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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 some FAQs.

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 idea.

  • 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.

  • Baen. 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 from this.

  • 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 here, here and here.

Ebook (un)availability, a case study