There’s a dangerous group of anticopyright activists out there who pose a clear and present danger to the future of authors and publishing. They have no respect for property or laws. What’s more, they’re powerful and organized, and have the ears of lawmakers and the press.
I’m speaking, of course, of the legal departments at ebook publishers.
If you haven’t checked out Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers, it is a very easy read - easing you into what Stephen Johnson might call the “adjacent possible” of the contemporary world. The drama is mostly about the drama of enterpreneurship and culture at large, especially as Doctorow looks only slightly ahead at the shifts coming down the pike. In a sense it is a hopeful book, at least so far (I’m only to the first 22%, or so the Kindle App tells me); it tracks a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News as she becomes a key part of a distributed-micro-industry innovation lab. As the economic and social institutions around them are collapsing, “the Makers” at the center of the story (including said reporter) must dig deep for the animal spirits that allow them to leap towards what appear to be emergent cultural formations - new forms of cultural, social, and economic sustenance - that end up serving them better, even if they find themselves in a more precarious position.
One could say it is a sort of autobiographical novel as Doctorow is a good example of this trend. He is central figure in our own cultural drama, or at least a key touchstone in the shifts of the last decade. In addition to firing off a novel every once in a while, he edits Boing Boing, participates in many other fora and speaking venues, and worked for a time with EFF. I am sure that somewhere in his background, Doctorow did what many of us do - think about how you will connect the stuff that you do to the stuff people will pay for, thus making it possible to make money, buy stuff, and live. But when you look at just his “publications” section on his Wikipedia entry, it is clear that he must concentrate almost totally with producing stuff - as his characters do in the novel, just making. I know he must be savvy about how he makes connections from time to time - looking for a contract to do this or that - but it seems like his primary strategy has been to create value over and over again and assume that one way or another something will start flowing back the other way. I’m sure this is mostly just me being so taken by the persona that I forget all my background in political economy of communication.
Whatever the actual history, this image is bolstered by the distribution of his books, basically for free. As someone who has done a good bit of writing, little of it garnering the kind of attention that would put food on the table, there is something this demonstrates for me very clearly. The rhythm of production in the traditional publication cycle is sort of like the pattern of work in the academic field:
- work very hard in extended bursts
- send stuff to the publisher
- get no work done because you are waiting to hear from the publisher about the last piece instead of working on the next piece.
- realize you’re wasting your time since you won’t hear back anytime soon
- suddenly get back to working very hard
A variation of this happened initially when I put stuff on this blog. I’ve had blogs for several years (both of these 1, 2 since 2004) and have never had more than a few comments (and only recently more than a few page views- though they are probably robots). But I’ve not really devoted energy to putting out content. I always figured my lack of notice must simply be the lack of a continued stream of content.
As I started posting at a higher rate (at least for me) I thought a critical mass would simply arrive here, enchanted by some part of the operation or struck by a random insight I didn’t even know I was making. Then the traffic would begin arriving more regularly and my only concern would be keeping them. Those would be the days!
I bracket for the moment whether those would actually be “the days.” But needless to say, the traffic has never arrived and publishers and editors continue to operate on a print time schedule, which makes every hour of waiting seem like a week. The temptation each time you write something you feel proud of is to rest on your personal laurels, to concentrate on self promotion, on pushing the content you’ve created - send it to the publisher, to the journal, to the blog, to the silent Twitter followers who might happen to be watching your timeline, happen to click through, happen to read, like, share, BOOM!
This is necessary, obviously, and the more your food depends on it, the faster you write and self promote, ignoring personal relationships, exercise, sleep, and so on. But the makers of the story - and perhaps Doctorow himself - concentrate less on the pressure from the market: they seem to make because they like making and to them flow unexpected rewards. This is the ideal of the balanced copyright/open access/creative commons crowd: this stuff will get made, people will make it because they want to. The goal is to share it, pass it on, get it out there in the mix so that it can be used, made new.
The people who do the making will be rewarded indirectly - or in some innovative way compared to what we understand today. The techno-facilitated, found-object sculptors at the center of the story used to sell one-of -a-kind art objects, but a business manager and startup capital helps them reframe their understanding of production so that they embrace a neocapitalist ideal of mass production leading to lower cost products for the most impoverished among us. In the process, they get paid and are able to help some of the impoverished among them to become dynamic, (useful, responsible) makers in their own right. Win win.
The journo quits her newspaper job and takes a risk on blogging for banner ad revenue - becoming so popular that every random person she bumps into is one of her readers. In addition to making enough to survive, she seemingly singlehandedly shifts the cultural perception of what the future holds by the passionate, energetic reportage she provides. She just continues to push content, thinking barely at all about what she will do now that she, a 45 year-old woman, doesn’t have a stable job or health insurance. Her only threat becomes a rival journalist who threatens to devalorize the cultural system she has helped create by spouting reactionary critiques of the enterprise. In the long run, this might threaten her livelihood, but at the moment it is just a threat to her ethos. Occasionally she worries about whether this is affecting her objectivity, but only when it involves sex with her subjects or direct payment (I’m sure there is some gender dynamic to explore here, with a male writing the inner dialogue of this female.) Never does questioning the larger cultural shift become her anxiety. Again, there is 80% of the book left. Lots of room for reflection, but so far that’s not part of the recipe.
Returning to the opening quote, is about a topic near and dear to my heart - licensing electronic resources. I initially intended to point out this particular emphasis, perhaps following with the next two paragraphs in his intro to “Makers.”
These people don’t believe in copyright law. Copyright law says that when you buy a book, you own it. You can give it away, you can lend it, you can pass it on to your descendants or donate it to the local homeless shelter. Owning books has been around for longer than publishing books has. Copyright law has always recognized your right to own your books. When copyright laws are made— by elected officials, acting for the public good— they always safeguard this right.
But ebook publishers don’t respect copyright law, and they don’t believe in your right to own property. Instead, they say that when you “buy” an ebook, you’re really only licensing that book, and that copyright law is superseded by the thousands of farcical, abusive words in the license agreement you click through on the way to sealing the deal.
I completely agree with his assessment of this situation - and it makes me quite nervous when thinking about what this perverted infrastructure will do to the library ecology in the future, a topic Doctorow himself has recently written on in relation to consumers’ personal libraries of DRM protected, device specific e-books (and the economic monopoly this entails). However, on a more personal level, I can also understand why Doctorow feels confident bucking it. In fact, it is against his basic business model to have his book protected by DRM or even have a license that would prevent him from sending around every bit of data he’d created to any person that might be interested.
The idea is to make, make, make; share, share, share; and eventually the good will come back to you. Lewis Hyde and others have appropriated Mauss’ notion of the gift exchange model, which values people and their contributions differently, relying on cultural and social supports more than disembedded market relations. The key to this framework is not that it relies upon relationships but that, unlike the market of commodities, the relationships that the exchange creates are at the primary function of the exchange, rather than hidden by the commodity fetish. The gift exchange revolves around the value of reciprocity and trust - values that also animate David Graeber’s book Debt (which is also available in ebook format, just for $20). This commonality shouldn’t be surprising since both rely on Mauss for inspiriation. In the gift economy it is somewhat crass to be straightforward about what you expect from someone in exchange for something you give as a gift. You give the gift in order to maintain or open up a relationship and their reciprocal act of giving you a gift is evidence of how highly they value that relationship. I was first introduced to this idea by Bourdieu, who pointed out that time also figured into it: if you immediately gave the gift back, you were obviously just giving the gift to fulfill an obligation. Reciprocating quickly absolves you from debt and ends the relationship before it could begin. But failing to reciprocate quickly enough - or not at all - makes it evident that you don’t value the relationship as such. These dynamics still govern most of our personal interactions, with elaborate rules still baffling most of us (i.e. me) as we shuttle between the different value systems of our different social groupings.
For Doctorow and others in his position, however it becomes an even more metaphysical process. Cory doesn’t send me, Sean, a book. He doesn’t rely on, for instance, my offering him a place to sleep when he comes to Austin or for me to buy him dinner or a drink simply because he’s written this entertaining novel - though this may work out for him, it is probably not his strategy for survival just yet. Instead, he sends the book to everyone and hopes that somehow, someway, someone will hook him up. It is a one to many to one gift exchange that is unique to cultural objects of this kind. Of course, buffoons like Thomas Friedman likely get this kind of treatment as well, along with fancy book contracts, but there seems to be a moral obligation here that takes economic self interest to another degree of removal.
Copyright gets in the way of the make-promote cycle. It creates an extra step of bureaucracy to the flow of creation and self promotion. DRM is even worse because it adds technology to that step of bureaucracy. All of these violate the unique laws of gift exchange that seem to dominate Doctorow’s model of self sustenance.
In the book, it is also inherent to the “makers” themselves, whose primary business model is to concentrate on the making not the rentier ownership of the IPR (though this could certainly figure more centrally into the book - as both an obstacle to the making and a problem of remuneration.) Still, whatever patent claims they could declare, makers come up with a new idea and milk it for all they can until someone can PRODUCE it cheaper. Then they move onto the next idea. That idea, like all ideas, is free to circulate and be improved upon.
In a subtle way, the entire utopia is built on the notion that an IPR-free world would be such a dynamic and creative form of capitalism that it would almost operate as a form of gift exchange. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but his unequivocal disdain for IPR rentiers like ebook publishers is more than just a punchy meta-critique on his chosen format: it is a starting point that is threaded through the entire narrative. Like most narratives that take this as their starting point, the precarity of material existence is bracketed as a non issue, as are politics of labor, family, and property. Still, as an abstract experiment it is effective.
And either way, I think the quote above is one that should be plastered on every nascent platform of e-publishing, which effectively undermines even copyright with nearly criminal terms of licensing. What is surprising is how little protest these publishers are receiving as of yet. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.