“The Copyright Thing” (Cory Doctorow)

The following is reproduced, with permission, from Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother — a book I bought on paper, lost, then downloaded from its site, DRM-free. If you’re interested in intellectual property, copyright, and/or the future of publishing, it’s worth a read.

While reading it this afternoon I found myself highlighting so many sections for future blog-fodder, that I thought I’d just ask to copy the whole thing1. The book’s CC license the allows for derivative works, but was thrilled when Cory replied with his blessing all the same.

“The Copyright Thing,” from the Introduction to Little Brother

The Creative Commons license at the top of this file probably tipped you off to the fact that I’ve got some pretty unorthodox views about copyright. Here’s what I think of it, in a nutshell: a little goes a long way, and more than that is too much.

I like the fact that copyright lets me sell rights to my publishers and film studios and so on. It’s nice that they can’t just take my stuff without permission and get rich on it without cutting me in for a piece of the action. I’m in a pretty good position when it comes to negotiating with these companies: I’ve got a great agent and a decade’s experience with copyright law and licensing (including a stint as a delegate at WIPO, the UN agency that makes the world’s copyright treaties). What’s more, there’s just not that many of these negotiations — even if I sell fifty or a hundred different editions of Little Brother (which would put it in top millionth of a percentile for fiction), that’s still only a hundred negotiations, which I could just about manage.

hate the fact that fans who want to do what readers have always done are expected to play in the same system as all these hotshot agents and lawyers. It’s just stupid to say that an elementary school classroom should have to talk to a lawyer at a giant global publisher before they put on a play based on one of my books. It’s ridiculous to say that people who want to “loan” their electronic copy of my book to a friend need to get a license to do so. Loaning books has been around longer than any publisher on Earth, and it’s a fine thing.

I recently saw Neil Gaiman give a talk at which someone asked him how he felt about piracy of his books. He said, “Hands up in the audience if you discovered your favorite writer for free — because someone loaned you a copy, or because someone gave it to you? Now, hands up if you found your favorite writer by walking into a store and plunking down cash.” Overwhelmingly, the audience said that they’d discovered their favorite writers for free, on a loan or as a gift. When it comes to my favorite writers, there’s no boundaries: I’ll buy every book they publish, just to own it (sometimes I buy two or three, to give away to friends who must read those books). I pay to see them live. I buy t-shirts with their book-covers on them. I’m a customer for life.

Neil went on to say that he was part of the tribe of readers, the tiny minority of people in the world who read for pleasure, buying books because they love them. One thing he knows about everyone who downloads his books on the Internet without permission is that they’re readers, they’re people who love books.

People who study the habits of music-buyers have discovered something curious: the biggest pirates are also the biggest spenders. If you pirate music all night long, chances are you’re one of the few people left who also goes to the record store (remember those?) during the day. You probably go to concerts on the weekend, and you probably check music out of the library too. If you’re a member of the red-hot music-fan tribe, you do lots of everything that has to do with music, from singing in the shower to paying for black-market vinyl bootlegs of rare Eastern European covers of your favorite death-metal band.

Same with books. I’ve worked in new bookstores, used bookstores and libraries. I’ve hung out in pirate ebook (“bookwarez”) places online. I’m a stone used bookstore junkie, and I go to book fairs for fun. And you know what? It’s the same people at all those places: book fans who do lots of everything that has to do with books. I buy weird, fugly pirate editions of my favorite books in China because they’re weird and fugly and look great next to the eight or nine other editions that I paid full-freight for of the same books. I check books out of the library, google them when I need a quote, carry dozens around on my phone and hundreds on my laptop, and have (at this writing) more than 10,000 of them in storage lockers in London, Los Angeles and Toronto.

If I could loan out my physical books without giving up possession of them, I would. The fact that I can do so with digital files is not a bug, it’s a feature, and a damned fine one. It’s embarrassing to see all these writers and musicians and artists bemoaning the fact that art just got this wicked new feature: the ability to be shared without losing access to it in the first place. It’s like watching restaurant owners crying down their shirts about the new free lunch machine that’s feeding the world’s starving people because it’ll force them to reconsider their business-models. Yes, that’s gonna be tricky, but let’s not lose sight of the main attraction: free lunches!

Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing.

In case that’s not enough for you, here’s my pitch on why giving away ebooks makes sense at this time and place:

Giving away ebooks gives me artistic, moral and commercial satisfaction. The commercial question is the one that comes up most often: how can you give away free ebooks and still make money?

For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy. Mega-hit best-sellers in science fiction sell half a million copies — in a world where 175,000 attend the San Diego Comic Con alone, you’ve got to figure that most of the people who “like science fiction” (and related geeky stuff like comics, games, Linux, and so on) just don’t really buy books. I’m more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who’s in the tent bought a ticket to be there.

Ebooks are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it’s in their nature. And many of those copies have a destination, a person they’re intended for, a hand-wrought transfer from one person to another, embodying a personal recommendation between two people who trust each other enough to share bits. That’s the kind of thing that authors (should) dream of, the proverbial sealing of the deal. By making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them.

What’s more, I don’t see ebooks as substitute for paper books for most people. It’s not that the screens aren’t good enough, either: if you’re anything like me, you already spend every hour you can get in front of the screen, reading text. But the more computer-literate you are, the less likely you are to be reading long-form works on those screens — that’s because computer-literate people do more things with their computers. We run IM and email and we use the browser in a million diverse ways. We have games running in the background, and endless opportunities to tinker with our music libraries. The more you do with your computer, the more likely it is that you’ll be interrupted after five to seven minutes to do something else. That makes the computer extremely poorly suited to reading long-form works off of, unless you have the iron self-discipline of a monk.

The good news (for writers) is that this means that ebooks on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper.

So ebooks sell print books. Every writer I’ve heard of who’s tried giving away ebooks to promote paper books has come back to do it again. That’s the commercial case for doing free ebooks.

Now, onto the artistic case. It’s the twenty-first century. Copying stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today (or if it does, it’ll be because civilization has collapsed, at which point we’ll have other problems). Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century. There’s something charming about making work you don’t want to be copied, in the same way that it’s nice to go to a Pioneer Village and see the olde-timey blacksmith shoeing a horse at his traditional forge. But it’s hardly, you know, contemporary. I’m a science fiction writer. It’s my job to write about the future (on a good day) or at least the present. Art that’s not supposed to be copied is from the past.

Finally, let’s look at the moral case. Copying stuff is natural. It’s how we learn (copying our parents and the people around us). My first story, written when I was six, was an excited re-telling of Star Wars, which I’d just seen in the theater. Now that the Internet — the world’s most efficient copying machine — is pretty much everywhere, our copying instinct is just going to play out more and more. There’s no way I can stop my readers, and if I tried, I’d be a hypocrite: when I was 17, I was making mix-tapes, photocopying stories, and generally copying in every way I could imagine. If the Internet had been around then, I’d have been using it to copy as much as I possibly could.

There’s no way to stop it, and the people who try end up doing more harm than piracy ever did. The record industry’s ridiculous holy war against file-sharers (more than 20,000 music fans sued and counting!) exemplifies the absurdity of trying to get the food-coloring out of the swimming pool. If the choice is between allowing copying or being a frothing bully lashing out at anything he can reach, I choose the former.

This passage is taken from Cory Doctorow‘s book, “Little Brother,” which is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

  1. Some emphasis added.

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