of it as a "lagniappe" -- a little something extra to thank you for your patience.

About a year ago, I released my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, on the net, under the terms of the most restrictive Creative Commons license available. All it allowed my readers to do was send around copies of the book. I was cautiously dipping my toe into the water, though at the time, it felt like I was taking a plunge.

Now I'm going to take a plunge. Today, I will re-license the text of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons "Attribution-ShareAlike-Derivs-Noncommercial" license, which means that as of today, you have my blessing to create derivative works from my first book. You can make movies, audiobooks, translations, fan-fiction, slash fiction (God help us), furry slash fiction, poetry, translations, t-shirts, you name it, with two provisos: that one, you have to allow everyone else to rip, mix and burn your creations in the same way you're hacking mine; and on the other hand, you've got to do it noncommercially.

The sky didn't fall when I dipped my toe in. Let's see what happens when I get in up to my knees.

The text with the new license will be online before the end of the day. Check craphound.com/down for details.

Oh, and I'm also releasing the text of this speech under a Creative Commons Public Domain dedication, giving it away to the world to do with as it see fits. It'll be linked off my blog, Boing Boing, before the day is through.

#

EOF

That's the end of this talk, for now. Thank you all for your kind attention. I hope that you'll keep on the lookout for more detailed topology of the shape of ebooks and help me spot them here in plain sight.


Cory Doctorow

Midflight over Texas

February 4, 2004