Welcome to the walled garden. Would you like to hire a periscope?

Paul Raven @ 16-02-2011

While we’re on the subject of ebooks, publishing, digital content delivery and all that jazz… how’re you “the iPad is the future of publishing!” types feeling right now?

Yup: that lush easy-to-use interface makes purchasing easy, and easy purchases happen more often! Which means those 30% rake-offs should make House Cupertino’s share prices rocket still further!

And should your customer – heaven forbid! – want to take true ownership of their hardware, don’t be surprised if that cuts them off from the content they bought through sanctioned channels.

All that money you spent on setting up your new outlet in the glitzy new mall… it seemed like a great way of short-cutting around the economic problems out on the old high street, didn’t it?

You went to bed with the landlord, and he went and raised the rent anyway.

Sleep tight.


The ethics of content theft in a digital world

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Here’s a simultaneously wry and astute post from novelist Philip Palmer about the publishing industry’s new here-to-stay bugbear, digital piracy. What I like most about it is the blend of idealism and honesty; rather than simply stating that Piracy Is Wrong And Evil And Makes Jeebus Cry, he’s willing to objectively assess his own moral code as applied to evading cost on the media he wishes to consume.

Before we get to the meat, though, I’m going to call out one item for criticism, because it’s such a well-used semantic straw man that by this point that it gets repeated as a matter of fact:

… there are many thoughtful individuals out there, possessed of shitstorm-generating superpowers,  who do believe that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE FREE ON THE WEB.

I tend to think of this as The Doctorow Rejoinder, because it’s usually Cory that’s the target (implied or otherwise) of that complaint. But here’s the thing: it’s bollocks.

Sure, there are people out there who believe everything should be free on the web… and sure, those people are pretty stupid (or extremely idealistic and ignorant of the most basic tenets of economics). However, the “shitstorm-generators” that Palmer refers to – the ones with any real influence at all, rather than the lip-flapping skriptkiddiez who requote them out of context on their warez blogs – do not believe (or at least do not publicly claim) that “everything should be free on the web”.

People are always reminding me about how Cory Doctorow believes and preaches that; however, not one of them has yet been able to show me a citation where he does so. Doctorow happily and truthfully claims that free content has worked for him, and explained the potential benefits of such a business model to people in similar positions, but he’s never (to my knowledge) claimed free content as a) a panacea to the struggles of the obscure artist/creator or b) the road to an inevitable digital syndicalist utopia where everything necessarily costs nothing. (I’m quite willing to be proved wrong on this point, but I want citations from original source material, not flimsy op-eds from folk with axes to grind or political capital to reap.)

So, let’s be clear: no one worth arguing with has ever claimed that “everything should be free on the web”; until we get past this particularly tenacious straw man, we’re going to struggle to deal with the real issues. And so, it’s back to Philip Palmer’s otherwise sound essay. A few quotey bits:

I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing new under the sun.  The digital age didn’t invent plagiarism; nor did it invent piracy.  The web changes many things; but not basic questions about right or wrong; it merely AMPLIFIES the problems that always existed

Book piracy, for instance,  was pioneered by the public library service.  For many years, until the advent of PLR, it was considered moral and normal to give away books for zero money on a rental basis to members of the public.  This is a great way to impoverish authors.  Because a book that’s been borrowed a hundred times has only been bought once!

Second hand bookshops!  They are the buccaneers of the book trade. A second hand book may be sold a dozen different times but again,  the author only gets paid once.  We authors notice these things.

So illegally downloading books is no different, in principle, than going to Hay-on-Wye.  Fact!

Yes, that’s a sophistic argument; that’s Palmer’s point, I think. Now, here’s where it gets interesting:

When I started getting published I stopped buying second hand science fiction novels from authors still alive or not-rich.  So I’ll buy second-hand Stephen King, though only occasionally,  but I’d never buy Al Reynolds’  latest in a second hand bookshop, because  he’s a real writer earning a living. I do though buy all my Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (my current passion)  second hand via Amazon, mainly because the old Del Rey editions are so stunning, and I’m pretty sure they’re out of print.

So that’s my moral code, based on the opinion that borrowing books from a pal and illegally downloading books are pretty much the same thing, ethically speaking. In other words, it’s okay to get stuff free sometimes, as long as you OFTEN pay.

Palmer’s point is that (with very few exceptions) we don’t have unlimited funds for buying entertainment, but we have a close-to-unlimited hunger for the stuff, and so we all come to our own ethical compromise with the world; Palmer puts money in the pockets of living authors who he feels deserve it, but he doesn’t want to contribute to Stephen King’s retirement nest-egg, nor send money to middle-men reprinting the works of the long-dead if he has a cheaper option available to him. He’s obeying the spirit of the piracy laws, though not necessarily the letter of them.

I take a similar approach to music, as do many people I know; I’m – by my own admission – a somewhat skewed data-point (because as a reviewer I get sent a lot of legitimate freebies) but I download hard-to-find and/or costly albums without too many qualms because I attend dozens of live shows every year, buy merchandise, patronise live music venues, buy music equipment and use rehearsal spaces. I’m paying my way within that economic sphere, and doing so with a fairly significant portion of my disposable income.

There are those who don’t pay their way, certainly, but I suspect they’re a minority; digital music recordings are valueless unless you want to listen to them. I can’t imagine many folk bother downloading albums just to consume hard drive space and have a longer list in their media player library; you collect music because you’re passionate about it, and if you’re passionate about music you probably go and see it played live if you have the opportunity to do so.

Digital media is a non-rival good; to take it for free is not theft but evasion of cost, and evasion of cost is a fundamental tenet of economic behaviour (with the possible exception of those with more money than sense); economic behaviour is not rational but emotional, and basing your response to a change in the underpinnings of an industry’s economy on the hope that you can stop human beings behaving in the ways they always have done is to doom yourself to failure. Successful businesses work out ways to monetise desire, but business models do not last forever; if they did, there wouldn’t be an internet (or cars, or electricity, or, or, or). QED.

This is a point borne out in the music industry, where – in spite of the withering of the recording companies – overall profits are actually growing consistently: live show tickets, merchandise, new instruments and recording technology, all selling better than they ever have before. There are studies based on the industry’s own figures that show heavy downloaders of music torrents spend more on legitimate content purchases than those who buy a few albums every year. Illegal downloading is not “killing music” (just as home-taping didn’t “kill music”); it’s killing a business model, and the record labels really don’t have anyone other than themselves for failing to adapt to a changing landscape.

As I’ve mentioned before, the publishing industry appears to have wised up faster than the record labels did, but it’s interesting to note that – as with the music industry – the smaller more artist-centric outfits are the ones who seem to be most willing to try new options. The more profitable the old model was, the greater the inertia of those who profited from it. Evolve or die.

This is the point where I usually get accused of celebrating the fact that it’s getting harder and harder for artists of all stripes to make money from their work. To which I respond: pointing out the realities of the situation, and the fact that all the idealistic thinking in the world won’t stop consumers behaving as they do (namely getting something they want as cheaply and conveniently as possible), is not celebratory; it is a matter of pragmatism.

The genie will not go back in the bottle; it is more productive to work out ways to cope with the genie’s freedom than it is to build elaborate doomed-to-fail genie entrapment devices, or to repeat idealistic platitudes about how the bottle shouldn’t have been opened in the first place and look for someone to blame for it. Yes, it sucks that the business models of many creators whose work I adore and wish to support are under economic pressure; however, no amount of me (or anyone else) saying how much it sucks will make a damned bit of difference. Play the hand you’re dealt, or fold and get out of the game.

A harsh thing to say, perhaps, given I’m a friend of (and contractor to) a number of authors… but would you want your doctor to lie about a life-threatening illness? If you want to survive, you have to accept the reality of the situation, take the pills, endure the surgery; I can’t help but think that content creators as a demographic are moving slowly through the five stages of grief psychology with respect to the economics of infinite goods. It’s a painful and necessary process, but acceptance is the only end-point from which you can move on.

In an ideal world, we’d all be paid enough in return for doing something we loved to have everything we wanted. If anyone has directions on how to get to that ideal world, by all means please let me and everyone else know how to join you there; in the meantime, I think we’re best off concentrating on finding a way to make a living here in reality.


Digital Rosetta stone

Tom James @ 30-07-2009

stone_writingJapanese researchers are developing a means of storing data for periods of thousands of years, to help solve the problem of an imminent digital dark age:

The team, led by Professor Tadahiro Kuroda of Tokyo’s Keio University, has proposed storing data on semiconductor memory-chips made of what he describes as the most stable material on the Earth – silicon.

Tightly sealed, powered and read wirelessly, such a device, he claims, would yield its digital secrets even after 1000 years, making any stored information as resilient as it were set in stone itself.

It’s a realisation that moved the researchers to name the disc-like, 15in (38cm) wide device the “Digital Rosetta Stone” after the revolutionary 2,200-year-old Egyptian original unearthed by Napoleon’s army.

This is a very similar concept to the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Disk, which is intended to be a very-long-term record of contemporary languages.

It is encouraging to know this problem is being studied and so many groups are looking for solutions.

[from the BBC][image from bwhistler on flickr]


Google grenades the ebook punchbowl

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2009

I dare say that if you’ve an interest in publishing as an industry, you’ve already heard that Google has announced its own ebook store will open late this year. A summary from Tomorrow’s Trends:

Google stated that it will allow publishers to set eBook prices.  The cost of the eBook will probably be higher than Amazon’s current eBook prices.

This will certainly start a format war.  Google does not have a dedicated eBook reader and I do not see them getting into the eBook hardware game.  This will push companies to create eBook readers that will connect to Google’s new store. Certainly Amazon is ahead of everyone in regards to ease of use and the ability to download eBooks via a wireless connection.  Hopefully this will give all of us multiple choices on purchasing eBooks.

Credit where it’s due, the Big G knows the value of biding its time for the right moment. This is the game-changing announcement that I’ve been expecting for the last nine months, the potential trigger for an explosive growth phase in ebook hardware and distribution. An analogy to digital music seems appropriate: the Kindle and the Sony Reader are your iPod equivalents, tied to specific content-buying channels and/or file formats to keep the profits as close to their makers (and their partners) as possible. Now the ubiquitous Google is getting in on the game of selling the content, savvy tech firms will be watching closely to see which file format wins the popularity war, before starting to churn out affordable generic readers that can display them without restriction.

Now, as discussed before, ebooks are probably never going to be as big a deal as downloadable music has become (though one can dream, right?), but I’m confident that this will be the tipping point at which another content market suddenly leaps into the digital domain. Hopefully by Christmas time this year I’ll be able to get a decent eInk device that doesn’t lock me in to one content provider, just like my charmingly generic media player…


Looming digital dark age

Tom James @ 28-10-2008

The possibility of a digital dark age has been noted before, but I hadn’t realised the problem was this acute, according to Prof Jerome P. McDonough at the University of Illinois:

“Even over the course of 10 years, you can have a rapid enough evolution in the ways people store digital information and the programs they use to access it that file formats can fall out of date,” McDonough said.

Magnetic tape, which stores most of the world’s computer backups, can degrade within a decade. According to the National Archives Web site by the mid-1970s, only two machines could read the data from the 1960 U.S. Census: One was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian Institution. Some of the data collected from NASA’s 1976 Viking landing on Mars is unreadable and lost forever.

It is a pity – and it highlights the importance of non-proprietary file types.

I imagine extracting data from obsolete formats will become a major industry in the future.

[story at Physorg][image from altemark on flickr]


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