eBook Piracy

During an interview on the Colber Report, Sherman Alexie made the statement: “With the open-source culture on the Internet, the idea of ownership — of artistic ownership — goes away.” Then prompted by Colbert, added: “It terrifies me.”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

But, after watching the interview, there was much more than just the sound-bites that are worth thinking about and considering.  Read on for my reactions and thoughts.

The Sherman Alexie interview was quoted in an article on the CNN website: eBook Digital Piracy. The article spends most of it’s time talking about Digital Piracy as an issue facing publishers, and very little time looking at the positive side to eBooks.

To me it is astounding that there is still a major imbalance in terms of what is being presented in the national press and national media when issues of technological change are being presented.  The missing element is in looking at the successes that technology has brought about.  For example, nowhere in the CNN article was there any mention of Creative Commons, O’Reilly Media, Project Gutenberg, etc.  Or, for that matter, authors like Corey Doctorow, J. C. Hutchins, James Boyle, amongst others. The media seems to be scared of looking at issues from the perspective of changing media.  They seem doubly blind by the fact that they are part of the change.

But, I digress from the point of this article:  Sherman Alexie’s comments.

Open Source versus Artistic Ownership

The first thing that really stunned me in Mr. Alexie’s comments is his confusion over “Open Source” and “Artistic Ownership”.  If anything, there is more of an ownership in the Open Source community than there is in the arts in general.  Why do I say that?

In “Open Source” communities, you are recognized by your contributions: you increase your visibility or mind-share through your contributions.  This is  a fact documented as far back as The Cathedral and the Bazaar and Homesteading the Noosphere (the pivotal essays by Eric S. Raymond). It is your mind-share that is your “ownership”.

The same exists in the online artistic communities.  Those authors that chose to publish their works under a Creative Commons license do not lose their ownership.  If anything, they are able to propegate their ownership further by specifying the types of uses that their works are released under. By specifying with in any license that attribution (CC-BY) is a requirment, the creator has the ability to allow others to build on their work, while still maintaining a strong portion of their mind share.  In the many of the older works, once they entered into the public domain, anyone could build on the works, without having to specify an attribution.

The practice of borrowing from another authors work is common in literature.  As an example, Laurence Sterne was so taken with Shakespeare’s works that he named one of his characters Yorick.  And, went so far as to work the line “Alas, poor Yorick!” into The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (the reference is at the end of Chapter 1.XII. of the Project Gutenberg edition linked to here).

But this isn’t an isolated case.  There are whole tomes dedicated to examing the cross-referential and influential materials that authors choose to build upon in their works.  I’m certain that Mr. Alexie’s works have been subject of such intellectual endeavors themselves, and he would be hard pressed to say that he has never written anything that doesn’t have references to other literary works.

But, don’t take this the wrong way.  There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever.  The act of using references to other works is a part of the art form being practiced.  It is seen as being part of the dialogue between authors and society.  It is part of the tapestry that is woven to carry on a conversation on many levels that has continued for hundreds of years, and I would argue is a necessity if any of our works of art and culture are going to have meaning beyond the moment that they are published.

Destruction by Digitization

Okay, I think I’ve flogged that point.  However, Mr. Alexie didn’t stop with that one statement.  He went on to say that digitization of literature was destroying the culture of the book market.  While on his latest book tour he found himself attending more afternoon movie matinees, instead of doing local promotional work (like interviews for local newspapers and TV, etc.)  And that there was a decline in the independent book sellers, and the literary communities.

That may well be true.  However, I wouldn’t have linked the digitization of books to this phenomena.  From everything I have seen, this was well in decline before the advent of the Kindle, or any of the other book readers.  In fact, I would suggest that there is an even better chance that there will be a resurgence in the reading community because of the digitization.  However, it will take place in a different form, as the technology will enable different forms of community to emerge.

Just to understand what the difference will be, just look at this article.  I am responding to an interview with Mr. Alexie by providing the full context of his actual statements, in their original form by actually embedding the interview in this article.  This is something that no published article could do. I would have to carefully transcribe the interview, and either quote or paraphrase it very carefully within the body of this article in order to respond.  With this new technology, I allow the reader to actually experience Mr. Alexies comments in their complete context.

By publishing in this manner, I am adding to the conversation that needs to take place between the old and new media, between authors who have built their ways working around the older methods and those of us who have adapted to the new media. And most importantly, between those creators who were used to having communities form around their work, and those who are trying to form a community with their work (ie, those that are taking a more active role in building their community, versus the passive role the creator has taken in the past).

Scarcity and the Physical Object

The final point that Mr. Alexie made that I will address was feeling of loss for the physical object of the book itself, in it’s physical form. To this, I can only say that there is a level of undeniable truth: there is a loss of the physical object, and those of us who are book lovers do feel it.

However, there are two other points that are worth considering: first, the physical form of the book uses a resource that there is a limitation on.  We cannot keep using paper at an incredibly high rate, deforestation is an issue that we need to be concerned with on a ecological level.  This planet doesn’t have infinite resources, and we can recycle and reuse the resources to some degree, but paper is one of the items that we will eventually need to be concerned about exhausting.  And consider, if there is less of a physical object to ship, the less of a carbon footprint is created.  (That is, if there are fewer of the phyiscal objects, the lower the net energy put into the creation, distribution, etc.)

Which, brings up my second point: scarcity.  One of the articles I was reading suggested that removing artificial scarcity was alway a good idea.  I would suggest that this is one of the factors that Mr. Alexie should actually be applauding.  Why?  Because (a) the removal of a physical object makes it more likely he will be able to build a larger audience.  According to Amazon’s stats, owners of the Kindle bought three times as many books, as non-owners of the device did.  This was discussed briefly  in the previously referenced CNN article. (b) By removing the scarcity for the common object, the actual scarce object (ie, the physical books themselves) take on a higher value.  Those who want to actually own a physical copy of the book will evntually become a smaller segment of the population, and typically that segment is willing to pay more for the phyiscal object.

This is a corner we are starting to see come about in the music industry.  Those that want the physical media are paying more for it (believe me on this one, I know it first hand) than those that are willing to purchase the digital form of the item.  Just look at the businesses iTunes, amazon.com and WalMart have built around digital music.

I personally don’t believe that all the barriers to scarcity are completely removed by the digital model. Several factors such as: bandwidth, network accessibility, and storage are still elements that are subject to scarcity rules at this point (but they are becoming less and less of a factor over time).  However, with the adoption of the digital model, the physical objects have taken on a more significant role.  How many people purchased the deluxe editions of the Lord of The Rings movies?  And the prices for these editions were far greater than the same product in their non-deluxe edition.

Summary: So What Happened to Piracy?

So, what happened to the point that started this whole essay: eBook Piracy and Open Source?

Well, once I explained why Open Source and Piracry weren’t logically linked above, the subject of piracy itself become an almost non-issue.  There are so many other factors to consider, that eBook Piracy itself became the proverbial mole-hill.  And, in fact, the last subject above brings up the example that proves that piracy becomes a mole-hill: the music publication industry today is a greatly changed place.  Certainly it’s not completely recovered from the problems it has been having over the past couple of decades, however the change to digital media has actually turned about the piracy issue.  These days, many people are much more likely to go to iTunes or Amazon and purchase a legal (and notably, DRM free version) of the work they want.

What the industry hasn’t figured out yet is how to engage the new market in a model that reflects it’s overall makeup.  There is still too much generalization in some respects.  For example, we see marketing concepts taht work for Brittany Spears teenagers being applied to the Frank Sinatra generation.  The fact is, they are different sub-markets that respond to different stimuli.  Until they understand this and work with large cross sections of the market in a manner that is appropriate, they may not get back to where they were.  In fact, I might suggest they will never get back there because as a strictly business model there is a large difference between the purely entertainment oriented population they appeal to and the more artistic or socially oriented groups.  I don’t believe the two are as closely inter-related as has been believed in the past.

And when you start looking at the other factors: removing scarcity, making the truely scarce more valuable, increasing the overall artistic ownership for the creator that works with his / her audience, the re-invention of the community, the need for the creator to be more engaged in the act of building their community, etc. piracy pales by comparison.