Sauron strikes down the enemy

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

Like Sauron’s eye, unblinking amidst the roiling smoke above the fulminating* cone of Mount Doom, the Tolkien estate never sleeps. Why, only yesterday we heard about them cockblocking a book in which ol’ J R R appears as a character! But lest you think they only go after infringements that offer some realistic chance of damaging or exploiting Tolkien’s legacy, Futurismic fiction alumnus Adam Rakunas has also fallen foul of them… for making a badge.

Back in the late 2009, I got into a Twitter conversation with Madeline Ashby about geek culture, fandom, and a bunch of stuff like that. Madeline wrote, “While you were reading Tolkien, I was watching Evangelion.” I thought this was an excellent encapsulation of the divide in SF/F/Whatever fandom, and thus took to Zazzle to make little buttons with her quote. I bought a bunch, handed them out at a few conventions, then I had a kid and promptly forgot all about it.

Until today, when Zazzle emailed me to say they were pulling the buttons for intellectual property right infringement.

And guess who complained about their rights being infringed?

Good to see there’s no loss of proportion over at Tolkien Towers, eh? Or, you know, not.

[ image copyright Adam Rakunas; no orcs were exploited in the making of this blog post ]

[ * I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate verb for a mountain to be conjugating, but it just looks right, you know? ]


Strange things are afoot in Middle-Earth

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2011

I imagine you’ve already heard about The Last Ringbearer, a retelling of Lord of the Rings from the Mordor side of the fence. I rather wish I had the spare time to read it, as the underlying concept is brilliant: it really speaks to our Zeitgeist of revisionism and polarised politics, and also addresses a lot of the major criticisms of Tolkien’s epic.

It also shines a light on intellectual property law. The fact that it’s available in English translation for free (meaning that writer Kirill Yeskov makes no money from it, but gains a whole load of profile and notoriety off the back of a book that has already done very well in Europe) means that, for now, the Tolkien estate isn’t gunning for a take-down. But would a take-down be justified? You could certainly argue that it’s a derivative work, but then so is the well-known (and frankly tedious) parody Bored Of The Rings; if the latter is protected by fair use, why shouldn’t the former be protected under the same terms? Is derision the only protected form of commentary on cultural artefacts? (If so, that might explain the general tone of, y’know, the entire internet… 😉 )

The lack of warning salvos from the Tolkien estate suggests that they don’t think The Last Ringbearer is a battle worth fighting, because they’re happily taking aim at other works related to Tolkien and his output. Texas author Stephen Hilliard is looking to publish a novel that features Tolkien as a character, and is pitching it as a work that combines historical fiction and literary criticism; the Tolkien estate has issued a cease-and-desist on the grounds that it has “a property right to commercially exploit the name and likeness of J.R.R. Tolkien”. [via SlashDot] I’d have thought they’d just angle for a cut of the profits, but apparently they just want Mirkwood squashed completely. I can’t decide whether that’s less disappointing or more so… or what this means for my long-considered series of short stories about a simulated reincarnation of Hunter S Thompson solving crimes in a posthuman future*. I’m certain, however, that the Streisand Effect may end up biting the Tolkien estate on the backside.

All of which reminds me of my amusement yesterday when I saw “Harlan Ellison®” in a press release. If you’ve got enough reputation and clout (plus the money and/or patience to wrangle lawyers), you can protect your name and work to the utmost; whether or not it’ll make the majority of the world think you’re being a pompous dick is another matter entirely.

[ * See that? That’s my prior art claim, right there; if anyone gets to do it, it’s me. ME! ]


Daddy, where does innovation come from?

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2010

Plenty of folk have been linking to this excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist, and with good reason – it’s a provocative piece that plays to advocates (and opponents) of free trade, open exchange, copyright reform and much more. The basic thesis? The one persistent factor that has encouraged innovation and new ideas is the freedom to pass them around and build upon them.

You should read the whole thing, as Ridley takes down in turn the usual answers offered to the question of innovation’s source – science, capital, IP, government. But here’s some stirring stuff from the conclusion:

We may soon be living in a post-capitalist, post-corporate world where individuals are free to come together in temporary aggregations to share, collaborate, and innovate, and where websites enable people to find employers, employees, customers, and clients anywhere in the world. This is also, as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller reminds us, a world that will put “infinite production ability in the service of infinite human lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, greed, envy, and pride.” But that is roughly what the elite said about cars, cotton factories, and (I’m guessing) wheat and hand axes too.

Were it not for this inexhaustible river of invention and discovery irrigating the fragile crop of human welfare, living standards would stagnate. Even with population tamed, fossil energy tapped, and trade free, the human race could quickly discover the limits to growth without new knowledge. Trade would sort out who was best at making what; exchange could spread the division of labor to best effect, and fuel could amplify the efforts of every factory hand, but eventually there would be a slowing of growth. A menacing equilibrium would loom.

In that sense, Ricardo and Mill were right. But so long as it can hop from country to country and from industry to industry, discovery is a fast-breeder chain reaction; innovation is a feedback loop; invention is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Equilibrium and stagnation are not only avoidable in a free-exchanging world. They are impossible.

What are your thoughts – is Ridley on to something here, or just grandstanding to libertarians, valleygeeks and copyleftists?

It’s clear that Ridley feels economic equilibrium is something to be feared, and on that point I’m not entirely sure I’m in agreement with him… chasing after perpetual growth has been a pretty messy business in the long term, after all. But I can’t fault his thoughts about innovation. I wonder if it would be possible to entirely disconnect innovation from a money economy? Impossible right now, sure, but in a hypothetical post-scarcity future it might just fly.


Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl looking alarmingly predictive

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

Some of the ideas in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent Nebula-winning debut novel The Windup Girl are already alarmingly close to reality. In a future world where all the oil is long gone, all energy has to come from food as processed by animals, human or otherwise; when your food crops start dying, it’s a race against time to cook up new genetic variants that can resist the rapid mutations of virulent viruses and parasites… which means big money for whoever has a patent on the right genetic sequences, and perpetual debt (or intellectual property piracy) for everyone else.

A speculative future, certainly, and one that I’m pretty sure isn’t meant to be taken quite as literally as some reviewers and critics have done thus far… but there’s a definite undercurrent of classic science fictional “if this goes on…” in The Windup Girl, and things are going on. Just the other week we mentioned that poppy blight in Afghanistan. Now, via Paul McAuley, we hear that South Africa has been invaded by a new wheat fungus which could easily spread into south Asia and the Middle East, and from there onwards

“Eventually it will reach North America and Europe,” says Ronnie Coffman, a plant-breeding scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He warns that in the next few years, farmers across the world will need to replace up to 90% of the current wheat varieties with new, resistant varieties to ensure crops are protected against the fungus.

That sound you can hear? Monsanto’s board of directors rubbing their fat hands together in delight.

I’m of the opinion that the “Frankenstein foods” panic about GM crops is reactionary foolishness, and that we badly need engineered crops to support the world’s population… but I have serious concerns about incumbent intellectual property laws, not to mention the sort of genetic tampering (e.g. neutered seedstock – it’ll grow, but you can’t grow more without paying up for more viable seeds) that could turn that urgent need into a captive-market profit margin that’ll make the fossil fuel multinationals look like corner-store philanthropists.

That’s very much a worst-case scenario, of course, but forewarned is fore-armed… and Bacigalupi’s novel (which I really must get round to writing a full review of when my schedule allows) is a timely allegory, as well as a very gripping read. Go buy a copy.


Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

No idea how I managed to miss this one before, but Richard Nash – founder and former head honcho of Soft Skull Press – is starting a new publishing venture called Cursor which promises (among other things, like a strong focus on niche community-building) to do away with the exploitative life-of-the-copyright contracts with which authors are traditionally saddled [via Damien Walter]:

… the tweak is pretty radical. It’s not really a tweak at all, it’s a complete break with publishing norms. […]

No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.

Instead: three year contracts.

Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.

You see, most publishers have accepted they’re not going to make money publishing your book. They’re publishing your book and a bunch of other books like it so they can have exclusive rights over as much intellectual property as possible. Such that if, three or five or nine years down the road, you win the NBA, or the Orange, or there’s a movie, or an Oprah pick, your whole backlist starts to sell but they don’t have to pay you one single extra red percent in royalties.

That’s where their profits come from, from being able to NOT have to renegotiate royalties when your books start selling better than they expected.

[…]

The publishing industry is in a state of turmoil. New sales channels are arising, new formats, new terms of sale.

Authors deserve the chance to renegotiate as the industry evolves.

The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.

Authors deserve to be actively connected with readers, not just be made available to readers…

Well, you can colour me intrigued – that’s a project to keep an eye on. Much as it’s been good to see the big houses looking at new ways of doing things, their responses to the times have been as small and grudging as they think they can get away with (e.g. Orbit’s digital short story publishing plan); Nash’s decision to empower the creators first and foremost seems to stand in stark contrast to the blanket rights options I keep reading about (which seem to be a literary echo of the infamous “360 deals” recently made in the upper earnings bracket of the recording industry), and aiming for small dedicated niche communities is very much in keeping with the philosophies of the leading edge of business and marketing punditry (not to mention social media architecture).


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