Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Flying and Piracy

I am finally, a day late, home from my last trip. Weather forced flight delays, flight cancellations, a night in an EconoLodge, vomiting from turbulence -- everything bad about air travel. As usual, this fills me with a desire to never go anywhere again. And, also as usual, I will.

One of the more interesting things on my computer when I returned was the latest chapter in the ongoing debate between those adhering to strict interpretation of copyright and those who argue that the times they are a-changing, and it makes sense for writers to make at least some work available for free on the Internet. This particular contretemps started with Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, posting a witty one-paragraph "mock review" that Ursula LeGuin had written about Michael Chabon. His original view was that his posting fell under the "fair use" provision of copyright law. Her view was that since her article (which she later sold) consisted in its entirety of one paragraph, this was piracy. Eventually Cory apologized, but there are a lot of genuine issues around this, including the fact that SFWA has recently dissolved its copyright committee. You can come in on the end of this, and follow links to its beginning, at

My own thoughts on this are murky. If I had been Ursula, I probably would have let Cory's post go, but less from principle than from laziness. I know I've been pirated many times (Argentina has lifted entire novels) but I lack the taste for legal or on-line battles. Which is not to say they shouldn't be fought. I just don't know for which side.


Mike Flynn said...

Apparently, the Piracy Committee has been revived as the Copyright Committee.

The issue is not whether authors should make their works available for free on the Internet, it's whether =other people= can make the author's works available for free on the Internet without asking, or even informing the owner. This is like the neighbor who enters your garage and takes your tools - and pleads no harm since he put them back each time. Even if you would otherwise have gladly loaned them to him had he asked, this is wrong.

The site scrbd attacked SFWA when SFWA asked them to take down copyright works that had been posted without permission because the list of takedowns included a few that =had= been posted with author's permissions. This was no big deal, as scrbd could easily have taken down those that had not been permitted and left up those that had. But they used this as an opportunity to pose and pretend to great injury.

My own experience is instructive. My novel =Eifelheim= was posted without permission on scrbd. I and my agent sent several takedown notices with no response and no action taken. Then, after the Hugo awards were given, it came down and my agent received an apology. IOW, from my POV and IMO, they left it up as long as it was a Hugo finalist because that might attract traffic to the site. A glance at some of the other postings shows why these lures are probably needed.

As more people see other people's work as "free for the taking," I fear fiction-writing will suffer "the tragedy of the commons." In the long run, you get what you pay for.

James A. Ritchie said...

My own view is that any writer, Cory Doctorow, or whomever, has every right to post his work on the internet for free, to give it away on the street, or to throw it away, if he so desires. But he has no right to do the same with my work.

I think the label "intellectual property" is the problem. Forget the intellectual. My writing is my property. Period.

Contrary to what Cory Doctorow and others of his ilk say, information does not want to be free. Information is inanimate, has no will of its own, and wants nothing. Its people who wish information to be free, primarily because they don't want to pay for it.

And in any case, I dislike calling fiction "information." Perhaps science and math and political discourse should be free, though I doubt it. But I write none of these things, and I'll allow those who do to make their own case.

But fiction is primarily entertainment, no different than a roller coaster ride or a night out at a good restaurant. When King's Island lets me in free, and when my local four star restaurant gives me supper for free, I may reconsider letting my fiction, my property, go for free.

Until then, just like those who work at King's Island, or those who bus tables at restaurants, I need to make a living, and I can't feed my kids unless I can sell my fiction, unless thieves keep their hands off it,

Nancy Kress said...

I agree that no one should be posting another's fiction without permission. To me, the more interesting question is whether one should post one's own. I know various musicians (my friend Janis Ian is one) strongly believe that giving away her music free on-line greatly boosts the sales of her concerts. If one gives away fiction, then how much fiction? Which pieces? Mike, did having ELFHEIM on the Inernet (however illegally) boost your Hugo votes? And would you know if it did?

Mike Flynn said...

Heck, I don't need internet publicity to lose a Hugo; I can do that any time. This year, I was able to lose two Hugos, which marks a milestone of some sort.

A lot of people swear by the beneficent effects of free postings. I'm not sure how they would know. I'm even less sure how they would know what happens when there's a generation that did not grow up bookish. Those reading on-line nowadays see the text and think, "Wow, I'd like to get that book." Soon, the idea of getting the "book" will not parse. What then? The e-book will replace the paperback, which is a marginal proposition for publishers, but which is the major income for most writers. That's fine if the authors get an e-royalty on their efforts; not so fine if their texts "want to be free" and multiply like loaves and fishes.

The texts of my nominees were posted on the Internet for free: at Spectrum Lit. Agency and at Asimov's, with my permission. So, who knows? Just last week I gave a Public Radio station permission to read the novelette on the air for free.

A secondary thought: An awful lot of folks would be happy to post their fiction for free for the excellent reason that no one in their right minds would pay them for it. Finding the gold in the dross may become much more difficult; esp. if these wrotters [a term I have just coined] decide they can improve their own fiction by simply incorporating the writings of others. The principal of a local school here did that with a bulletin and, when caught out, said she did not consider it plagiarism because her bulletin was in a good cause and was not commercial. The original author whose text had been co-opted and embedded was bemused: he would cheerfully have given the permission had he been asked.

The tragedy of the commons, I think. Or else I'm feeling especially morose today. 80 flow charts to revise. 5 down, 75 to go.

James A. Ritchie said...

I think the problem that comes with comparing writers to singers and musicians is that writers make very little money from concerts. A singer is still singing at a concert, but writers do not write when giving lectures, etc. Certainly no writer is going to draw a crowd large enough to fill a stadium, all of who are willing to pay substantial sums of money in order to hear that writer speak.

Another thing. I love reading classic novels, but since these are mostly now in public domain, and are readily available online, I haven't bought one in years and years. When I stumble across one I've missed, I find it online, download it, and read it.

Why pay for it when I can get it free?

It probably does no harm to post some fiction for free, but I doubt it does much good, either. If the writer is unknown, there's simply too much other fiction on line for any one writer to stand out. If the writer is well-known, he or she is probably preaching to the choir.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

No. No. A thousand times, no.

Three years ago, my songwriting partner and I wrote a tune on spec for a flick that sadly was never produced. But it wasn't a bad little song, HARMONY.

Somehow, a copy found its way to a low-rent hombre who wanted to put it on a collection. Since it was copywrited, he had to get our permission. His offer of pay? Bupkis. "Your new song will get good exposure!" Yeah. Right.

John asked me, "How about it, Michael? Maybe he's right." And I replied, "You and Peter and Emagic are the senior partners in our enterprise. I can live with being outvoted, but if you're asking me--and you are--I say no. Why establish the tune as being worth =nothing?=" "Yeah...I guess you're right."

If you're a dishwasher and you don't get paid, at least you have clean dishes. If you're a writer or musician and you don't get paid, you have =nada.=

Don't give the parasites one little angstrom unit. This is the =classic= slippery slope.