Stuck in the middle with you

It’s always fun dandling binary oppositions on the knee. I submit to you that much of modern cultural history is permeated with a dialectic. First, there was religion vs science – where the former was the leviathan trying to defend its territory ruthlessly; second the ‘two cultures’ of art vs science, with the latter partly adopting religion’s role. Now, I suggest, the two cultures are copyright vs copyleft. This latter pairing is something I’m obsessed with.

Margaret Atwood has become a persistent advocate for a book called The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, and thanks to her it has been issued for the first time in Britain only this year (it was originally published in 1979). She’s certainly done more good this way than through her fatuous and insulting LongPen, that’s for sure.

It’s a stunningly thoughtful book, and provides an anthropology of the ‘gift economy’. The first half looks at the history of gift economies around the world; the second, at the specific artistic careers of Whitman and Pound. Most interesting of all perhaps are the conclusion and new afterword. The central question is: how can the artist (and for this read anyone who is creative – scientific endeavour is part of it, too) relate to the marketplace? How can ‘gift’ and ‘commodity’ coexist without one destroying the other in some way?

We’re trapped between the Scylla of Disneyfied, Hollywoodized, DRM-bound copyright, with owners of mass-market artistic output obsessed with controlling its consumption, and the Charybdis of the freeform, open-source, Creative Commons world of copyleft where it’s hard to make more than a few groats. Perhaps this penury doesn’t matter. But to someone like me, a freelancer who relies on selling time and output for money, it’s hard not to think about it. I’m not being paid to pontificate here (and rightly so, no doubt!), but people who write their blogs in work time are being paid, you know.

There are so many interesting gift economies at work. A random sample:
– open-source software
– blogging. writes here that: “I can be fairly confident that three figures of people read anything I choose to write. That’s better than a lot of plays… Sure, I don’t make any money from this, but I do get paid in kind, when I read the journals that all my interesting friends write…” (My emphasis.)
(Though he chooses to overlook that a huge amount of the blogosphere consists of maundering self-pity and passing on memic dreck, neither of which I’m immune to myself, I confess.)
– Wikipedia
– BitTorrent
– artistic output of all kinds – it was lovely to receive ‘s gift of Wasted Epiphanies
– recycling, for that matter
– and countless more, such as the advice we share with friends. uses his training as a commodity for his employer, but as a kindly gift when we raise a legal issue in our blogs.

Sometimes I feel lost in the middle: I run two commercially disastrous (or at least unremarkable) businesses with a friend, for example – though our lack of wholesale commitment to them probably explains a lot. Realistically, both Reverb and Thoughtplay belong more in the gift economy realm. For the first, we have tried to support new authors, pumping in our own money to little gain, though some good things have come out of it all for some of them. For the latter, What Should I Read Next? makes a trickle of cash, which means we’re only half-way to breaking even after a year – but it has also provided at least passing entertainment for hundreds of thousands of people, tens of thousands of them loyally returning again and again. It’s a good feeling. The problem for us commercially is that we lack the technical skills to do stuff like this without paying people to do the coding – which means we either seek funding, or we don’t do it. Our speciality is ‘ideas’, which are more copyleft than copyright. All these things take time, which has to be funded somehow.

Lewis Hyde’s only answer to how “modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood” is threefold, and holds no magic surprises:
– take a second job
– find patronage
– sell your work.

For all my hopes that Paul and I could have supported new authors on to success, and in the context of the zillions of manuscripts we had to reject, I can’t help but think authors expect too much: they all think they have a divine right to commercial support, just because that’s happened for a mere 200 years (they certainly don’t realise that even most successful authors have to work all the time to eke a living, and only a tiny number of soaraway bestsellers buck this). But there’s so much crap out there. It makes me wonder sometimes whether the much-demonised ‘vanity publishing’ isn’t actually a damned good idea – or Lulu is the best model, and traditional publishers with deep enough pockets should look there for the few rising stars and then snap ’em up.

In the course of vomiting all this out, it occurs that maybe Google is evil after all. Its business model seems to rely almost exclusively on commodifying copyleft, whether it’s selling advertising on the back of search results, themselves an amalgamation of other people’s content, or putting up the world’s books, or getting users to improve its image indexing. True, it ‘gives back’ by letting us all search for free. But who’s to say that won’t one day change? On the other side of the coin, Google has enabled us humble oiks to monetise our websites – but AdSense has become so utterly ubiquitous that maybe its days are numbered. I do find it surprising that enough people click on the ads to sustain this economy in the first place – but then again this is the same world where supposedly 10% of spam is clicked on. Go figure.

What the hell am I venting all this for? Ach, I dunno, I’m just interested. And I’m maybe at a crossroads in life. Having spent eight years freelancing, I wonder at my age how long I can get away with my random sort of life. But also: it’s great, and I love all the different tangents that I’m free to explore. So, if I can continue to blunder some sort of living as I’ve done so far, there’s much to celebrate. Here’s hoping I can.

(Actually, all this is probably me arguing myself round to offering to do ‘s dad’s murder mystery for free!)

Copyright vs copyleft. I want to know what you think. You read books and watch films and devour story arcs. Are you always happy to pay for them? Under what conditions? Is it your right to watch series three of Lost when it suits you? Who pays the piper? Do creators expect too much? Should they abandon the world of copyright and go left, seeking remuneration in other ways? If so, what ways? And how do you catch a squirrel?

This is far and away my longest post ever, and doesn’t have the point I thought it might have done when it started. Ah well. So it goes.

48 thoughts on “Stuck in the middle with you

  1. Yes, creators expect far too much. I’m in two minds as to whether copyright should exist at all, but if it must then it should certainly last for no longer than is necessary to make it financially viable to create popular artistic works. Five years seems reasonable.

    I do, however think that a creator should have the right, automatically and in perpetuity, to be identified as the creator of their works: if they’re good, let them trade off their previous creations, rather than (as the current system encourages) simply living off them.

  2. I think

    (1) Google is not evil. It may be a Faustian pact to have your content listed there, but it is a pact entered into voluntarily, eyes open. Anyone can opt out with a tweak to robots.txt so trivial I understand it. Arguably the managers who mortgage the long-term strategic defence of their company’s valuable IP to the short-term uplift to earnings that Google will give them before they quit with bonus in hand are banally evil. Arguably Google knows and manipulates this. I think the leap to “Google is evil” too far.

    (2) The problem at the moment is not, I think, copyright vs copyleft but that (to quote Simon Waldman of the Guardian), “the new games has begun before the old game is over”. By which I mean: the logic of making money from digital media is almost opposite to the logic of making money from pre-digital media. The structures and especially institutions (book publishers, record labels etc) that worked pre-digital are almost directly antithetical to digital success. Everyone (who thinks about it) knows this, but pre-digital is vastly less competitive and therefore more profitable, and the ongoing existence of a rump of digital refuseniks makes the perpetuation of a pre-digital strategy both sensible in the short-term for creators of media and almost the only possible course for record label / book publisher etc intermediaries. Or to put it another way, the Arctic Monkeys would have captured vastly more of the digital market by not signing with Domino but less or none of the pre-digital, and at this stage a bit of the pre-digital market is worth more than a lot of the digital.

    (3) The conflict only continues to exist because of this tension. People like Craigslist – classic gift economy play that nonetheless makes $20m a year and wiped $60m off the value of print classifieds in one city in one year – ignore it, people like Om Malik and Rafat Ali pre-empt it by sacrificing the short-term pre-digital upside for first-mover advantage in digital, people like book/record publishers (not creators) inhibit and subvert it. But bands such as Barenaked Ladies are already going it alone without the record label, and even if the next Arctic Monkeys signs on the dotted line the one after may not. And that’s when the returns to creativity that digital should facilitate get interesting.

  3. Totally agree – and I recall you discussing this a while back. In fact, I recall you suggesting one year and me suggesting five 😉

  4. Interesting comments, as I naturally expected.

    (1) Google is not evil.
    Yes, of course. What I really meant is, Google has a flexible crotch and straddles both worlds somewhat.

    (2) the logic of making money from digital media is almost opposite to the logic of making money from pre-digital media
    Indeed yes.

    (3) The conflict only continues to exist because of this tension.
    I don’t think I agree with this, though if that tension continues to be removed, and digital is more reliably monetised, then, yes, the copyleft movement may become smaller as lots of its members realise they can make some cash after all.

    But I also think you underestimate the political impetus of copyleft folk. You work for Voldemort, so you would. If you knew all the geeky open-source mapping/coding/creating people I come across – they’re not going to change. It’s certainly not true to say that gift economies only exist because their supporters don’t have an alternative.

  5. If you knew all the geeky open-source mapping/coding/creating people I come across – they’re not going to change

    To play, then, the devil’s advocate for a moment: it may not matter very much whether they change or not so long as the copyright people exist and can simply steal their stuff ( Quoth (well, paraphrase cos I’m too lazy to JFGI) Dogbert – if everyone renounced violence I could rule this world armed only with a spoon.

  6. ( – er, link just leads to a front page. I assume you meant more than ‘the market, dude!’ so did it lead to summat more specific?

    You may be right (-wing). I imagine some sort of balance might eventually wobble into play. Some people will be below the spoon’s radar, as it were.

    Not everything is nickable.

  7. For the latter, What Should I Read Next? makes a trickle of cash, which means we’re only half-way to breaking even after a year

    Most businesses would be rather glad of that. Amazon is still making a loss after ten years, isn’t it?

  8. Error. It had its first profits in 2001, Google suggests! But yes, see your point. What we lack is a business plan, I suspect! Or any commercial nous. Hey ho!

  9. An immediate difficulty, which would pose serious detriment to culture as a whole, is in writing abstruse or academic works. The work might not recoup the author’s effort in royalties over the timescale you suggest. Potentially whole swathes of the industry of literature – and arguably those most worth protecting – would have to revert to centuries-old systems of patronage that might not work anywhere near as well now that money is concentrated in more visibly axe-grinding corporations. Would Calvino or Borges produce what they produced under your system?

    Certainly as it stands creators themselves only expect too much if what they’re creating is actually worthless. If a work has made a worthwhile contribution to your life then there’s always the argument that says you ought to pay for it. Apart from anything else, published works frequently include other incidental costs like editing and proofreading which can improve the quality of the work: compare paying the water company for clean drinking water with sourcing it for free and hoping pigeons haven’t fallen into your rain-barrel.

    I think there are so many inequalities in the copyright system – the way music rights are treated differently, the restrictions on making one’s own copies, the way heirs and institutions seem to be able to live off inherited copyrights with no clear parallel in any other industry, clamp-downs on attempts to collage or mash up existing works – that merely tackling them would revolutionise the existing system: quietly, yes, but more effectively and controllably than effectively overturning the whole principle. I’d like to see a more thorough problematizing of the possible effects of shortening the copyright period to that length before I’d support it wholeheartedly.

  10. Amazon makes a profit so trivial it’s funny…the first year it declared a profit for its UK operations the sum was £50,000 on revenues of some hundreds of millions. If it scrapes home at the end of this year with a margin that’s a whole integer Wall Street will be delighted

  11. I like your angles of attack, but I’m not convinced of your conclusions. Sadly I don’t have the time right now to go into why. Isn’t that annoying? Sorry. But put me down as a ‘demur.’

  12. You’re right that it would need a lot more thinking through than a coupla blog posts, of course. I’m not sure I’m as worried about ‘abstruse or academic works’ as you – royalties often don’t recoup the author’s efforts for those already. And academia offers other rewards anyway – if you publish, you’re more likely to get tenure. Just as some better open source mavens get work as a result of what they’ve given to the community. (I’ll refrain from churlishly observing that a lot of academic output – more in the arts than the sciences, of course, but not exclusively – is a massive waste of people’s lives anyway. Oops, no I won’t.)

    Certainly editorial costs need to be covered, yes (hey, otherwise I really will have no work!). Vanity publishing comes to mind again!

    If a work has made a worthwhile contribution to your life then there’s always the argument that says you ought to pay for it.

    Indeed – but doesn’t that imply the converse that if something we’ve paid for doesn’t enrich us, we’re entitled to our money back…?

  13. And academia offers other rewards anyway – if you publish, you’re more likely to get tenure.

    There’s not enough tenure to go round in disciplines like medieval history, certainly. Problems like that were the reason that lifetime copyright was introduced in the first place (and given to the author rather than the printer, as I’m sure you know was the case beforehand). I have no fundamental objection to revoking lifetime copyright: I’d just like to see how the original problems would then be dealt with.

    I wrestle with this a lot (especially at the moment, as I’m totally rewriting QlL and preparing new stories, and it’s a long, thankless slog). In the world of programming I’m a staunch advocate of open source wherever possible, but that might be because I’m paid for my expertise as a developer regardless of the openness of the final product. The arts are in a comparatively parlous state, and I could easily sink a year of my life into improving my writing and receive no return, have no way in which to construct that into a career. If I spent a year learning programming languages I’d be sorted, relatively speaking. I can’t see how changing the way copyright works in the manner suggested would do anything other than convince me to give up writing for good, because even as the audience-less hobby it currently is, it gives me unfounded and ultimately delusional hopes.

    Indeed – but doesn’t that imply the converse that if something we’ve paid for doesn’t enrich us, we’re entitled to our money back…?

    I like the sound of that. I’d love to see something like it established by case law. If it could be made workable, then it’d be an excellent antidote to the laziness that long-term copyright often engenders in institutions, without necessarily affecting individuals as much as selection by editorial teams already does. Mind you, it would either end up like Chatterley-ban-era censorship (only on utilitarian rather than moral grounds) or our culture put on the rack by the hoi polloi that do the madder Amazon reviews.

  14. I could easily sink a year of my life into improving my writing and receive no return, have no way in which to construct that into a career… I can’t see how changing the way copyright works in the manner suggested would do anything other than convince me to give up writing for good

    But this is all driven by your expectations, that you have a right to be paid for producing something of nebulous necessity. Don’t get me wrong: the only long-term ambition I ever had was to write novels, though the older I get the more it recedes, suggesting I’m not that motivated after all.

    But the whole point of the gift-nature of art, in Hyde’s model at least, is that you write because you have to, because it’s a way of being for you (and perhaps mediates a more tricksy inspiration – it’s a gift in the other sense), and perhaps also because you feel driven to share your visions with others.

    The most creative things I’ve done have indeed been gifts, and everything I’m paid for, while not necessarily devoid of creative input, is more workaday.

    I used to think that writing was indeed my route to fortune. It isn’t. But if I want to write, or do other creative things, why should that stop me?

    If you really want to write fiction you will anyway… won’t you? And if not, why not? Or are your values only of the marketplace? (I’d be surprised if they are, but surprise me if you must!)

  15. I should add that I have no idea if a 5-year system would solve anything. But some sort of transformation would liberate us from the tyranny of the mediators (publishers, record labels, etc) – and, much more importantly I suspect, the tyranny of our own expectations.

    Of course, it’s all very for Mags Atwood – she’s bloody famous and successful already!

  16. Indeed – but doesn’t that imply the converse that if something we’ve paid for doesn’t enrich us, we’re entitled to our money back…?

    Fascinating point, which I think cuts to the heart of the matter. It is, as so often, about risk, and perhaps relative value. Currently, the music label sells me a CD and if it’s shit, it keeps the £12 and I keep a piece of essentially useless metal. The risk is all with me. And there’s no differential associated with the stuff I get value from and the stuff I don’t. The economics are all governed by the supply, not the demand – it costs five quid to produce, two to market, three to distribute and two profit, take it or leave it.

    A solution to this would be a per-play system, but consumers are highly resistant to these. For some reason I suppose we must like the gamble we play of assessing our own tastes accurately enough to sufficient benefit from the stuff we buy.

    And here also, perhaps, we have the answer also to the very widespread resistance to the hybrid model that operates with digital music – DRM protected stuff that can’t be easily ported between devices is in many ways the worst of both worlds.

    Which leaves us where? No idea. But currently the risk is all mis-allocated, largely I suspect to compensate the labels for the decay of their “expensively market the hell out of any old crap” strategy.

  17. Is there really a tax planning strategy that involves making the smallest profit possible for ten whole years?

  18. Thanks for the shout-out. I’ve been mulling this over myself recently, from a personal point of view. I’m torn because in practical terms it would be good to get paid money for writing books and stuff, but emotionally I swing more towards the “information wants to be free” end of things. I like the idea of the stuff I do being able to travel through the world unimpeded, being passed on from one person to another (I was very pleased when commented elsewhere to say she’d read the comic this morning). But, well, I also like eating.

    I think in an ideal world I’d be getting some small financial return for creating stuff, but not from my audience. That’s pretty much the model ad-enabled websites use, but I share your scepticism as to whether anyone actually clicks on the damn ads.

  19. I think that creators have some right to be remunerated for their work. I don’t see that as controversial.

    Where I see bad things occurring is at the distribution level. Corporation X buys the exclusive right to show the thing, and charge for the privilege. Which is very much holding popular culture to ransom. And then of course, you have to ask just how long the cast of LOST could stay on a desert island paradise, filming, if they didn’t have some large concern like Fox or Time Warner paying for it. I’m told that expensive shows can cost upwards of a million per episode. If there’s no-one willing to pony that kind of cash up, we’ll be reduced to the kind of single sound stage with cardboard props dramas that were made in the fifties.

    So, I would reform copyright, but you can’t cut the interests of the funding bodies out of it entirely. I would have basically the same copyright laws as now, but limit them to a non-extendable five years. You’ve got that long to sell advertising and dvd box sets if you can. Go.

    The real struggle, then, is to get people to respect copyright. I don’t. I’m not an unfair man, I pay for my entertainment. LOST, for instance, arrives on a channel that I pay for, in its UK premiere. Hence, I consider myself to have paid for my license to watch LOST as it comes out. The fact that I’ve seen season three prior to it arriving on Sky One is neither here nor there. I am a Sky One subscriber, I pay for LOST that way. I just refuse to be told what day and time I must sit down to watch it. I’ve just written myself my own copyright laws there, and I am dying to hear of the first prosecution in which these companies sue someone for watching content that they’ve paid for. Until then, my own personal copyright law appears to be the common law. And where that is the case, my decision to subscribe or not subscribe to a channel that carries the program begins to look more like a voluntary donation – the distribution system I use doesn’t care if I paid for it or not.

    There’s other elements to consider. I belong to a torrent site whose ethos is to assist in the distribution of only British tv and radio shows which are not available on DVD and CD. I download a lot of Radio 4 comedy which is otherwise just going to sit in the BBC archives awaiting retransmission sometime if ever. Presumably as adults who are breathing in and out in the UK, we have paid our license fees, and contributed other taxes which run the BBC, so these shows are our common cultural property. I don’t think, morally, we should have to either wait for retransmission, or be forced to buy the CDs and DVDs, come to that. BBC television programmes have been paid for by us already – I suppose I don’t mind paying the BBC for taking the trouble of transferring it all to DVD and packaging it attractively, but should I decide to, say, download a series of Blackadder, then I’m going to, because Blackadder’s mine. I paid for it already.

    Ultimately, the model I love is that of the public libraries, and public radio. Lend a book to someone, the author gets a micro payment. Play a song on the radio, the artist gets a payment. With digital distribution, we can keep local copies of the things that we borrow, and that’s cool, because that doesn’t prevent someone else borrowing it too. If there were some humongously better funded performers’ and authors’ rights societies in this country that allowed us to reward the creators properly (rather than the pittance that authors currently receive from the the libraries) then that would please me most of all.

  20. Yes of course. The less profit you make, the less you pay in tax. The most profitable companies in Ukraine claim to make a loss, and some even enjoy subsidies as a result.

    An international firm like Amazon has ample opportunity to minimise its declared profits.

  21. But this is all driven by your expectations, that you have a right to be paid for producing something of nebulous necessity.

    Well, firstly, I don’t expect to be paid unless I demonstrate (at the very least) both hard work and skill, and the end result is agreed by my peers to be of merit: I appreciate this isn’t the special olympics and we’re not all entitled to a medal. But that aside I don’t think the jury is anywhere near declaring the nebulousness of worth in the arts, although the verdict has been presumed many times in the history of criticism.

    In fact, I think that rival arguments—often based around the detrimental effect of the military-industrial complex—are being deployed these days about the sciences. I don’t agree with many of them, but some have merit. The trouble is that if we start undermining the necessity of things (and it’s easy to do it with any discipline as a whole, if you pick your premises carefully) then before we know it we’re lost in a world of relativistic corridors all alike, where everything is of “nebulous necessity” and as rejectable as anything else.

    But the whole point of the gift-nature of art, in Hyde’s model at least, is that you write because you have to, because it’s a way of being for you

    I was trying to avoid this line of discussion: not because I don’t agree on a personal level, because I do (when I don’t write fiction for long enough I feel the same itchy frustration as someone who hasn’t washed, or the same glumness as someone who hasn’t left the house), but because again the jury is out on whether or not this bears any relation to the real world. It’s a romantic notion, very tempting to believe in and no doubt true for some people, but certainly there’s no evidence that it would work applied to artists as a whole.

    One might just as easily claim that financial independence—the room of one’s own—promotes good, considered art by letting the artist concentrate on their work, and we therefore have a duty to keep our artistic class reasonably comfortable so that they have the time to take care over their acts of artistic creativity. While we might not be able to make a watertight case for art’s necessity in general, it’s much easier to argue that, if we must have art, it should be the best art an artist can make. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s protagonist and (arguably) cipher for the author’s opinions discovers that the rejection of paid, regular work in return for a garret and solitude with his own compositions leads not to any kind of epiphany, but rather to misery, writer’s block and ultimately destitution. Orwell was writing from experience, and it’s clear that he felt under many circumstances the man who writes “because he has to” simply does not have the mental strength to do so. Copyright might be argued as being one way of achieving the aim of an artist who, in the short term, can concentrate on his art.

  22. I share your scepticism as to whether anyone actually clicks on the damn ads

    Google will declare revenues of around $10 billion next year, around 96% of which will come from their text ads. Since those ads are paid on a performance basis, I think we can say with some considerable certainty that people are clicking on them.

    If you didn’t see, I got and read your comic too and still think “we are the genes” (or Words from the Code as I originally came across it in your LJ) possibly the best thing I’ve ever read.

  23. It’s not necessarily academe, though.

    Imagine that you write a novel. It sells enough to stay in print, but it’s not going to keep you out of the workhouse. So, you write another, and another, and a trilogy and a series. You’ve got ten of these books, tenaciously hanging in there in print, none of which pay your rent on their own, but once book #10 sees print, you’re beginning to see how you could start to pay a mortgage and eat in the same month.

    And then all the happy left-wing denizens of the internets pile in, and expire your rights to book #1-#7, start printing copies of your work off in cool little CafePress style websites, and wonder why you’re taking so long over Book #11, little knowing that you’re dead in your garret in Slough, having lost the fight with your cat over the last can of Whiskas, due to your advanced malnutrition.

    We need to find a way to actually pay our novelists for their contribution to our culture. Hence my dream of a vast digital public library, which pays an author a proper royalty every time someone downloads it, the whole thing paid for like the BBC.

  24. I can see how they’d get away with that in the Ukraine (“here’s a bottle of vodka Mr Regulator, now look the other way or we’ll boil your kids”) but in a properly-regulated environment? I’m surprised if that’s possible.

  25. I think the number of academics who publish with the expectation of making enough money to cover their time must be exceptionally small and those that are probably in the most part deluded. A few textbooks might, but I suspect that’s about it. Also almost all academic works are written on publicly funded time.

    I’d worry about losing the editting and to a lesser extent the selection process which is something that wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t paid for, but I think worrying about academic authors’ royalties is a bit over-the-top when they’re so meagre already. You can’t exactly have anywhere near a career just writing academic books without being subsidised massively (I expect there are exceptions you can come up with, but they must be few and far between).

    (By the way hat, have you read this?

  26. I think we can say with some considerable certainty that people are clicking on them

    Fair enough. But the people I knew in my early days on the net have left me with an unconscious (till now) assumption that ads are a blight on the internet, and we should avoid them or ignore them as far as possible, and clicking on them Just Encourages Them; and by extension, that other people feel like that too. This is no longer a true or useful thing to think (though clicking on Google ads is one thing, but does anyone actually click on wriggling, flashing “click here to win!” pop-ups?), but still it lingers.

    And thank you for the compliment. 🙂

  27. if we must have art, it should be the best art an artist can make

    I’ve no beef with that! Though the factors that permit it are presumably different in every case.

    I’m not advocating starvation in a garret, that’s for sure. Copyright only provides fully supportive financial benefit if you’re an egregious success. Looks like, as ever, we’re stuck in the middle – which is of course why you’re a coder and I’m a hack!

  28. And then all the happy left-wing denizens of the internets pile in, and expire your rights to book #1-#7, start printing copies of your work off in cool little CafePress style websites

    But there’s nothing to stop you doing that, and the loyal audience would presumably prefer to buy from you and help you get #11 done. Cory Doctorow gives his novels away for free, for heaven’s sake – but he still sells them too. (Admittedly he’s one of the lucky ones.)

    dream of a vast digital public library

    Well, I do share that dream – it would be great. And sounds rather like the image library IStockPhoto. I suppose Public Lending Rights sound rather similar, except (a) it’s a pittance (b) nobody uses libraries any more.

  29. Ta for the link – looks very interesting. Off to pore over it shortly!

  30. Ah, I should have read this before commenting on your words above – we’re converging here! Anyway, yes, totally agree (I also use the torrent site you mention). Micropayments – though Clay Shirky may hate them – are a good idea, and really are working in some cases at least.

  31. Most people are I think more interested in having their creative stuff, software or whatever appreciated or used than maximising the amount of money they can make. Most people however also want enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life and therefore have to obtain this money in some way.

    A minority of people are sufficiently talented that it is in the public interest in some way for them to devote at least a reasonable portion of their time to their creative endeavours. There needs to be some mechanism for them to do that while having that reasonable amount of money, otherwise they won’t. People will disagree on who falls into that category and to what extent, and it’s often pretty much impossible to predict in advance who the really talented people are before they’ve spent a significant amount of time on something. People also aren’t rational when it comes to paying for creative things, especially things that can be duplicated at almost no cost, which doesn’t help matters.

    The mechanisms we have for enabling this partially work but aren’t ideal in lots of ways, but I’m not sure I can come up with significantly better ones.

  32. I think that we belong to the same torrent site and I particularly like its attitude to copyright.

  33. I’d make a distinction between products and services – I tend to happier to spend money on the former than the latter so I’ll buy a book but recoil from paying the same amount to get a 6-page copy of an entry in the Domesday Book. Of course, with Domesday, I’m not paying for the information (which is long out of copyright, if it ever was in) but the representation (which is a copyright image) offered via a service. Of course, the only way to get access to a lot of non-proprietary information is through services so although the data is theoretically in the public domain, it is only available through a market mechanism. I would rather that there was a basic way to get access to any non-proprietary information that was free and services you could pay for that made it much easier and gave you so much added functionality instead of the current draconian coupling.

  34. And this is the publicly-funded National Archives you’re referring to, of course. I suppose it’s not worth some else’s time to put the whole of Domesday online for free – then again, ‘crowdsourced’ projects such as FreeBMD manage to get lots done.

    Two of Helen’s colleagues are deeply involved with open source mapping projects – they’ve involved with the recently launched NPEMap project, for example – where people click on where they live on out-of-copyright 1950s maps, and submit their postcodes so a database of these codes, liberated from the Post Office’s stranglehold, can be built up. It would be feasible to do the same for Domesday with people who already have copies of the county book editions. But… maybe there’s not enough demand.

  35. Couldn’t you say that the reason so much content on the internet is ad-supported is because clickthrough payment is in effect one of the few systems of micropayments that work.

    P.S. Your sighing at the state of Reverb sounds very much how I felt after a year or so of running a record label. Musicians expect too much in the same way as authors do.

  36. clickthrough payment is in effect one of the few systems of micropayments that work
    Of course, yes, and I’m not spurning the few farthings I’ve made from it myself. I do wonder if it’s not going to implode at some point, though.

    Musicians expect too much in the same way as authors do.
    They do, and I suppose in fairness small publishers and record labels do too!

  37. The problem with things like the publicly-funded National Archives is that they get grants from the publicly-funded Heritage Committee for projects to make national records accessible to the public and then get a private subcontractor to do the work and give them a license to charge for access so that they can turn a profit.

  38. (Reading both your replys and replying to both.)

    As they currently exist, I really hate micropayments – they’re fiddly, all over the place and require too much commitment on the part of the user. I want to pay an author 25p every time I read a new book, but I don’t want to go to the bother of setting that up for every little author. I’ve read both of Cory Doctorow’s books, and have no particular interest in owning a paper copy. I’d happily pay him his share, but I really really don’t want to subsidise an organisation that cuts down trees, pulps them, prints on them, then distributes the result to my local Borders, because I really have no interest in that happening.

    If Cory Doctorow makes 25p on each sold book, that’s the cost of the data. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay 50 times for that for the bulky paper wrapper. I’m very much becoming of the mind that books, cds, dvds and what have you are akin to the over-elaborate packaging that people are up in arms about in the supermarkets. They’re just physical tokens that imply my right to access the data, and as such they cost too much for the job they do, and take up too much space.

    If I could, I’d have an organisation that I either subscribe to or better yet have my government fund, who hunts down and pays those people for me every time I download something new from them. As such the only thing wrong with Public Lending Rights here is that the numbers don’t stack up to conventional publishing, and I wonder if that was always the case, or whether the payments have just failed to keep up with inflation due to poor funding.

    When Shirky says “The only business model that delivers money from sender to receiver with no mental transaction costs is theft” he is of course entirely incorrect. Taxation is another one. Subscription to vital resources is another. No-one really considers where the tax they pay goes, they just take all the great free public services. Nor does anyone, as they pay their utility bills, reflect on all the great times they’ve had with electricity or water over the last quarter. Once they get direct debits sorted out, I doubt most people consider electricity at all. It’s just something that happens like air and gravity. My dream/proposal is that info/data/content becomes like that. Turn the tap, novels, music, films all come out. You don’t ask why because that’s just the way it is, any more than you marvel at the wonders of concrete paving and not getting your shoes muddy as you walk down the street.

  39. akin to the over-elaborate packaging
    Interesting concept! (Though if you go along with Greg London (a mate of Doctorow who has written a worthy but clunky book advocating copyright reform), even having it in digital form is still packaging of something fundamentally abstract.)

    We need some sort of wrapping, though. Sony Readers or something?

    only thing wrong with Public Lending Rights here is that the numbers don’t stack up…
    I might look into this, as it’s an interesting question.

    Vive la révolution, I guess.

  40. Commercial eBooks look like an expensive failure to me, but that’s basically a DRM issue. Stupid device-locked files that cost more than the print version aren’t ever going to take off.

    The product is the data. To be truly appealing, ebooks need to be in a portable format like HTML, or for greater versatility and genericness I suppose, XML, easily converted to whatever device you want to view it on, be it a book reader, pda, nanotechologically active piece of paper or dotmatrix display made out of the lights on the side of a skyscraper. This obviously makes the copyright people itch, but it’s barely a worse situation than print, which is easily scanned.

    I have seen the Sony reader, and while I love the look of the screen, I can’t help but view it as a PDA whose screen refresh is so slow that it’s no use for anything else. As a prototype or proof of concept, it’s lovely. As a device you might use, I can’t see it. What it will do, though, is usher in a next generation of PDAs once the next generation of eInk screens arrive, with colour support and a decent refresh rate. Those will be credible devices for reading books, papers, webpages etc.

  41. When you look at some of the orphaned stuff that they’ve saved for posterity, it’s hard to see an argument for automatically extending copyright.

  42. Everyone expects a bit too much, hence inflation; everyone gets a bit too little, hence frustration.

  43. I have a startlingly brilliant, simple and profound solution to all these problems. I’ll tell you what it is if you sign this EULA and pay a reader’s fee of $100000.


  44. No, go on, it’s a wonderful read. Pynchonesque, some might say. Ciceronian, others. And only $100,000—how easily could you spare it?

  45. Can you afford not to read my solution? Practical as well as poetic! It will change your life forever? Only $100,000 (and your signature to a EULA).

  46. This website advertising isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?

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