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Don't bother robbing me, twit. I will cheerfully put up the stuff for free myself.
July 29, 2007 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Books: The Opaque Market. Eric Flint (the author who set up the Baen Free Library) argues against using DRM in publishing and in favor of pirating yourself. (via Jay Lake)
posted by joannemerriam (32 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Makes complete sense to me. When I was young and poor, I spent a lot of time in libraries. Now I'm old and not so poor, I spend a lot of time on Amazon, buying the genres and works of people I first read in libraries.

As someone who, for some portion of his life at least, has earned his living exclusively from writing, it was always more important to me that people read what I wrote than it was to get paid for it. It's hard for me to see how that would change just because I happened to sell even more and get even richer.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think most studies have shown that reasonable amounts of free distribution (radio play, libraries, casual piracy) increase sales.
posted by hattifattener at 9:13 AM on July 29, 2007


Ultimately you do want to buy and bring home those books you'll be reading over and over. While I've sourced Eric Flint's 1633 series through used bookstores, I've as often gone online and purchased brand new a book in a trilogy or series that I might read elsewhere for free or even pirated.
posted by infini at 9:35 AM on July 29, 2007


Also, reading short articles on screen is fine, but if it's a book we're talking about, I want to be able to take it on the train, to the bathroom and to bed with me until I've finished it.

I suppose it's possible to print it out on a zillion sheets of A4, but that would suck too.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2007


Free distribution helps almost everyone in the 'long tail' of content; it lets them find an audience that they wouldn't otherwise reach. But it hurts the people at the very top, the ones who would otherwise sell millions of copies of things.

Now, you could argue that those are exactly the people who can afford to lose some sales, and you'd be right. But the reason the RIAA and MPAA hate this so bad is because their entire business model is built around the idea of fucking over nearly all their acts, with the promise that they might someday be rich. The few acts that really make it big are the carrot for all the acts that spend most of their careers giving all their rightful proceeds to the record companies.

So, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population (all customers, and 95% of the musicians) would benefit from free distribution, the people with enough money and fame to have loud voices scream bloody murder. Congress, therefore, tries to clamp down and make the entire world into criminals, to protect the livelihood of a bunch of crooks and their few actual beneficiaries.
posted by Malor at 9:39 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Malor, if you haven't, read Flint's intro on the Baen Free Library homepage. He makes no distinction between "long tail" people vs. the folks at the top:

Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc...

The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the "gap" between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.

posted by mediareport at 9:43 AM on July 29, 2007


Flint is basically arguing the "attention economy". In a marketplace of effectively unlimited information (eg. the internet, the book market) the scarce commodity is not the information itself (content), but eyeballs, people to pay attention to it. Thus, packaging and style and marketing to drive eyeballs to the content is everything. He is saying how the book is packaged and presented (online for free) is more important than the content of the book (in terms of its success), and DRM goes counter to the attention economy.
posted by stbalbach at 9:45 AM on July 29, 2007


It is a compelling argument, though I note that as with all such arguments it proceeds by analogy to existing rights management contexts (predominantly analog ones at that), and thereby elides so many differences between the digital and analog domains and different regimes of intellectual property law.

Key among those differences is "searchability," which renders the exchange of text-based intellectual property into a far less "opaque" marketplace. I don't know, right now, who has written books on Japanese Enka music, in English, for academic presses. But I can find out in a matter of moments. For the 20 English-literate people in the world today thinking, "I'd like to learn a little more about Enka," and the 5 of them who think "perhaps I should look for an academic book on the subject, to really get an authoritative perspective," this makes all the difference. A little Googling (© & tm) later and they are now armed with the title and author of the single academic monograph title in English on Enka that has been published, and a few sample pages from Google (© & tm). Can they fan out to search the online repositories of non-DRM'd work circulating in the digital domain? Or does the author make a buck in this situation? If authors can't make a buck, will there be an effect on the quality or quantity of information stored in future books? These are not easily answered questions if your recourse is to an analogy as crude as a hypothetical singer in a roadhouse piano bar (not quite sure what he is picturing there anyway, as roadhouses do not tend to be piano bars in Oklahoma).

I'm conflicted on all of this stuff. I'm a published author with a book that has sold well enough -- it's in a second printing -- that its piracy hurts me. I am aware of it being used in unlicensed photocopies and/or online PDFs all over the country, as so many course readings still are. But I'm thrilled it gets read, and I'm sure some of those readers go on to buy the book, because I've heard from them about it. But if I made my primary living as an author, I'd be much more uptight about this, especially if I had a significant market or was peddling very specific expertise that I had spent years and money accumulating.

A very compelling piece to think with. I wish we had more detailed empirical studies of actual digital contexts and fewer analogies to lawn sprinklers and radio signals and bar singers.
posted by spitbull at 9:49 AM on July 29, 2007


mediareport: true, but no media I'm aware of is priced low enough not to matter.

Flint is saying that IF the gap were small, it wouldn't matter to the big acts, but the gap isn't small. It's huge. A CDR costs about 10 cents and a few minutes to burn; the 'real' product, which sounds no better and only looks a little cooler, costs $15. That's a gigantic price delta.

The book market is somewhat different, as people still like paper, and paper is expensive, but for music.... the big guys are going to suffer from piracy, no doubt at all.

spitbull: those are great points. You say that the unauthorized use is getting you some sales, while also possibly costing you some sales.

The question I'd have is: academics tend to be terribly poor, and if they couldn't use your work for free, would they use it at all? If books couldn't be copied, would you just lapse into obscurity because nobody knew about your textbook? Or would you sell copies to all those unauthorized users? Basically... do you think the people copying your book would actually have bought if they couldn't copy it?

I see software companies crying about what piracy is 'costing' them, but many cases of copying are from people who couldn't afford the product and simply would not have bought it anyway. In truth, the company didn't really lose anything from many of the copies, because there was never a possibility of a sale in the first place.

Do you think those infringing copies really and truly costing you sales?
posted by Malor at 10:01 AM on July 29, 2007


grr. "are really and truly."
posted by Malor at 10:01 AM on July 29, 2007


Flint is saying that IF the gap were small, it wouldn't matter to the big acts, but the gap isn't small. It's huge. A CDR costs about 10 cents and a few minutes to burn; the 'real' product, which sounds no better and only looks a little cooler, costs $15. That's a gigantic price delta.

The book market is somewhat different, as people still like paper, and paper is expensive, but for music.... the big guys are going to suffer from piracy, no doubt at all.


what also seperates the book market from the music market is the idea of an 'album.' If people were interested in reading just one chapter of a book, the inherent value of the whole 'book' would be diminished, and thus increasingly the likelihood it would be 'pirated'.

if you think about it though, the mass-media business model depends upon people purchasing products they don't appreciate, it counts on selling people things they don't want, hence the enormous number of 1$ CD's floating around used CD stores.

that strikes me as not such a great idea for any business.
posted by geos at 10:11 AM on July 29, 2007


The book market is somewhat different, as people still like paper, and paper is expensive, but for music.... the big guys are going to suffer from piracy, no doubt at all.
posted by Malor at 1:01 PM on July 29

I would say the big difference between music and books wrt piracy is that with music, the experience of listening to a pirated copy is the same as listening to the legal copy (the only differences - having cover art, feeling good about giving money to the artist - being incidental to the actual experience of listening to the music) whereas the experience of reading an electronic copy of a book is significantly different from the experience of reading a paper copy. It's not really comparing apples to apples.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:20 AM on July 29, 2007


(Oh, and by the way, Lois McMaster Bujold's Mountains of Mourning is available at the Baen Free Library. If you've never read any of the Vorkosigan books, this novella is a good place to start - short enough that reading it electronically won't tax most eyes.)
posted by joannemerriam at 10:22 AM on July 29, 2007


the experience of listening to a pirated copy is the same as listening to the legal copy

Audiophiles would dispute this, as almost all pirated copies are compressed/lossy and often have compression artifacts mixed into the audio.

Still, books suffer less from online piracy than music, if only because books just aren't terribly popular, and pirating a book takes a lot more effort (OCR scanning page after page after page) unless the book was already provided by the publishing company in electronic format.

Regardless, I happen to like Flint's Baen Library model. They give you the first one or two books of a series free, and if you like it enough, you can go ahead and buy the rest.
posted by linux at 10:40 AM on July 29, 2007


Malor, I don't know if those unauthorized copies cost me sales or earn them, and I guess my point is that for me it's not a big deal. I earn less than 5 percent of my income from sales of my writing. I can afford the experiment in heightened fame (and perhaps later greater sales) at the cost of decreased initial income from my work.

Most of the time, as someone who works in the trenches of digital intellectual property issues (unrelated to my writing, somewhat), I am convinced that there is simply no point to trying to halt the free circulation of anything in the digital domain. I don't like that conclusion, particularly, but it's the practical reality.
posted by spitbull at 10:49 AM on July 29, 2007


Which is not to say that I don't spend a good deal of my time working on exactly the problem of limiting the circulation of precious audio and document materials (in my institution's case, governed by regimes of intellectual property specific to indigenous cultural property) while also enabling their responsible use.

A nightmare is what it is.
posted by spitbull at 10:51 AM on July 29, 2007


Flint is saying that IF the gap were small, it wouldn't matter to the big acts, but the gap isn't small. It's huge. A CDR costs about 10 cents and a few minutes to burn; the 'real' product, which sounds no better and only looks a little cooler, costs $15. That's a gigantic price delta.

Actually, no. A CDR costs you the time, effort, and foresight to have blank CDRs around the house; the time to go find your free copy online/wherever; the time to open up your disk-copying program, copy it, and label it.

And if we're talking about regular folks like Mom and Dad and the grandparents, not teenagers, then buying online is a much easier deal. Find the website, find the disk, put in your info, and a few days later here comes the mailman. That's worth something.

My husband and I publish a book electronically that would be super easy to duplicate for friends/whoever, and no doubt that has been done. But since we only charge 5.00, a surprising number of people do go ahead and buy it, just to avoid the hassle.
posted by emjaybee at 11:01 AM on July 29, 2007


But is it really a nightmare? The only reason these problems exist is that we have to deal with new media, which enable us to do things with knowledge that, thirty years ago, would have been inconceivable. Thanks to the online Archive of Americana, for instance, I can access (and search!) tens of thousands of pamphlets from the 18th century at the click of a mouse--a job which would have taken months and thousands of dollars in travel, innumerable bureaucratic barriers, and so on, even a decade ago. That's crazy--and if the price of that is some legal issues with DRM, well, not really a problem, I guess.
posted by nasreddin at 11:10 AM on July 29, 2007


I published a book on line in 1998--a critical edition of a 17th-century account of Russia. The PDF is all over the place now and I couldn't be happier.

I think releasing the full text of books online after initial publication is a good idea. DRM makes some sense for video and audio, but not for books. If I read an excerpt of a book online and like it, I go to Amazon (or wherever) straightaway.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:16 AM on July 29, 2007


I notice that he offers Gust Front on his "Free Books" page.

This itself is actually a form of reverse piracy, as he should be paying anyone unfortunate enough to read a John Ringo novel a large sum of money for the risk of potential brain damage alone.
posted by Avenger at 11:43 AM on July 29, 2007


Avenger - But he's being kind. Gust Front can sort of be enjoyed in a brainless kind of way. He didn't put up Hell's Faire which causes laboratory rats to choke on their own tongues or Watch on the Rhine which bears the Volksaufklärung und Propaganda seal of approval.
posted by Justinian at 12:08 PM on July 29, 2007


Flint doesn't choose which books are free. Any Baen author may select any (or none) of their works to go up. So it's Ringo who is being kind, I guess.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:15 PM on July 29, 2007


Is this where I download humblepigeon's work again?

Nice essay, and I couldn't agree more. I have -- gasp -- downloaded music in the past or have been sent MP3s by friends. If I like the music, I buy the CD for convenience and to say "thanks." If I don't like the music, I wouldn't have bought it anyway (I don't buy "blind.")

If you're an author and I download your work and like it, I'm going to be buying your hardbacks the minute they appear even if I know I could get them later for free.
posted by maxwelton at 12:30 PM on July 29, 2007


as he should be paying anyone unfortunate enough to read a John Ringo novel a large sum of money for the risk of potential brain damage alone

My limited experience with John Ringo indicates that he might be a useful inoculation against L. Neil Smith.

Free copies of Gentry Lee books are probably best classed as war crimes, however.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2007


My limited experience with John Ringo indicates that he might be a useful inoculation against L. Neil Smith.

I understand what you mean, but that is a bit like saying AIDS is a good inoculation against leukemia.

CHRIST ON FIRE YOU TWO FUCKERS STOP WRITING OVERLY LONG PONDEROUS SHIT MONUMENTS TO YOUR INSANE POLITICAL IDEAS JESUS CHRIST ON A POGO STICK FUCK
/head asplodes
posted by Avenger at 2:40 PM on July 29, 2007


This post is funny for me because I actually didn't buy a Baen-published book after skimming a free version online. An old friend who I haven't talked to in years got published by them. I would have bought it out of curiosity, but thankfully I was able to read enough online to see how embarrassingly bad it is.

A lot of books are published each year, but most of them deserve their obscurity.
posted by D.C. at 3:02 PM on July 29, 2007


Also, reading short articles on screen is fine, but if it's a book we're talking about, I want to be able to take it on the train, to the bathroom and to bed with me until I've finished it.

... and you can, with new ebook readers like Sony's eReader. I really do think that in, say, ten years, electronic distribution will be as popular as regular book buying. So, while this may not be a problem for the traditional distribution chain now, it certainly will be in the future.

Right now, the biggest problems with ebook distribution are DRM and the variety of formats available.

DRM makes some sense for video and audio, but not for books. If I read an excerpt of a book online and like it, I go to Amazon (or wherever) straightaway.

This is dependent on people not wanting to read books electronically. Once that (largely technical) barrier is overcome, DRM makes as much sense for books as any other electronic media.

Personally, I'm of two minds about this. DRM is a giant pain in the ass, but I honestly haven't seen a more viable model for ensuring that content providers get paid. Eric's arguments only seem to make sense as long as people still want to buy paper books. I don't think that'll last forever.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:29 PM on July 29, 2007


I first encountered Flint via the Baen Free Library he started. The first couple of books I read by him were middling: unlikely premise, formulaic meandering plot, but decent story-telling. Not great, but hey, it was free. I'd likely not have bought them as $8 soft-covers, but I was happy to download them onto my PDA. (That's another way Flint was canny: he provided multiple different formats, and he could, because he didn't require DRM.)

Because I'd seen his name, I noticed it when I saw it again in the bookstore, and picked up 1633. I already knew he could tell a story, the premise was less unlikely (well, if you're willing to "just accept" time travel), and so I picked it up. Turned out he'd become a better tighter writer and I enjoyed the story enough to buy up several of the sequels. The latest sequel, because I can afford to and didn't want to wait, I bought in hardcover.

By making two or three books free to me, Flint's now sold me 5 or six for, call it $50 retail. and now that I know he's "safely readable", I'll be inclined to pick up one of his books if I'm browsing in the bookstore. Well played, Mr. Flint.
posted by orthogonality at 5:25 PM on July 29, 2007


Justinian writes "Watch on the Rhine which bears the Volksaufklärung und Propaganda seal of approval."

Very very rarely do I not finish a fiction book. So in a perverse way, Watch on the Rhine stands out. It's not just the rightwingery and the affection for "apolitical" Nazis; its the ridiculous premise and the incoherent plot.
posted by orthogonality at 5:31 PM on July 29, 2007


orthogonality - The thing is, I've seen Ringo, Kratman, and fans of the book defend it with twisted logic about it confronting the evils of Naziism as well as the blah blah blah martial virtues blah blah and so on. They don't seem to be able to grapple with the idea that authors choosewhat stories to write. It's not like aliens came down and forced Ringo and Kratman to write a book with Waffen SS as heroes and they did the best they could to portray "both sides" while laboring under that constraint. No, not at all. Instead, of the entire universe of books and stories they could have written, Ringo and Kratman decided to write one in which some good soldiers and decent guys (and, yes, one evil guy) who just happen to be Waffen SS heroically save a bunch of Jews.

Norman Spinrad's corpse has traveled back in time from the hopefully distant future just to spin in its grave.
posted by Justinian at 6:01 PM on July 29, 2007


All that said, there are a bunch of Ringo novels and co-novels I have enjoyed as popcorny guilty pleasures. I believe Kratman to be the driving force behind Watch on the Rhine based on his State of Disobedience in which a bunch of gun totin' red-staters save the country by killin' Hillary Clinton and the fags.
posted by Justinian at 6:04 PM on July 29, 2007


I've read some Ringo novels I liked, and a bunch that were ... kind of ... disturbing. Unfortunately, it seems like as authors get more famous, they get less editing, and in Ringo's case, I think more editing was a good thing -- in one of his more recent books, for example, there's just a way too much time spent on BDSM and polyamory which I found offputting. (This is the same series where his hero goes to Syria (?) and not only kills Osama Bin Laden, but finds WMDs to boot.)

Watch on the Rhine was pretty disturbing for its whitwashed portrayal of the Waffen SS.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:38 AM on July 30, 2007


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