Monday, May 24, 2004

For the terminally short of attention out there, here's my Free Culture audiobook essay in 15 words:
Free culture = more creativity
New publishing models
Download, read, buy = sales up

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Copyright. We all know what that is – it's how creative people protect their work from theft. Copyright is what stops people ripping you off or making money from your hard work. Isn't it?
Most people are very aware of worth these days. eBay gives value to junk that might previously have been given away. Amazon sells second-hand books that might otherwise have been taken to a charity shop. The Antiques Roadshow raises the possibility that the horrendously ugly teapot you inherited from your Aunt Bessie might actually be worth hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.
Worth. Everything has a worth. Things. Words. Music. Everything. And everyone who owns anything worth something is not only entitled to benefit from the full extent of that worth, but should also do their utmost to protect it. Only a fool gives away something for nothing. That's right, isn't it?
Isn't it?
Free as in 'free beer'
Let's say you've written a book. A big book. A book that is worth publishing.
Let's say you've got a publisher for your book. A big publisher. A publisher that people have heard of.
What happens when you convince your publisher to give your book away, for free, to anyone who wants it? This isn't about giving review copies to journalists, this is about converting the book into an electronic format and giving it away to the general public so that they don't have to spend their hard-earned cash on buying a hardcopy for their hardwood bookshelf.
If you believed the RIAA and other proponents of draconian copyright legislation, what happens when there is a choice between a free (legal or otherwise) download and a bought physical product, people will choose the free version over the bought version. Thus, say the RIAA, each time the free version is downloaded a sale is lost and the creators (read: rights holders) lose out financially.
By this logic, giving away your book, even with the consent of your publisher, is a bad idea. Commercial suicide even. It's not something that any sane author should do, surely?
Give it away, give it away, give it away now
On 25 March 2004, Lawrence Lessig's book, Free Culture, was published by Penguin. It was simultaneously released as a free, completely legal PDF file which anyone could download.
Lessig is involved with Creative Commons, an organisation which provides alternatives to the traditional copyright notice, so it was no surprise that he chose a Creative Commons licence for Free Culture. The licence specifies clearly and precisely how the work can be used by those who download it: You can 'copy, distribute, display and perform the work' and 'make derivative works' based upon it, however you must 'give the original author credit' and must not 'use this work for commercial purposes'.
In releasing Free Culture online, Lessig was following the lead of Cory Doctorow whose Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom was released by Tor Books in February 2003, simultaneously in print and online in PDF, ASCII and XHTML formats. And before Doctorow had come Eric Flint at Baen Books, who successfully republished online much of his back catalogue in 2000.
“In Free Culture I describe why it made sense for Cory Doctorow to release his book free online,” Lessig explains. “When my editor read this argument he was convinced, so he asked me if we should try to persuade Penguin to [do the same]. I'd been trying to scheme about how I was going to convince him to try to convince Penguin, but he took it to Penguin on his own and they agreed. I think that it was very good of them to experiment.”
On 26 March, blogging luminary Rev. Dr. AKM Adam, Professor of New Testament at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, (known as AKMA), asked on his blog “Anyone feel like recording a chapter of Lawrence Lessig's new book?”.
AKMA had been interested in Lessig's work for some time prior to the publication of Free Culture.
“I read Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace several years ago,” says AKMA, “when the wild days of Napster were not just a dim memory. I'm both an active writer and an avid reader/viewer/listener, so the questions about which Lessig deliberates affect me in every way. As an author, I support Lessig's case for a Free Culture in which my work can circulate without the impediment of the huge prices that academic presses so commonly charge. I'm more interested in communicating than in limiting access to my work to those with the pockets deep enough to pay for their own copies.”
The response to AKMA's question was immediate and overwhelmingly positive – soon the comments section was filled with bloggers offering to read chapters.
Lessig himself first heard about the audiobook project when a friend forwarded the link to him, and “for half a second, I had to convince myself once again that this was a great idea, because although we expected people to be willing to read a book on a computer, we hadn't really thought about them listening to it on audio. It took half a second and then I thought that this was actually an extremely good way to get the message out – my publisher is eager to sell books, and in some sense I am too, but I am much more eager to get the message out as broadly as I can, so the spread of the audio version was exactly what I was hoping for.”
By 27 March, the first MP3 had been posted.
Put your microphone where your mouth is
My involvement in the project started much like everyone else's did – with a comment left on AKMA's blog early on the morning of the 27th, offering to read a chapter, any chapter. There's every chance that it would have stopped there too, had I not suffered a rare bout of insomnia.
It so happened that the clocks were due to go forward an hour that night and, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I could not sleep. Instead I sat in front of my computer, talking in the #joiito IRC channel to people half a world away. Eventually, 12.59am ticked over to 2.00am.
Soon after that, AKMA came online and I took the opportunity to settle on a chapter with him – Chapter 8: Transformers. I hadn't read the book at that point, but I was interested to see how such a project would come together and I couldn't resist taking a chapter that would allow me to quip that I “had thought it would be about robots in disguise”.
On 28 March, I spent some time fiddling with Audacity, free audio editing software, and recorded and posted my chapter.
Many voices make light work
Several thousand miles away on another continent, Tim Samoff, an artist, film maker and musician, was going through a similar process.
“When AKMA posted his idea about the Lessig audiobook, I immediately thought that it would be fun to take part,” Samoff says.
“I have been an advocate for 'some rights reserved' copyrights for some time,” he continues. “Even before I knew about the Creative Commons, I was adding my own version of the 'some rights reserved' tag line to all of my written and recorded material. When I first learned of the Creative Commons, I was very pleased and I began to use it as my copyright method of choice.
“Lawrence Lessig has always been a sort of unspoken cult hero for people like me. I couldn't pass up a chance to be a part of his cause.”
Another contributor, Kevin Marks of mediAgora, said that he got involved because “It sounded like an interesting project. I had been following Lessig closely, had read his previous two books and am convinced of the importance of derivative works to culture.”
Whilst I was beavering away with Audacity, trying to stop my Ps from popping and my Ss from hissing, over 20 other people were doing exactly the same thing. Conversation on the comments section of AKMA's blog turned to providing advice on how best to make the recordings and which software to use. The project gained momentum rapidly.
“The general interest in taking part impressed me,” says AKMA, “but in the end it didn't surprise me. What I had actually imagined was that it would take the persuasive example of a few very prominent friends to get the ball rolling, and indeed Dave Winer and David Weinberger both contributed chapters early on; but by the time they had hopped aboard, the first wave of contributions had already begun. They helped with the energy and the buzz that spotlighted the project, but most of the chapters came from people I had known only vaguely, or not at all, before the project started.”
Kevin Marks was surprised by how quickly it took off. “Within three days I had the whole book on my iPod as I cycled to work,” he says. “Having worked on producing media projects before, that degree of speed due to volunteers acting in parallel was highly impressive.”
Samoff was similarly enthusiastic: “I was enthralled with it. Every day I checked AKMA's site to see if there were any new chapters recorded. It was great: I loved hearing the various versions that people were contributing.”
And your host for this evening is…
At the same time as chapters were being read and MP3s encoded, the issue of hosting came up. Most people could contribute a reading, but didn't have the resources to permanently host the file. A few people stepped up to the plate and offered to mirror the project, including Scott Matthews, the driving force behind Andromeda, software for playing music over the Web.
“I've been fairly involved in the copyright debates,” says Matthews, “and this just seemed like fun. It's cool when people put effort into something they care about and it seemed obvious to me that Andromeda could help to make the most of all that work.”
Within three days, Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture had been read, recorded, hosted, mirrored and bittorrented by a group of people who, on the whole, didn't know each other, had never worked together before and who were really no more than enthusiastic volunteers.
It was an astounding process to be involved in.
Have your own wicked way
Whilst the audiobook project developed, others were having their own way with the Free Culture PDF. As Lessig says on his blog “36 hours after the book was released, I know of nine versions available, including: MS-reader, Rocket e-Book, zipped, iSilo, Mobipocket, EasyRead, PostScript, Plain Text, and HTML.”
To come were translations, more reformatting, bumper stickers, art: a whole variety of 'derivative works'. All done for nothing, for no commercial gain.
Despite releasing Free Culture under a Creative Commons licence precisely so people could pick up the ball and run with it, Lessig had not foreseen participation on the scale that actually occurred.
“I did think people might change format,” he says, “but I never dreamed that they would create a wiki or an audio version of the book, or launch translation projects like the Polish and Chinese people have. That was extraordinarily surprising.”
And the best thing about this flurry of activity? All of it was legal. Had you done the same with almost any other book on the market, you would have been breaking the law. In some cases, the publishers would have come down on you like a ton of bricks. But Lessig and Penguin have done something almost unheard of – allowed the public fiddle with a newly released and commercially valuable book in almost any way they wanted.
So, do the releases of Doctorow's and Lessig's books simultaneously in print and electronically form the beginnings of a new trend in publishing, or are they a blip?
“I know some publishers are doing it,” says Lessig, “and I hope that more do too. It will depend on what the numbers look like – publishers are rational business people and they'll do what makes sense to them, and if we're right about the way the market works then they'll do it. Economists, of course, will tell you that this is the efficient way to sell, to make the content available, because where a marginal cost is zero the price is zero, where the marginal cost is positive you should charge a positive price.”
In other words, the costs associated with giving away a PDF are negligible, so it makes sense to give it away for free. There are significant costs to producing a physical product such as a book, so it makes sense to charge for it.
Yet when Cory talks about reinventing publishing on his blog, he might not be far from the truth. What these simultaneous releases do is alter the traditional content production model by providing alternative routes for dissemination.

Add in projects such as AKMA's audiobook, and you change the model further.

In these new models, the new collaborators can also be the distributors and the consumer. Sometimes there is no need for a facilitator and the writer can communicate directly with the collaborators. But most importantly, these models provide flexibility in terms of how the reader accesses the product.
“It's analogous to bookstores,” says Lessig. “You go into a bookstore and you are allowed to browse through the books. Some bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, sell you coffee so you can sit there and read the book whilst you're browsing. This is because consumers demand this kind of access before they make a decision to buy the book, and I think that as consumers demand the same sort of thing with buying books online the market will react to it.”
In addition to providing access to the product, these models facilitate the building of a creative community around a publication which helps to promote it via word of mouth. The key to making these communities – be they 'flash' communities that come together for a given project and then disband, or more permanent – succeed is to utilise an enabling licence such as those provided by Creative Commons.
Contrary to what the RIAA would have you believe, most people do not want to break copyright law – they would prefer not to become a criminal just for doing what they do. 'Some rights reserved' licences that include provision for the creation of non-commercial derivative works do more than decriminalise those who would riff on existing works. By stating that non-commercial derivative works are allowed, they effectively give people the blessing of the writer and publisher, which acts as an active encouragement to creators who otherwise would have assumed that doing anything with the original would be more hassle that it is worth.
Money for nothing
It is too early to tell whether the release of the Free Culture PDF and the works it engendered have affected sales of the book itself, but early signs are reassuring.
“Penguin have indicated to me that it's done very well for the book,” says Lessig. “As an author you don't get to see sales figures for six months, so I have no good way to know what the ultimate result will be, but Penguin seem very happy. From my perspective that's the thing to worry about, whether the publisher is happy, because if they are happy then that means they're more likely to do it again in the future.”
It was also hard for Cory Doctorow to know precisely how the free electronic versions affected sales of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom because, as he says, there's “no other first novel to compare sales with”. But what is clear is that the first print run sold out 'very quickly', and 'hundreds of thousands' of copies of the electronic version were downloaded, introducing Doctorow's work to a significantly larger audience that might otherwise have come to read his work in the printed form. Certainly the strategy didn't damage Doctorow or Tor Books, as they followed exactly the same pattern with his second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe.
So, will Lessig's next book be released electronically as well?
“I hope so,” he says. “I haven't really planned what the next book is, but I think it makes sense, independent of the message of the book, just because it helps spread that book's content as broadly as possible while supporting or driving underlying sales of physical objects.”
But sales aren't the be all and end all of this tactic. Lessig makes the point in Free Culture that easing up on copyright control would result in more creativity. AKMA's audiobook project proved this point clearly and emphatically. Given the legal right to do so, people will build upon a work in unforeseen creative ways. More concisely than any argument within the pages of Free Culture, the audiobook illustrates exactly how much our society loves to create and how impoverished we are when copyright stops this productivity.
As AKMA says, “It confirms what Prof. Lessig argues: that there's great positive potential for a culture in which works flourish apart from the throttling constriction of corporate eternal, universal copyright control.”
It's not as simple as something for nothing
In an ideal world, this simultaneous publishing would be the norm. This freedom to build on another's work and feed new versions, new formats, into the public 'commons' would be the norm. The concomitant spread of ideas and knowledge to anyone who is interested would be the norm. And the non-criminalisation of those who would try before they buy, that would be the norm too.
It seems clear that digitalisation of content isn't the end of publishing, but some publishers will resist. There are always some people who are slow on the uptake and can't see the potential benefits.
“I think either they don't grasp it,” Lessig says, “or they're just being very conservative. So far there's been over 200,000 copies of my book downloaded off the internet. According to the way the RIAA thinks about copyright, that means that $5million has been lost, and it only takes a little bit of thinking to recognise that of course that's not true. I understand how businesses and people in business are still a little bit afraid of it, because it's very hard to prove one way or the other what the effect is, so if you can't prove it, then caution might be an appropriate response.”
The publishing industry can and will adapt to new methods of dissemination of content, as it always has. It may even find it benefits from this new model. But people will always have a need for well written books, for stories, for knowledge, for information, and a change in the way that people access that content does not predicate a catastrophic shift away from buying books. Humans are acquisitive by nature, and PDFs are not about to replace the pleasure inherent in owning a book, in being able to flick through its pages wherever and whenever you wish, without needing to turn on a computer or PDA.
Digitalisation and free distribution of content is not an erosion of copyright either. It's an assertion of a different sort of copyright – the right to allow the public copy freely and legally that which the author and publisher releases for such copying. It is freedom for the author to renounce the extremes of 'all rights reserved' and 'no rights reserved' and tread instead the more beneficial middle path of 'some rights reserved'.
But I'm not a novelist
Of course, you could have come this far and now be thinking 'But, I'm not a writer, I'm not a novelist. How on earth does this affect me?'.
Well, if you read books, you're affected by this. If you watch films, you're affected. TV. Radio. All media is affected by this. Trouble is, when the effect in question, the harm, is a matter of what's missing – the work that is not created because the difficulty of clearing rights prevents it – it is harder to measure and quantify. You can't miss what you've never had.
“This is what's so wrong about the view that says 'asking permission is simple',” says Lessig, “because the reality is that clearing rights as such an extraordinary hassle, that most people would never even think of doing it. So that's why making clear the freedoms that are associated with the content first is a great way to get people to participate, and when they do they begin to recognise why the existing system is flawed.”
But I'm not an American
Equally, you may be thinking 'But Lessig's an American and I'm not. How can American copyright law affect me?'. You have to remember that the internet is not bound by geographical boundaries and neither is culture. A European website hosting content that, for example, riffs off a Disney character is still going to get a cease-and-desist letter from Disney's lawyers, regardless of their location.
“There's a core insight that the rest of the world has got to wake up to,” Lessig says, “and that is that the United States is pushing its view of extremist intellectual property on the rest of the world and, through international treaties, American law is becoming international. There's a common set of problems that a number of countries have to solve: They need to update copyright law for the 21st century but America's holding back on that. I think other countries need to take the lead and force the United States into a more reasonable position.
“The system as it is right now reinforces the power of American culture [in other countries]. We need a more rational, balanced system that would actually encourage a much wider range of diverse cultural development from around the world.”
Grassroots engagement
I am a member of, a website devoted to helping writers and film makers develop their skills, make contacts, learn their trade. I tried to start a discussion on the screenwriters' message boards about copyright and Free Culture, but the only person that responded could not – or did not want to – grasp the issues at all. Sadly, this is not an uncommon attitude, and not just amongst individuals.
“People are surprisingly unreflective about these things,” Lessig says. “When the Creative Commons first had a conversation with the Authors Guild, their initial reaction to us was we're just trying to take money away from authors. Over and over again we tried to demonstrate that what we were proposing would make life for authors better, but their initial reaction was totally negative.”
Until individual creators get involved in the discussion, until the bodies that represent these creators understand and engage with these issues, it is going to be hard to convince the lawmakers that the law needs changing.
“The courts will only change what the grassroots attitudes have [already] changed,” Lessig says. “And the way that grassroots attitudes get changed is if more and more people begin to be involved in talking about this and arguing about it and beginning to be creators. That's what the internet's done, it's encouraged people to become creators, and as they become creators and have to confront 19th century law they recognise why the law doesn't make sense. And I think that's going to happen a lot more before we begin to see any real progress.”
I think change to copyright law is inevitable. Technology moves faster than the law, and faster than those who would exert exclusive control over culture. It doesn't matter how much digital rights management software is implemented, someone will always crack it. It would be far better for the music, movie and publishing industries to put their energies in to seeing how they can work with new technology, how they can use it to promote their products, instead of trying to lock down creative works in a fit of megalomania.
The only way for this change to happen is if we start pushing for it. It's not just creators who stand to lose out from the current copyright law, but consumers too. We might not all be creators, we might not all be affected by the inability to make derivative works, but we all suffer from the loss of those works. We all suffer from the inability to archive existing works, we all suffer from the way that old works that are no longer in circulation or have commercial value are kept out of the public domain.
There is far more to copyright than meets the eye, far more than just MP3s and the insanity of the RIAA. Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture does an excellent job of outlining the issues, and showing the harms that are done by current law.
What's more, you can get it for free – and that's 'free' as in 'free beer'.
Creative Commons in a Connected World
Lawrence Lessig will be giving a lecture, Creative Commons in a Connected World, on Thursday 27 May, 7.30pm at the Ondaatje Theatre, Royal Geographical Society, SW7. Tickets are £10 (£5 concession), and are available from the booking office on 020 7863 8012.

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