Aburt on Copyright
Aburt on Copyright
There have been a lot of questions and misperceptions about my stance
on copyrights, online copyright infringement (aka "electronic piracy"),
so here are my thoughts in one place, to dispel myths, and answers to
By way of preface I'll also say that I read the vast majority of SF
novels digitally, on my blackberry, so I'm keenly aware of the issues
facing both digital readers and authors.
- Authors' Rights.
I firmly believe each author has the right to decide who will publish
their work during a reasonable time after first publication. I believe
the author has the right to bar others from publishing their work without
authorization, beyond the legally established limits of Fair Use. This is
on a per-author basis -- each authors' wishes should be respected,
whether those are broad or narrow (and whether anyone else likes their
views or not).
- The Future of ebooks.
I think it's very likely people will read most fiction in digital format
within the next couple decades. It isn't true today; as I write this
in 2007 ebook sales are microscopic compared to print sales, far less
than 1% (perhaps 1% of 1%).
[Update Nov. 2010: ebook sales are now 9% of revenues, and climbing.
Projections show ebook sales possibly overtaking print sales in the near future.]
Yet that was true of music when the CD
came out; people at first said how LPs had more natural sound. Digital
won the battle; now music is almost entirely digital. VHS was king
for many years, despite LaserDisc technology. But suddenly the DVD
came out in late 1997 and within three years had overtaken VHS sales.
Ebook readers of 2007 are sort of clunky and not a good replacement
for paper, but some device will appear that causes a sea change. It will
probably occur quickly, like DVDs replaced VHS. (I don't know what
device or technology will do the trick; DVDs are very similar to
LaserDiscs in many ways, but it was obviously something about
them that caused a massive migration.)
It may be that the "codex" format (many pages bound at the spine) is
important. Maybe not. I read 90%+ of fiction on my blackberry. I
now greatly prefer it to paper (easier to hold, it's with me wherever
I go, can read in the dark, etc.). I'd love an ebook reader with like
300 sheets of digital paper bound at the spine,
each page acting like a web browser, wireless net connection, allows
annotations, etc. Everything a "real" book is with pages you can flip,
and everything a computing devices offers. And cheap. But what features
are important are different for everyone, and that's not the point anyway.
The point is that the changeover to digital reading is very likely between
now and, say, 2025. And that brings with it a lot of copyright issues,
since at that point a file-shared text file of a book becomes nearly
identical to the real product. (Just as a file-shared MP3 of a song
today is functionally equivalent to the real product.)
People may be honest in the large -- anecdotes suggest 75-85% of people
would pay a reasonable price for something even it they could have
it free. Nonetheless, some authors are concerned about the impacts of
"piracy" on their work under such a mostly-digital-reading scenario,
and they have every right to be concerned about it. I'd ask that
people refrain from saying "aw, don't worry about it" and instead
accord them the respect everyone deserves to hold their own opinions.
- Duration of Copyright.
I personally think the current length (author lifetime + 70 years for
people) is too long. I would favor 50 years from date of
publication followed 50 years during which publication would be granted
by law if the publisher paid the author a specified royalty rate, that
slides down to $0 after this second 50 years, at which time the work
would be in the public domain. But this is unlikely, given the laws
and international treaties.
- Harms from Piracy.
I agree that today online piracy is unlikely to be costing authors
any significant amount of money. However, (1) that may change in the
future, if/when a large percent of people read digitally
[UPDATE: People now do read a lot digitally, and from my own experiments
I conclude piracy has very little impact on revenues. Those who read
pirate copies appear to be ones who would not have paid for the copy.];
and (2) that
doesn't alter the fact that some authors have reasons other than money
for wishing to bar illegal publication; whatever the reason might be,
that's their right. (Saying "but it's good for them!" doesn't alter
either of these points. It may be "good for you" for someone to break
into your house in the middle of the night and give you a heart transplant
without your permission, but that doesn't mean they should, or that it's
legal.) — So, overall, some authors may understandably feel it's a
problem, but it's possibly beneficial and mostly harmless.
- Creative Commons.
Love it. I think it's fabulous that authors are using this to release
their works. There's no termination date on a CC license, so those are
free forever, even if we do move to reading mostly digitally, so those
authors won't be as likely to earn royalties on those titles in that event;
but that's their choice.
Noting that the reason authors today are distributing free versions is to
increase the sales of their print versions, I favor an additional form of
CC license that has an expiration date on it that the author sets.
It would not be DRM, but on the honor system: simply a CC-like license
that says it expires on (whatever date) and after that date asks people
not to share it for free any more. I put up a sample of how this might work at
The idea is that if times change, and people do start reading digitally
a lot, and the fact that the freebie is equivalent to the now-valuable
digital "real product" and thus really does start cutting into the earnings an
author makes from that book (opposite the intended effect), the author
can control the legitimate flow of the free version ("turn it off" after
a certain date). The free versions would remain readable (no DRM!) but
the honor system would be in play for readers to cease distributing it
for free. Authors could, for example, set the date a year or five years
ahead, and keep updating it as they see it's beneficial to them.
This level of control may make authors more willing to try free distribution
- DRM (aka "copy protection").
Hate it. It punishes the legitimate user (such as forcing them to
repurchase their work if they change reading devices, or locks them into
a specific reading software they may not like, or it may make their
purchases become invalid suddenly in the future). Yuck. It doesn't
stop "pirate" versions anyway, it's annoying to paying customers,
so it's foolish.
- Libraries -- they're free, so what's the big deal? I love libraries.
The thing is, they're not the same thing as owning a copy. (Not to
mention the library, or somebody, bought the copy so the author got paid.)
More to the point, libraries are only free in a limited sense. People
pay taxes, the book may be checked out so you can't have it, to get
they physical copy you have to
move your body from your home to the library (and back again to return it)--
which costs most people time and the cost of gasoline + wear and
tear on their car (or bus fare, etc.). A library copy isn't sitting
on your shelf any time you want it. If libraries were truly free, and
offered all the same elements as owning a book, then it's unlikely
free libraries would have come into existence. But they're not the
same, they do have "costs" (time, energy, money) associated with them,
and their copies are legitimate ones for which the author was properly paid.
Gigantic difference between that and online "piracy" sharing.
I love Baen's system. They've found a very clever way to make money
from free copies. Eric Flint's system is great, and it makes economic
sense today, in 2007, in a world where print copies are what make the money.
(Their setup would need to adapt when digital reading becomes more common,
since their current approach seems to be to use digital copies to drive
sales of print.
Baen is in this to make a buck for themselves and their authors. I'm
sure they'll adapt just fine, though.) Other publishers should learn
- Ebooks are often hard to find and costly.
I entirely agree. I find it hard to locate ebook editions I can use.
I did a quick survey showing this is true.
Sometimes there is none, sometimes it's there but hard to locate, and
often the price is higher than I think reasonable. (A common meme is
that ebooks should cost roughly half as much as a "mass market" paperback,
so like $3-4. The ebook has no shipping costs, printing costs, "returns"
(whereby half of many books are never sold, but cost money to print/ship/etc.
that must be recouped), and so on. But there are fixed costs, like paying
the authors, the editors, the artists, the publisher, marketing, and so on.)
It's my fervent wish that every book ever published would be available
in reasonably priced (non-DRM'd) ebook form. We're a long way from that.
Anything I can (legally!) do to push publishers toward that goal, I want
to do it.
- Scribd, Doctorow, Le Guin, Stross, what's that all about?
That's addressed in detail
Ebook (un)availability, a case study