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The Sound Of Inevitability

Walking The Reservoir
I was asked, on the subject of e-books, whether I thought that it would be moral for me to download copies of books I already own. So, about that.

Legally, I shrug and say “dunno”. The law may or may not be There Yet – I’m no expert in that field, but I suspect that Canadian law looks a lot like American law on this subject and is thus clearly and reprehensibly wrongheaded, to give my position away – but I think that morally speaking, “no” is obviously the wrong answer.

I can see the debate on this going back and forth in a lot of different ways; creators should be paid, I already paid for another format, paid for what and so forth, assuming you accept a mess of implicit premises. But whenever the question of whether or not it’s “moral” to do these things comes up, I always wonder what sort of arguments went back and forth in the dark ages about the clothyard arrow. Only a knight in armor should be able to do battle with another, right? Noblemen fight nobly with other noblemen and peasants are chattel, to be seized and abused from inside our impermeable iron shells. That’s the way it’s always been! But suddenly along comes some guy who’s figured out the longbow, and he had the temerity and poor upbringing to tell somebody else the trick of it. And now any peasant with a steady hand who can figure out how to steam a good strip of yew can punch a messy little hole right through the young Lord Mucksabout from a hundred yards away and, whoops, the old way of doing business might not work anymore. And then gunpowder comes along and forget it; now the horse and metal shirt are liabilities.

It’s not right or wrong that a clothyard arrow can pierce mail but once it could, those who decided to be belligerent about not changing their strategies were easy pickings for those that did, often without ever touching or even seeing the person who cut them down.

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure, but here it is: anything made of ones and zeros can be copied an infinite number of times and distributed globally for approximately zero cost. That’s not good or bad or right or wrong, it’s an irrevocable fact of globally networked computing, which is in turn a fundamental element of the world we live in. It is a physical law of the 21st century. It’s a new thing, for sure, but whether or not your business models are prepared to deal with it has a lot less to do with morality than it does with selection pressure.

Which is not to say that it’s the end of the world or that suddenly there will be no more art, but you can see a lot of organizations in the middleman business who’ve decided fight this rather than embrace it, if only to put off the inevitable as long as they can. Because it’s going to be the end of their world, that much is certain.

The Gutenberg press didn’t just make text easier to disseminate, it cut out a lot of middlemen that lay people had to work with to access that text. It’s hard to argue that was a bad thing now, but if you were a foresighted employee of the Illumination industry at the time you’d be thinking, well, shit. That’s pretty much the end of that.

You can see some of the gory details of this tide-fighting in this fantastic diagram of obvious technobunkum that somebody has sold the Associated Press, some desperate rear-guard actions by our local telco companies to preserve their profitable little landline fiefdoms, and in AT&T’s leaning on Apple to pull support for all things VOIPy. None of it’s going to work in the longer term though; they’re ultimately fighting a physical reality, not some temporary fad.

Now, I have a fair bit of love for the idea that content creators should be supported, because I like content. Content is awesome, and it would be great if skilled creators could afford food and shelter for their efforts. I even have some love for the idea of copyright, a limited protection of the right to reproduce original works, and even for the idea that by and large the law matters. But if these particular laws hadn’t been very obviously bought by the people who stand the most to gain from their continued enforcement, we’d be having an entirely different discussion. And if the way you get paid cannot stand up to the fact that your work is trivially, infinitely copyable and dispersable, the way you get paid is not going to keep working for long.

The organizations lobbying for the status quo ante aren’t by and large creators and with few exceptions aren’t interested in the sanctity of their creative properties beyond monetization. And through their efforts copyright, an explicitly fabricated “right” if ever their was one, has effectively been extended to infinity, and virtually all modern culture is now private property.

As an aside, if you’re ever wondering why anything having to do with “Canadian Culture” is so goddamn boring, I tell you, this is why. What new cultural artefact are you simply entitled to, entitled to obtain and consume and recirculate because it belongs to the Canadian people? Answer: effectively none, and certainly nothing timely. Under the current laws, noted First World War poem In Flanders Fields wouldn’t have been in the public domain until 1969, and then only because John McCrae didn’t actually survive the war. William Ogilvie’s “Canadians”, also of WW1 vintage, will be coming up in 2013. And in the meantime, you want it, even though it’s almost a century old, pay up. And you probably won’t be paying a Canadian company, I’ll bet.

I picked up the tab at the first ever Robert Service Supper, a Burns Supper-esque celebration of Service’s work held the first year that his work entered the Canadian public domain, just to be able to say that I did. He died in 1958; that inaugural dinner was January 16th of this year.

But even with the law of copyright extended infinitely in all directions, the facts on the ground are that people are creating more music, more text, more culture than ever before, and often they’re doing it by stitching little scraps of the existing cultural fabric together in novel, fascinating ways. To do that, of course, they need to somehow obtain that whole original cloth, so we’re all fortunate that violating perniciously broad copyright laws is not only trivial but getting easier every day, that technology is getting cheaper and just generally that the obstacles to creating are being overcome or routed around all the time.

This is going to be a bit of a shock for creators earning their livelihoods the old way, by selling physical units of a thing that contains data, but there’s not much that can be done about that that doesn’t also stomp on the rights, freedoms and overall well-being of everyone else on the planet. This has been true for a while now in a bunch of other computery fields, and it’s true now for books: either your customers can trivially make copies of the thing you’ve sold them or being your customer is really fucking annoying.

There’s not a lot of good middle-ground there. And so organizations with the most to gain buy more and more laws to protect their investments, even though everything they’re trying to protect can be copied a million times and shown to a billion people for not much more than free; because if they can’t fix the business models, maybe they can fix the laws! If they’re lucky, they’ll screw fair-use, fair-dealing and the first-sale doctrine while they’re in there.

Trent Reznor gets it:

The point is this: music IS free whether you want to believe that or not. Every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. This is a fact – it sucks as the musician BUT THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (for now). So… have the public get what they want FROM YOU instead of a torrent site and garner good will in the process (plus build your database).

Former NIN drummer Josh Freese also gets it, though somewhat more cartoonishly, and you can see that some forward-thinking people in the music industry are starting to get there, but slowly, so slowly.

Which is understandable, because this is all about cutting out middlemen. It’s hard to know why anyone would need a record label ten years from now. I mean, the name says it all, doesn’t it? You probably won’t need somebody to handle radio-station payola for you by then, because it’s the radio and more profitable to ignore than bribe, and when was the last time you bought a record?

Bruce Schneier laid it out concisely, a little while ago:

Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general-purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright. “How will authors and artists get paid for their work?” they ask me. Truth be told, I don’t know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: “How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?” I’m sorry, but I don’t know that, either.

I am a scientist, and I explain the realities of the science. I apologize if you don’t like the truth, but the truth doesn’t change because people wish it would be something else. I don’t know how authors and artists will make money in a world of easy copyability. I’m an author myself, personally concerned about protecting my own copyright, but I still don’t know. I can tell you what will and won’t work, technically. You can argue about whether my technical analysis is correct, but it just doesn’t make sense to bring social arguments into the technical discussion.

So, yes. I still buy books, but I don’t feel bad about downloading electronic versions of books I’ve already bought in the least. Not even a little. But the fact that it’s trivial for me to do that whether I’ve bought those books or not sure isn’t going anywhere, nor the fact that I can download literally tens of thousands of books with exactly the same amount of effort. So it’s up to authors (and not necessarily the publishing industry) to figure out how they can make a living in a world where that’s a basic fact of life.

8 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. kev

    god. if this is full-on daddy brain, you need to have more babies.

  2. Mike Kozlowski

    Shorter Mike Hoye: “Information wants to be free, dudes!”

    (Honestly, I think that people who went around saying that for years, and then getting mocked for years, must be pretty bitter by now. WE TOLD YOU SO, they must say.)

    Anyway, though, I think you’re still somewhat wrong about the middleman thing. As others have noted, in a world of infinite free content, middlemen who select and filter content are MORE valuable than before, not less. Anyone can put their novel on the internet for free, but I’m not even taking a chance at reading one that wasn’t bought and edited by a real publisher. And not even then if it’s by Cory Doctorow.

  3. mhoye

    I think you’re probably right about that, but I’m certainly not talking about people who are curating a particular perspective on or subset of a larger collection. That’s valuable work, and not in the same class as middlemen who add little or no value while restricting access and/or increasing costs.

  4. Mike Kozlowski

    Well, but for instance, one of the things that Trent Reznor points out is that if you want to be ultra-famous, your only chance is through a major label. Because only a label has the kind of promotional power (as measured in millions of dollars, plus also relationships) to make somebody ultra-famous.

    Marketing is almost more important than ever, in the infinite world.

    (The question of course is if labels will continue to have that money if their marketing efforts don’t get them squat, and to that, I have no idea.)

  5. mhoye

    Shorter Mike Hoye: “Information wants to be free, dudes!”

    Well, sure. But the title of this post doesn’t come directly from Agent Smith’s mouth – it’s from a line in this old bit from Jamie Zawinski.

    “You’ll often hear cypherpunk weenies with poorly-thought-out philosophies trot out “information wants to be free” as some kind of pseudo-socialist Utopian vision, but the point is, information “wants” to be free in the same way nature “abhors” a vacuum: it’s not some moral view, it’s just the natural state of affairs. It’s the path of least resistance.”

    I’m sure that Reznor’s right, that ultrafame is only available through this huge system, but ultrafame is not available to anyone but a select (chosen, groomed, and packaged) few. But if you’re more interested in creative freedom and boring old not-ultra fame, as in “enough fans willing to pay to support your continued efforts”, there’s less and less reason to go the corporate route.

  6. Darcy

    It’s the Robert Service Supper reference that I find the most telling in this post. Copyright is, after all, a very recent reaction to the previous wave of information liberation (tv, movies, radio, printing presses – and specifically the growth of the novel) and the authors’ desire to capitalize on this mass market to generate independent revenue. Before that, they were reliant on patrons as a source of livelihood. It seems to me that if the mass market is no longer a source of revenue generation, then authors are likely once again to have to revert to the patronage system, whether personal or institutional. This will be good for informational freedom, in that patrons generally have an interest in promoting the work of their proteges so as to promote the protege’s reputation and by extension their own prestige, but it may be bad for freedom of expression, in an obvious bootlicking way.
    What is interesting to me is to think about who the patrons are likely to be. Uncle Enzo’s Pizzas, anyone? (Yes, I have recently repurchased Snowcrash.)

  7. Darcy

    Oh yes, my point…. Clearly Mike is an early adopter of the new patronage system, as inaugural sponsor of the Robert Service Supper. And to prove my argument, your sponsorship is far more impressive now that your peers all know about it – provided that they have also memorized the Shooting of Dan McGrew as part of the Grade 6 curriculum.

  8. Mike Richters

    I heard someone’s analysis of the recording industry’s past and future recently on CBC radio, and his rather insightful comments indicated that the outlook for the recording industry is not so gloomy. Certainly the big record labels have feared the disaster (for them) that you’re predicting (more or less), but it’s not clear that the new technology will hurt them more than it will help them. It is certainly a disruptive force, but so was magnetic cassette tapes, which were feared and resisted for essentially the same reason.

    There are lots of us, myself included, who wanted legal access to music (et cetera) in non-physical form for years before Apple finally forced record labels to provide that service. Either because we are lazy, law-abiding, or cautious, iTunes is not failing because there are other sources from which consumers can get the same content without paying up front for it.

    The big media companies have a long and glorious tradition of fearing, rejecting, and battling against new technologies that would ultimately benefit both the consumers and themselves. I’ll admit that it may really be different this time, but I doubt it.