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Ebooks, Copyright, Piracy

Okay, world, what do we do about copyright? What, if anything, do we do about those big bad companies that sue Internet Robin Hoods and cute college students for giving somebody else’s stuff away? Hooray, we say, screw copyright, stick it to the man. But then since when are writers, musicians, or artists “the man”?

David Pogue asked Do Electronic Versions Deter Piracy in yesterday’s New York Times. That followed his Can e-Publishing Overcome Copyright Concerns from late May. The first post tells a sad story: Twice he sent unprotected ebook files to people who said they were blind. Both times those books ended up widely pirated soon after. The second post is about the comments, comments in all directions, from do the Kindle to right on to oh come on to oh shut up (or so it seemed, as I read through them).

This is the same David Pogue, NYTimes tech columnist, who did the great “I Want an iPhone” video (iPhone: the Musical), setting the standard for Internet tech write-reviewer-commentator parody. Or, even more to the point, the equally great TED Music Wars video. (I’ve put both of those at the bottom of this post, for entertainment value, and I hope with proper respect to copyright; I’m using the YouTube versions, posted by copyright owners, with embed code, and, I believe, permission to embed.)

In yesterday’s post he links to Must We Give away Digital Creative Works?, by John Cadell. He calls it “Well argued,” and I agree.

There are some truly troubling sides to this many-sided argument. Serious people who say copyright is dead and authors should write for free; or that authors should give away their books and make money selling other stuff (t-shirts? speakers’ fees?); or that books are too expensive, or too exclusive.

In the earlier post he quotes the following “Slashdot” argument from author Steven Poole, in Free Your Mind:

I’ll call it, for short, “the Slashdot argument”. It says that books, music, films, software and so on ought to be freely distributed to anyone who wants them, simply because they can be freely distributed. What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can’t earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you’re one of those musicians who plays live),or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of “value-added” service. Many such arguments seem to me to be simple greed disguised in high-falutin’ idealism about how “information wants to be free”. Perhaps it’s not empty pedantry to point out that “information” doesn’t want anything in and for itself. The information in which humans traffic is created by humans. And most information-creating humans need to earn dollars or yuan to survive.

In any case, I think the Slashdot argument can actually be disposed of rapidly with one rhetorical question, as follows.

Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?

Didn’t think so.

I have to say, I’m biased. I’m one of those authors … you know, the people whose work gets stolen? David Poole’s entry into this issue was his experiment with giving away one of his books and asking for PayPal donations. Unfortunately no, not successful. Far from it.

And I’ve also experimented, put some skin in this game, meaning, in this case, I’ve purposely given some of my stuff away. Not just this blog, and the other blogs I do, and a few hundred articles on I’ve been giving one of my books away for a year or so now. You can download the PDF of Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning at And at the present I’m giving away my newest, The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan, at Results are mixed, and, for that matter, motives aren’t all that altruistic either, because people who like the books can buy Business Plan Pro, and I get a royalty on the software. That’s another related story, because although Palo Alto Software donates lots of copies to worthy causes like Small Business Development Centers, the software sells for about $99, and through the serial number system we’ve seen more than 100,000 attempts (and nobody knows how many successes) at hacked or pirated copies.

My kids thought I was completely obsolete, about 10 years ago, when I insisted that there’d be no Napster in our house. Remember Napster? I was delighted when iTunes and the subscription version of Napster came along so that I could give them a better answer than “because it’s stealing.” (that is, “Okay, I’ll pay for it then.”)

And then there’s this viewpoint, from a comment on Steven Poole’s post:

What I don’t get is that why creative professionals, artist, writers, record companies, publishing, newspapers etc are yelling that everyone else, the consumers, should come up with some new shiny business model that would rescue them. It’s your goddam business, it’s your job to figure that out. If my business was about to die, I wouldn’t count on some weed smoking artist’s help. You cannot blame it on technology or your customers. I don’t even believe that someone can come up with some kind of scheme in a economic vacuum. You have to think and try things out.

Things that can be copied, will be copied, and their value will come near to zero. Fortunately there is lots of things and attributes that cannot be copied. Check Kevin Kelly’s writings.

I have no way to conclude this piece, on this troubling copyright problem. I’d like some snappy irony. Actually, that Napster thing was supposed to be snappy irony, but I don’t think it worked. So instead, I’m embedding the two David Pogue videos I mentioned above. If for some reason (it’s not me) you can’t see the following two videos, the links are in the third paragraph, you can click to see the source videos.


  • John Hearn says:

    Poole's construction of "the slashdot argument" is a rather poor straw man. I don't know who will ever read this comment, but as a frequent slashdot reader, I'll try to do the argument a little more justice.

    The slogan, "information wants to be free", is not a claim that no one should ever have to pay money to acquire information, but that no one should ever have to pay for that information twice. (Free as in speech, not free as in beer, as the slashdotters would say.) If I pay money to download a book to my computer, I should not have to pay again to download it to my Kindle, my iPhone, my printer, or some device I buy in the future after current data formats are obsolete.

    (Insert tirade against DRM here.)

    The news media saw the writing on the wall and figured out how to monetize their content with ad revenue. Trent Reznor and Radiohead have discovered they can make pretty good money selling free (as in speech) music on their websites once they removed the music labels from the picture. Others can moan and groan and sue all they want, but they're only prolonging the inevitable.

    As for Poole's rhetorical question, programmers write code for a living because there is someone willing to pay them to write it. In some cases, those paying the programmers are giving the code away for free (e.g. MySQL) and monetizing support services. And in some cases, the programmers leave the jobs where they are paid to write code and go home to write open source software that is free as in speech and as in beer.

    Copyright law was created as a protection that no one will make money off my work without my permission. It is not a guarantee that I can continue to make money off my work indefinitely. It may have functioned that way for a while, but it is not there to defend obsolete business models.

    But as the commenter you quoted suggests, legal and ethical arguments don't matter much. I want free information. I am the almighty consumer. Eventually, I get what I want.

  • John Caddell says:

    Tim, it is a gnarly problem. But people who say "artists, find your own business model" are ignoring that there are business models out there to acquire music–as you mention, iTunes, subscription services and others.

    The issue is that the legitimate business models are not exclusive–there's also the other business model: give it to me for nothing. That is the market-leading business model today in music.

    Coercive approaches such as DRM and suing college students have failed. Legislating it is not going to work.

    The answer is a change in norms and culture, not new laws. Right now there is a belief among a large number of people that creative content should be acquired for free. Given that technology supports that approach, unless the belief changes, the status quo won't change.

    My friend Dave Hale was a big record collector in college. Unlike the rest of us, he refused to allow friends to tape his albums. He didn't think it was fair to the artist.

    I thought this was a funny approach for a while; then I grew to respect his viewpoint. I do so even more now.

    Unless more and more people start thinking like Dave Hale, the give-it-away culture will not change.

    regards, John

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