Chad Perrin: SOB

9 July 2008

Does copyright really help — or stand in your way?

Filed under: Liberty — apotheon @ 01:31

In two simple perspectives on copyright, I brought up some ways one can view copyright in a new light — a light not cast by the copyright dependent corporate industries represented by publishing houses and record labels. Obviously, as simple as they are, neither is meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the matter. I hope, though, that readers will at least consider the statements and how they match up with the reality of the matter. Don’t just dismiss them in your rush to offer your own position on the matter: actually think about them.

I decided to offer this response to one of the more common arguments for copyright law. It begins with a quote from a comment on two simple perspectives on copyright, which encapsulates that argument pretty well:

Copyright allows people to try to make money off of certain types of creative work, which gives them an incentive to actually produce that work.

the response

Once.

If you have exclusive rights to it, and it’s popular enough, you may never have to create anything again. For every successful creator who is motivated to create more, there’s another motivated to create less. Worse, in a corporate system, it’s inevitable that the creators will not be the major beneficiaries of the profits from their government granted monopolies on ideas.

Copyright isn’t even necessary to make a good living off your creativity. Selling discrete units is far from the only way to make money from your creations — especially now that technology has advanced so far beyond the days of the Gutenberg press. In fact, while those who’ve succumbed to inertia, who are convinced the only way to make a living on creative works is through copyright law because that’s the only way they’ve ever made money on creative works, lament the greater ease of copying and distributing their works without their permission, the truth is that the increased ease and decreased cost of copying and distribution could be a major windfall for content creators. Think about it — why do writers need publishing houses? Why do musicians need record labels?

They only “need” these corporations’ “help” because of the cost of copying and distributing their work. The amount of revenue you need to generate has to overcome these costs before you make any money — which is why publishing houses and record labels insist on acquiring your copyright in exchange for a relative pittance handout from the profits for your own work. With the ability to copy and distribute your own work so easily and cheaply represented by digital technologies (think: Internet), you can now distribute your work yourself, without going through a corporate middleman, and keep all the profits (minus some minimal overhead, of course).

You don’t need anyone else’s permission to publish your work. You don’t have to give anyone else the power to restrict your ability to do what you want with what you’ve created.

If you’re making money with your creativity, but you have to give up ownership of what you create, you’re getting taken for a ride. Obviously, you shouldn’t just abandon a reliable revenue stream if you need the money. What you should do, though, is look for a way to break free, to regain your independence, and to ensure that no corporation has the legal power to tell you what to do with your own creations.

Maybe, at a later date, I’ll go over some business models you might use to establish that independence, and to generate revenue without relying on the artificial scarcity model that relies on copyright law.

10 Comments

  1. As always, I love your reasoning on the subject.

    It would still be nice, though, to see my novel (whenever I get around to rewriting it) on the shelves of major bookstores throughout the country, at least once. ;)

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 9 July 2008 @ 03:07

  2. Thanks, Joseph. It’s always nice to receive such compliments from people whose opinions I respect.

    It would still be nice, though, to see my novel (whenever I get around to rewriting it) on the shelves of major bookstores throughout the country, at least once. ;)

    There are writers out there who, having gained a lot of fans through online distribution, got deals with publishing houses to get their novels sold the old-fashioned way too. Corey Doctorow regularly makes his novels freely available online and still manages to get major publishing houses to print and distribute them.

    If you get a publishing house interested, try to strike a deal whereby you keep your copyright, and just promise for some limited period that you won’t distribute it in any way that might undercut the publisher’s sales. Keep in mind as well that, the more well known you become, the easier it’ll be to dictate your terms later on.

    Just remember that, if you sell the book to a publisher the old-fashioned copyright business model way, you’ll forever after have to abide by the publisher’s wishes with regard to the disposition of what you’ve created. At that point, it’s no longer yours in any way that matters, except as marketing for your name as its author. Part of your decision should be predicated upon an understanding of that state of affairs — of what you’re really giving up when you sell copyright for something you’ve written to a publisher.

    Comment by apotheon — 9 July 2008 @ 03:25

  3. If you have exclusive rights to it, and it’s popular enough, you may never have to create anything again. For every successful creator who is motivated to create more, there’s another motivated to create less.

    Unfortunately, this indicates several assumptions about the publishing industry that just aren’t correct. For instance, back when I was freelancing (10-15 years ago, but inflation hasn’t gone up that much!) the average annual income for a professional writer was $4,000. So not only are there tons of people barely scraping by selling their books for every best-selling author, but you also aren’t taking into account the people who are making a living off of selling things like magazine articles rather than books. Articles don’t make a writer wealthy, but because most writers retain copyright they’re often able to resell articles and sell derivative articles—in fact, that’s where many professional freelancers make the bulk of their money.

    Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a best-selling author who gave up writing or was in any way encouraged to produce less because they’d made their millions. Nora Roberts still puts out four books a year. Stephen King still publishes. Dean Koontz. Also, even those books that do make the best-seller lists don’t tend to be enough to set their authors up for life—fiction pays a lot less than people tend to think. There are plenty of authors who are technically ‘best-sellers’ who still need day jobs. Except for extremely rare cases such as Rowling—and make no mistake, she’s the one in a million exception, not the rule—it takes a long time for even a talented author to reach the point of being able to never work again if they wanted.

    Worse, in a corporate system, it’s inevitable that the creators will not be the major beneficiaries of the profits from their government granted monopolies on ideas.

    That I absolutely agree with you on. But then, that’s why I mentioned Disney and the fact that copyright has been twisted to benefit corps rather than creators. It needs to somehow be set back to rights such that it benefits creators more than corps.

    the truth is that the increased ease and decreased cost of copying and distribution could be a major windfall for content creators. Think about it — why do writers need publishing houses? Why do musicians need record labels?

    In some ways I agree with you—and in others I don’t. You should perhaps read “The Well-Fed Self-Publisher”—it’s all about pretty much exactly what you’re talking about, which is doing well as an author without a publishing house. However, even that writer, who has done quite well by those methods, states that making it through self-publishing is far more about being a good marketer than it is about being a good writer. I agree that there are great new methods available and that writers can take advantage of them. I also agree that many creatives are far too over-concerned about how easy it is to copy their works, while others delightedly take advantage of the kinds of nifty exposure and such you can get when working in an electronic medium. That said, I think it should be up to the creators which method they choose.

    Many book stores simply won’t stock books that don’t come through certain well-established channels that publishers have a strong hold on. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other options, but if a writer has the ability to go with a publishing company and wants to do so, in order to give themselves the ability to spend their time writing rather than pursuing distribution companies, shouldn’t they be allowed to choose that? Most readers still prefer paper books, and many writers will want to cater to that, quite understandably. But to a certain extent it comes down to choice: shouldn’t the creative have options? Just as we say they shouldn’t be forced to sign with a major publisher or record label or what have you, shouldn’t they also not be forced to do things in whatever manner you or I think is best?

    which is why publishing houses and record labels insist on acquiring your copyright

    Publishers only acquire copyright under two circumstances:

    1. They’re a disreputable publishing house. A reputable publishing house will NEVER insist on taking copyright from the author. Instead, they acquire certain limited-time exclusivity rights.

    2. It’s a work-for-hire situation. This is only the case when the publisher approaches the author about writing a certain type of work.

    I agree with much of your reasoning and many of your points, but you’re operating under a couple of misapprehensions about how the publishing industry operates.

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 10 July 2008 @ 07:09

  4. It occurs to me that some of the confusion over whether publishers acquire copyright is probably due to terminology. For example, a magazine might acquire FNASR, or first North American serial rights, when buying an article from an author. This is not acquiring copyright in any form. It refers only to publication rights, which in this case means the right to be the first publication to publish an article in serial form in North America. A great source of info on publishing contracts is at the SFWA site. They also have a lot of info under Writer Beware regarding disreputable publishers and the like. I don’t always agree with the stance of various people at SFWA, but I do like their attempts to make sure authors know about their rights and the scam artists who try to grab them.

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 10 July 2008 @ 08:07

  5. Unfortunately, this indicates several assumptions about the publishing industry that just aren’t correct. For instance, back when I was freelancing (10-15 years ago, but inflation hasn’t gone up that much!) the average annual income for a professional writer was $4,000.

    You’re operating on some unwarranted assumptions yourself — like the fact that I never suggested that “never having to create anything again” was the average. Just reading what I write usually yields better results than reading into it.

    So not only are there tons of people barely scraping by selling their books for every best-selling author, but you also aren’t taking into account the people who are making a living off of selling things like magazine articles rather than books.

    The one specific statement you quoted didn’t address article writing — but that doesn’t mean I ignored it. Believe me when I say that I know about the trials and tribulations of an article writer — writing articles is my most reliable source of income right now.

    Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a best-selling author who gave up writing or was in any way encouraged to produce less because they’d made their millions.

    Writers give up writing all the time. To pretend otherwise is silly.

    . . . but I wonder what makes you think the converse is necessarily true — that these people wouldn’t write if they didn’t make their money via artificial scarcity created through monopoly power.

    Also, even those books that do make the best-seller lists don’t tend to be enough to set their authors up for life—fiction pays a lot less than people tend to think.

    I wonder where you get the idea I was specifically targeting fiction at some point.

    But then, that’s why I mentioned Disney and the fact that copyright has been twisted to benefit corps rather than creators.

    Did you miss my use of the word “inevitable”? There’s essentially no way, with both corporations and copyright in existence, for copyright to be anything but a tool for corporations to control their markets in the long run.

    However, even that writer, who has done quite well by those methods, states that making it through self-publishing is far more about being a good marketer than it is about being a good writer.

    That’s only true because nobody wants to build a market any longer. They want to just magic one up out of nowhere.

    Here’s an idea: Work a day job, get your name out there (without making any money if need be), and save up until you can pay someone else to do the marketing for you. That’s for people who lack the marketing skills themselves, of course. Sometimes, you have to do work that isn’t directly related to your ultimate dream job in order to get to the dream itself.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t other options, but if a writer has the ability to go with a publishing company and wants to do so, in order to give themselves the ability to spend their time writing rather than pursuing distribution companies, shouldn’t they be allowed to choose that?

    Sure they should. That has nothing to do with requiring government-granted monopolies to make a living, though.

    shouldn’t the creative have options?

    “Have options” isn’t the same as “have the power to put someone in jail for sharing a book with someone else”.

    Just as we say they shouldn’t be forced to sign with a major publisher or record label or what have you, shouldn’t they also not be forced to do things in whatever manner you or I think is best?

    I’ll rephrase your question for you:

    “Just as we say they shouldn’t be forced to sign with a major publisher or record label or what have you, shouldn’t they also not be forced to refrain from forcing other people to play along with their monopolistic artificial scarcity schemes?”

    . . . and the answer is “That’s a really weird question.”

    They’re a disreputable publishing house. A reputable publishing house will NEVER insist on taking copyright from the author. Instead, they acquire certain limited-time exclusivity rights.

    Unless I missed something, essentially all major publishing houses insist on taking copyright, any time they think they can get away with it. If you want to avoid being on the receiving end of such ill treatment, you have to have an agent or know all the things an agent knows — and tolerate rejection well.

    It’s a work-for-hire situation. This is only the case when the publisher approaches the author about writing a certain type of work.

    . . . which makes up the vast majority of cases of regular professional writing, thus reinforcing my last statement.

    I agree with much of your reasoning and many of your points, but you’re operating under a couple of misapprehensions about how the publishing industry operates.

    Again . . . I think you’ll have better luck if you just read what I write, rather than reading into it.

    . . . and even if you were right about all that, it wouldn’t change the fact that there’s no argument for copyright as a right that isn’t ultimately self-contradictory.

    Comment by apotheon — 10 July 2008 @ 08:40

  6. I believe that any misapprehensions I had regarding what you said were perhaps due more to your wording than to reading what I wanted to see into your words, but we’ll have to disagree on that point. I also think you’re reading some assumptions into my words that aren’t there. I’m hardly trying to imply that copyright is in any way, shape or form an ideal or wonderful system—just that for the moment it’s useful in some situations, and I would hate to see it thrown away wholesale without some protections for creatives established in its place.

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 10 July 2008 @ 09:17

  7. I would hate to see it thrown away wholesale without some protections for creatives established in its place.

    By contrast, I would love to be able to operate in an industry that isn’t hobbled by any protectionism at all.

    Comment by apotheon — 10 July 2008 @ 09:33

  8. By contrast, I would love to be able to operate in an industry that isn’t hobbled by any protectionism at all.

    I think that’s a laudable goal; I’m just not as sure as you are that it’s viable. I think that most such idealistic approaches to a thing tend to break down once introduced into society on a large scale. I hope that I’m wrong, naturally. :)

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 11 July 2008 @ 06:06

  9. I think that most such idealistic approaches to a thing tend to break down once introduced into society on a large scale.

    While there are ideals involved in such a desire, it’s not “idealistic” in the sense of ignoring practicality in favor of ideals. There’s a strong pragmatic component as well — because markets work better when free, divested of the monopolistic control of centers of economic power such as corporations, allowing easier entry to a market, greater opportunity for success of quality work, and less potential for the inept to hold on due to nothing more than the ability to use force and legal manipulations to prevent competitors from capturing market share.

    . . . to say nothing of the fact that business models other than the artificial scarcity, intellectual protectionism model currently in force have been proven viable over and over again by those individuals willing and able to give it a shot. Without the oppressive presence of copyright regime corporate actors in the market, it would be much easier to pursue such alternative business models — because doing so wouldn’t require lone pioneers having to fight for every iota of success against already successful monopolists.

    Comment by apotheon — 11 July 2008 @ 10:42

  10. I received a comment from a spammer, in response to this SOB entry, that said:

    Its a tricky balance, without copyrights for instance, drug companies would have no incentive to do drug research if anyone could clone that company’s formula to produce their own generic brand. It gives people incentive to be the first to discover something so that they may reap the benfits.

    It’s not copyright that pharmaceutical companies use to maintain their current business model: that would be patents, instead.

    I decided to copy the content, and respond to it here, because it is somewhat relevant to the SOB entry and subsequent discussion, but I have deleted the spammer’s actual post. I don’t want links leading back to sales sites for Propecia just because spammers are getting more clever with their comment text.

    Comment by apotheon — 15 July 2008 @ 08:04

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License