Anything but the obscurity!

I’ve already mentioned this interesting set of ideas Cory Doctorow brought up. In particular, this part of the introduction made me think:

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Then read this essay on The life expectancies of books (by TNH, so of course it’s worth reading). It’s about the ephemeral nature of literary popularity and copyright, inevitable obscurity, and the self-defeating nature of legalistic attempts to define ownership of ideas.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

There are also some insights in the addendum to the whole mostly unappreciated machinery of advertising and presentation and availability that are important for bringing books to our attention. Piracy is a real problem, but it seems that it’s being fought with misplaced strategies that promote long-term uniformity and corporate interests and the same ol’ thing over and over again, rather than diversity and imagination.


  1. says

    If it wasn’t for BoingBoing I would have never heard of Cory although I am an avid SF reader. Being able to download his books for free (and I still feel pangs about it – one day when I have a little bit more money, as in above starvation levels, I know my consciousness will take me to the Craphound’s Pay Pal button) introduced me to an excellent writer and his Eestern Standard Tribe is a must-read for all bloggers.

    Ah, Long Tail (you do read Anderson’ blog, don’t you?)

  2. Mark Paris says

    As I read the US Constitution, copyright is to encourage people to produce for the benefit of society. In other words copyright is about public benefits, not property rights. Current law, of course, is all about property rights with little or no regard to public benefit.

  3. says

    Being obscure myself…

    The idea that one should only create something to be compensated for it is very prevelant in the U.S. As an amature writer, I see no need to squeeze every dime I can out of my stories. It is a hobby, and as long as it doesn’t cost too much, I’ll continue doing it.

    However, I am much more likely to make money off my hobby if I have built a following. This is most easily done by giving out free samples. So, enjoy! Take all you want, I’ll make more…

  4. says

    Cory makes some interesting arguments and has some valid points, but (and you knew there was a but coming) whenever he’s been called on his anti-copyright tirades, and challenged to renounce copyright on all of his works… he tends to move on to other arguments.

    I agree that life+70 doesn’t serve the author, and is merely a financial tool of corporations. Hobbyists may not mind giving away their work, but for writers struggling to make a living, copyright ownership can mean a great deal.

  5. says

    Cory makes some interesting arguments and has some valid points, but (and you knew there was a but coming) whenever he’s been called on his anti-copyright tirades, and challenged to renounce copyright on all of his works… he tends to move on to other arguments.

    Max Barry has a better answer to that: “Of course I don’t do that; it doesn’t benefit me. But the law shouldn’t be decided based on what benefits me – it should be decided based on what benefits society.”

    Because the publishing industry is based on copyright, any author who wants to renounce his, or to limit copyright ownership of his book to only a few years, is likely to get shafted and relegated to relative obscurity, because that’s not the way publishers do business.

  6. says

    In the sciences, a discovery only belongs to me after I have given it away. In a utopian future, business and publishing would have a similar way of defining property; but I’d settle for a realisable future in which the monopoly of companies over intellectual property had a reasonable expiration date so that, for example, drugs critical to human health become extremely cheap once the cost of discovering them has been amortized.

  7. says

    As I read the US Constitution, copyright is to encourage people to produce for the benefit of society. In other words copyright is about public benefits, not property rights. Current law, of course, is all about property rights with little or no regard to public benefit.

    Yes, the lovely “Progress Clause.” A great look at this (and how it was shot down by SCOTUS) can be found in Lessig’s Free Culture (also downloadable for free). Well worth a read.

  8. gwangung says

    Well, the counterpoint to all this is to see what happens when people actually DO what Doctorow is doing.

    WHen some of the authors at Baen Publishing started giving away their books for free, online, their sales of their entire backlog went UP.

    I used to be a lot more hardline about copyright law, but ideology has to bow to empirical evidence. (Besides which….the whole idea of author’s rights is that the AUTHOR gets to decide what he wants to do. And if she wants to give out free samples, and gets higher sales as a result, then folks who AREN’T involved on the business end shouldn’t gainsay her….)

  9. SEF says

    The changes to copyright duration disgusted me too. I thought it was obvious when they were made that it was the big corporations, eg Disney, behind it though. I did the pre-blogging equivalent of blogging about it back then.

    Worse than the basic continuation of copyright was that some things which had previously gone out of copyright, and were thus available for use within other books, actually went back into copyright. So although nothing could reasonably be done about previous distribution of derivative works, it apparently became illegal to distribute any more of what had once been a legal item.

  10. Patrick says

    “Worse than the basic continuation of copyright was that some things which had previously gone out of copyright, and were thus available for use within other books, actually went back into copyright.”

    This is, of course, completely wrong.

  11. SEF says

    There was some music (the real, written kind!) which had gone out of the original copyright dates but by the new rules was back within copyright scope again. It was a matter of precisely when the author had died and whether or not it was written under contract. I don’t know of cases actually being brought against anyone though.

  12. Patrick says

    The copyright extension act only affected previously written works if they 1) were written after 1923 or afterwards, and 2) were *still copyrighted in 1998,* when the act was passed.

  13. Harry Eagar says

    I have a friend who copyrights his stuff (software, not books) and then puts it in the public domain. There’s no law against that.

    It’s still a free country, despite what the leftists would like, and if an author wants to make a business agreement with a publisher, in exchange for publisher’s services, she should be able to do that without society butting in and demanding ‘its’ share.

    I’ll buy into the idea that an author’s heirs don’t deserve any legal protection for his assets when all of you tell me that when you die your real estate will revert to the public domain. NHMB.

    One effect of technology and business arrangements is that ANYBODY can self-publish now, and, as my book editor tells me almost every day, they do. She considers it a curse.

  14. Graculus says

    she should be able to do that without society butting in and demanding ‘its’ share.

    When does the author/creator/inventor pay back the public for their contributions to the work?

  15. says

    It’s still a free country, despite what the leftists would like, and if an author wants to make a business agreement with a publisher, in exchange for publisher’s services, she should be able to do that without society butting in and demanding ‘its’ share.

    If it’s a free country, then why is copyright constantly used to suppress freedom of speech and of information? These 3.5 MB in MP3 format I have are mine; I can share them with whoever I like, without intervention from the RIAA mafia.

  16. SEF says

    I have a friend who copyrights his stuff

    NB It’s not something you have to actively do at all. Copyright automatically comes into existence the moment a hardcopy exists (ie not while it’s still in your head – and probably not while you’ve typed it into RAM but not pressed save). Of course sticking a date and a (c) symbol on things does help to remind people.

  17. NelC says

    Heh, if Disney et al hadn’t pushed for these ridiculous extensions of copyright, they might have been forced into greater creativity. Imagine, good animation coming out of Disney again.

  18. BigCat says

    Wow. This post opened my brain up like a well shook beer bottle. Alot of stuff wants to come gushing out incoherently, but here goes.

    1. PZ, what do you think of the idea of a kind of Napster for scientific papers? Would it be difficult to create? Would there be legal problems? Would it be not worth the traffic it would generate? I ask because I am the sort of geek who will go into a college library and browse the journals for fun. I know there are not many of us, but it would be kind of neat to be able to do that on the home computer. Those amateurs who raise and study geckoes, or cichlids, or cacti, or orchids, or whatever, would be able to keep up with the latest discoveries about their favorite critters. And it is certainly true in science that once it’s published, obscurity is a MUCH bigger problem than theft. Indeed, once it’s published, it aint theft no more. If every scientist kept pdfs of his entire paperum vitae on his website there would be no need to mail out reprints any more.

    2. I am a musician, and I also download a lot of music files. It is a cheap (free!) way to find out if someone I’ve never heard of is any good. I have found that it is also a good way to get a lot of stuff that is out of print. And if I like an artist I will buy his cd even if I have it on the hard drive. Preferably direct from the artist at one of their concerts (cuts out the middle men and I get a signed copy, and maybe make a new friend) Janis Ian wrote an article sometime back in favor of music downloads because she figured that the artist benefits more from getting their music out there than they lose in cd sales. Of course, big celebrity superstars like M*tallica and G*rth Brook* side with the record companies becuse they see themselves as landlords of intellectual property rather than as performers.

  19. says

    Speaking of a tangental issue, is it just me, or do other people find the prices of Springer’s journals insane?

    I also don’t understand why all copyrights should be the same length.

  20. says

    1. Yes, lots of people think scientific information should be free — that’s the motivation behind the Public Library of Science. It’s difficult to create, and science publishers make a lot of money (<grrr>Elsevier<grrr>) and have a lot of clout over libraries. If I went rogue and started automatically pillaging all the databases and journals to which I have online access through my university library, posting all of the pdfs for anyone to download for free, those publishers would come crashing down on my source (my university and library) like avenging angels, depriving us of essential resources or making them even more exorbitantly expensive. There isn’t a wide network of users who can be sources for the information–there are a smaller number of bottlenecks, the libraries, that publishers can more easily control.

    2. I do the same thing. Way back in my college days (before the internet), radio played a lot of obscure songs, and FM would play whole albums…I’d hear them for free, and if I liked it, I’d hit up the record stores for more. I bought a lot of music back then. Later, radio started playing nothing but the same top of the pops stuff over and over, and my music interests lapsed. Several years ago, I started picking up mp3s on the net, noticed all this cool and interesting and new stuff, and I also started buying CDs again. There’s a strong personal correlation to which I can attest between the availability of free music and my buying habits.

  21. Patrick says

    The whole economic argument, the “I buy more music because of my illegal mp3s” thing, is a bad argument, at least if its intended as a criticism of the copyright system.

    The reason is, the law doesn’t prohibit anyone from distributing free mp3s if they want to do so. So, if you are a musician who believes that greater exposure through internet mp3 distribution would help your business, you are free to go that route.

    The only thing that could stop you is if you had already signed a contract with a recording studio giving them the rights to market your music. In that case, you would need their permission, since they gave you money in exchange for the ability to make this decision.

    If that is the problem, the obvious solution is to not sign that right over. If obscurity really is a bigger problem for you than access to controlled, professional marketting and distribution (the more proper way to phrase the obscurity v piracy issue), then that’s the economically best option anyways.

    Right now copyright gives an author all rights to his or her work. I can’t see a way in which weakening copyright, and therefore reducing the options available to the author, would put the author in a better position. The author would have objectively less.

  22. Harry Eagar says

    Graculus, April 15.

    SEF, that’t true, but my friend is on an open source crusade. Most content providers (me, for example) write for money.

    In a free country, it’s OK to write for money.

    Alon, you’re just being stupid now. For the same reason you cannot buy one ticket to a movie and wave all your friends through the lobby.

  23. says

    Harry, I agree that people should be allowed to write for money–I even agree that swiping .mp3s illegally is wrong (though, I’ll admit, I still do it).

    What these articles suggest, though, is not that it is wrong to write for money, but that clamping down too hard on free file-trading will actually hurt your net income and your penetration into the market. This is plausable, especially when one considers that given the dysfunctional accounting in the record industry, it benefits a band to give away .mp3s for free and tour on the goodwill, rather than lose money on a record deal.

    That doesn’t mean it’s a one-size-fits-all solution, but it does remind us that when the RIAA decided the best way to fight Napster was with a sledgehammer, they ignored any potential good that could’ve come from an alliance.

  24. Harry Eagar says

    Shrug. That’s capitalism. See GM & Ford & Chrysler.

    Stupidity — if that’s what it is — opens the way for entrepreneurs with a different model to thrive, as you say.

    But if property rights mean anything — and I understand that to leftists they don’t — then the person who gets to decide is the property owner. Just because a teenager decides it would be really cool to have a big music collection shouldn’t count.

    I’m sure Graculus would benefit from appropriating Professor Myers’ car, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

    I also understand that in the end I and other content providers are going to lose this. We’re outnumbered a thousand to one by the parasites, and in a democracy that’s a foregone conclusion.

    But that doesn’t make stealing OK.

    Andrea Sutcliffe’s ‘Steam,’ which is the history of the intellectual origins of steamboats, is an excellent case in point, and although those events occurred two centuries ago, nothing significant has changed since.

  25. says

    Property rights are social institutions, not natural facts; and the meaning of ownership has changed and developed throughout history. I doubt if there are very many people, right, left, or center, who propose to do away with property, but it is rather pinheaded to claim that the notion of absolute property rights make sense.

    Anybody who is familiar with the history of innovation knows that the inventors of many important technological devices got cheerfully reamed by businessmen who weren’t very good with their hands but had much better connections. The odd thing about conservative defenders of property is that they so often end up supporting thieves with good attorneys.

  26. says

    Alon, you’re just being stupid now. For the same reason you cannot buy one ticket to a movie and wave all your friends through the lobby.

    The number of seats is limited; the number of copies you can make of an MP3 isn’t. Material property rights are based on direct ownership – a car is considered yours, and nobody else can use it without your permission. IP is a whole different category: someone copyrights an information or trademarks a name, and thereafter everyone’s freedom to redistribute their own files, CDs, DVDs, and so on is abrogated. You could argue that IP is beneficial to society as a whole and therefore an acceptable restriction, but then you have to defend a system that is empirically indefensible.

  27. Harry Eagar says

    I cannot share your doubts, jim.

    Some years ago, I had the displeasure of listening to a lecture by the guy who started Napster. (I have put his name out of my mind.) The audience was about 200 highly respectable, mostly conservative nebbish businessmen and -women and a sprinkling of bureaucrats and politicians.

    The message was, pretty much, ‘steal this book.’

    While you might think that would sell poorly to such an audience, it went down smooth as chocolate milk.

    A lot of people who would disapprove of you for stealing their stuff would cheerfully steal your stuff if they thought they could get away with it.

    Michael Milken was a hero not a rat to most.

    Anyhow, I claim absolute property rights in my property. You don’t get to eat my lunch just because you forgot to bring your own. Unless you ask. And I agree.

    Alon, you are being obtuse. You can distribute your MP3 all you want, you just are not allowed to put somebody else’s work product on it.

    Sellers are free to sell conditionally. That’s what licensure is all about. If you don’t want to agree, don’t buy.

    Anyhow, the premise of the original thought is all wrong. It’s true that piracy isn’t a problem for people who are offering a product that nobody will buy. And maybe if their product were less obscure, buyers would turn up.

    But there was nothing obscure about the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and they were pirated. It’s hard to imagine how the owners of those ideas benefitted from being ripped off.

  28. Bruce Baugh says

    Harry, you’re overlooking something crucial. The Constitution explicitly does not treat copyrights and patents as anything like the full equivalent of real property. Property is covered by, for instance, the Fourth Amendment in clear and strong terms. Intellectual “property” rights are equally explicitly a grant from the government for a particular purpose – you don’t have to justify your real estate, or your personal belongings, but you have patents and copyrights only because it’s useful to society, and you have them only for a limited time in a constitutional order. The language on this is not ambiguous.

    Many people would like intellectual claims to be the full equivalent of physical assets, but the Constitution doesn’t support such a thing and in fact directly contradicts it. The difference betweent eh language of taxation, which is a claim of the state on part of what would otherwise be yours, and the language of patent and copyright, which is letting you monopolize an idea and expression for a while because in the long run society benefits as a whole, couldn’t be starker.

  29. Bruce Baugh says

    (I have no objection to an IP argument that begins “I reject the US Constitution on this point.” It’s just that damn few admit that they do it.)

  30. says

    I reject the US Constitution on several points, but especially on the drastically undemocratic way that senators are elected. Even the slaves got to be three-fifths of a voter. If you live in California, you aren’t even one-tenth of voter relative to Alaska or Wyoming.

    Somewhat off topic, but we aims to please.

  31. Bruce Baugh says

    Oh, I regard the Constutition as one of the best efforts ever, but not perfect. My point is just that the advocates of strong IP tend to go against the explicit aims and intent of it when it comes to patent and copyright, without acknowledging that that’s what they’re doing. They’ve misled the public about what these things are for in the Original Dads’ mind and skewed the debate. The Constitutional Ip dbate would be: what privileges, granted for what period of time, actually do lead to more work, and what point does the pool of publicly available ideas suffer rather than benefit from giving creators or others too many privileges?

  32. Harry Eagar says

    Well, actually, the intent of the Framers on this point WAS ambiguous, so much so that although one of the very first laws passed by the first Congress was on patents, it had to be revised shortly afterward. And even then, no one knew what the real purpose was, and when Jefferson took over as Secretary of State (he did not believe in patent rights), he changed things again.

    Congress never even addressed the question of whether federal patents co-existed with or superseded state monopolies. There were also different categories for original work and for importation of foreign patents.

    Patent law is still pretty ambiguous compared to, say, admiralty law.

  33. Bruce Baugh says

    But this shifting around is itself indicative: there’s nothing comparable in the Constitution about any real property. The government’s claims there are all well marked out and bounded: for the costs of running the government, as part of the process of law, and that’s about it. IP is there only insofar as it’s good for the society at a whole, and remains a grant of privilege, not the acknowledgement of an innate right.

    I’m not an originalist. I think that the Constitution contained some terrible evils, and continues to have some just plain bad ideas. Really, I just would be happier if thea dvocates of IP as a strong innate right would be more forthright about the anti-constitutional nature of their agenda, rather than pretending (or believing honestly but wrongly) that it’s constitutional.