Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future

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The Internet is enabling a further decentralization in who gets to make art, and like each of the technological shifts in cultural production, it's good for some artists and bad for others. The important question is: will it let more people participate in cultural production? Will it further decentralize decision-making for artists?

And for SF writers and fans, the further question is, "Will it be any good to our chosen medium?" Like I said, science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet. It's the only literature that regularly shows up, scanned and run through optical character recognition software and lovingly hand-edited on darknet newsgroups, Russian websites, IRC channels and elsewhere (yes, there's also a brisk trade in comics and technical books, but I'm talking about prose fiction here -- though this is clearly a sign of hope for our friends in tech publishing and funnybooks).

Some writers are using the Internet's affinity for SF to great effect. I've released every one of my novels under Creative Commons licenses that encourage fans to share them freely and widely -- even, in some cases, to remix them and to make new editions of them for use in the developing world. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is in its sixth printing from Tor, and has been downloaded more than 650,000 times from my website, and an untold number of times from others' websites.

I've discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer's biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn't know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.

But what kind of artist thrives on the Internet? Those who can establish a personal relationship with their readers -- something science fiction has been doing for as long as pros have been hanging out in the con suite instead of the green room. These conversational artists come from all fields, and they combine the best aspects of charisma and virtuosity with charm -- the ability to conduct their online selves as part of a friendly salon that establishes a non-substitutable relationship with their audiences. You might find a film, a game, and a book to be equally useful diversions on a slow afternoon, but if the novel's author is a pal of yours, that's the one you'll pick. It's a competitive advantage that can't be beat.

See Neil Gaiman's blog, where he manages the trick of carrying on a conversation with millions. Or Charlie Stross's Usenet posts. Scalzi's blogs. J. Michael Straczynski's presence on Usenet -- while in production on Babylon 5, no less -- breeding an army of rabid fans ready to fax-bomb recalcitrant TV execs into submission and syndication. See also the MySpace bands selling a million units of their CDs by adding each buyer to their "friends lists." Watch Eric Flint manage the Baen Bar, and Warren Ellis's good-natured growling on his sites, lists, and so forth.

Not all artists have in them to conduct an online salon with their audiences. Not all Vaudevillians had it in them to transition to radio. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. SF writers are supposed to be soaked in the future, ready to come to grips with it. The future is conversational: when there's more good stuff that you know about that's one click away or closer than you will ever click on, it's not enough to know that some book is good. The least substitutable good in the Internet era is the personal relationship.

Conversation, not content, is king. If you were stranded on a desert island and you opted to bring your records instead of your friends, we'd call you a sociopath. Science fiction writers who can insert themselves into their readers' conversations will be set for life.


How Copyright Broke

(Originally published in Locus Magazine, September, 2006)

The theory is that if the Internet can't be controlled, then copyright is dead. The thing is, the Internet is a machine for copying things cheaply, quickly, and with as little control as possible, while copyright is the right to control who gets to make copies, so these two abstractions seem destined for a fatal collision, right?


The idea that copyright confers the exclusive right to control copying, performance, adaptation, and general use of a creative work is a polite fiction that has been mostly harmless throughout its brief history, but which has been laid bare by the Internet, and the disjoint is showing.

Theoretically, if I sell you a copy of one of my novels, I'm conferring upon you a property interest in a lump of atoms -- the pages of the book -- as well as a license to make some reasonable use of the ethereal ideas embedded upon the page, the copyrighted work.

Copyright started with a dispute between Scottish and English publishers, and the first copyright law, 1709's Statute of Anne, conferred the exclusive right to publish new editions of a book on the copyright holder. It was a fair competition statute, and it was silent on the rights that the copyright holder had in respect of his customers: the readers. Publishers got a legal tool to fight their competitors, a legal tool that made a distinction between the corpus -- a physical book -- and the spirit -- the novel writ on its pages. But this legal nicety was not "customer-facing." As far as a reader was concerned, once she bought a book, she got the same rights to it as she got to any other physical object, like a potato or a shovel. Of course, the reader couldn't print a new edition, but this had as much to do with the realities of technology as it did with the law. Printing presses were rare and expensive: telling a 17th-century reader that he wasn't allowed to print a new edition of a book you sold him was about as meaningful as telling him he wasn't allowed to have it laser-etched on the surface of the moon. Publishing books wasn't something readers did.

Indeed, until the photocopier came along, it was practically impossible for a member of the audience to infringe copyright in a way that would rise to legal notice. Copyright was like a tank-mine, designed only to go off when a publisher or record company or radio station rolled over it. We civilians couldn't infringe copyright (many thanks to Jamie Boyle for this useful analogy).

It wasn't the same for commercial users of copyrighted works. For the most part, a radio station that played a record was expected to secure permission to do so (though this permission usually comes in the form of a government-sanctioned blanket license that cuts through all the expense of negotiating in favor of a single monthly payment that covers all radio play). If you shot a movie, you were expected to get permission for the music you put in it. Critically, there are many uses that commercial users never paid for. Most workplaces don't pay for the music their employees enjoy while they work. An ad agency that produces a demo reel of recent commercials to use as part of a creative briefing to a designer doesn't pay for this extremely commercial use. A film company whose set-designer clips and copies from magazines and movies to produce a "mood book" never secures permission nor offers compensation for these uses.

Theoretically, the contours of what you may and may not do without permission are covered under a legal doctrine called "fair use," which sets out the factors a judge can use to weigh the question of whether an infringement should be punished. While fair use is a vital part of the way that works get made and used, it's very rare for an unauthorized use to get adjudicated on this basis.

No, the realpolitik of unauthorized use is that users are not required to secure permission for uses that the rights holder will never discover. If you put some magazine clippings in your mood book, the magazine publisher will never find out you did so. If you stick a Dilbert cartoon on your office-door, Scott Adams will never know about it.

So while technically the law has allowed rights holders to infinitely discriminate among the offerings they want to make -- Special discounts on this book, which may only be read on Wednesdays! This film half-price, if you agree only to show it to people whose names start with D! -- practicality has dictated that licenses could only be offered on enforceable terms.

When it comes to retail customers for information goods -- readers, listeners, watchers -- this whole license abstraction falls flat. No one wants to believe that the book he's brought home is only partly his, and subject to the terms of a license set out on the flyleaf. You'd be a flaming jackass if you showed up at a con and insisted that your book may not be read aloud, nor photocopied in part and marked up for a writers' workshop, nor made the subject of a piece of fan-fiction.

At the office, you might get a sweet deal on a coffee machine on the promise that you'll use a certain brand of coffee, and even sign off on a deal to let the coffee company check in on this from time to time. But no one does this at home. We instinctively and rightly recoil from the idea that our personal, private dealings in our homes should be subject to oversight from some company from whom we've bought something. We bought it. It's ours. Even when we rent things, like cars, we recoil from the idea that Hertz might track our movements, or stick a camera in the steering wheel.

When the Internet and the PC made it possible to sell a lot of purely digital "goods" -- software, music, movies and books delivered as pure digits over the wire, without a physical good changing hands, the copyright lawyers groped about for a way to take account of this. It's in the nature of a computer that it copies what you put on it. A computer is said to be working, and of high quality, in direct proportion to the degree to which it swiftly and accurately copies the information that it is presented with.

The copyright lawyers had a versatile hammer in their toolbox: the copyright license. These licenses had been presented to corporations for years. Frustratingly (for the lawyers), these corporate customers had their own counsel, and real bargaining power, which made it impossible to impose really interesting conditions on them, like limiting the use of a movie such that it couldn't be fast-forwarded, or preventing the company from letting more than one employee review a journal at a time.

Regular customers didn't have lawyers or negotiating leverage. They were a natural for licensing regimes. Have a look at the next click-through "agreement" you're provided with on purchasing a piece of software or an electronic book or song. The terms set out in those agreements are positively Dickensian in their marvelous idiocy. Sony BMG recently shipped over eight million music CDs with an "agreement" that bound its purchasers to destroy their music if they left the country or had a house-fire, and to promise not to listen to their tunes while at work.

But customers understand property -- you bought it, you own it -- and they don't understand copyright. Practically no one understands copyright. I know editors at multibillion-dollar publishing houses who don't know the difference between copyright and trademark (if you've ever heard someone say, "You need to defend a copyright or you lose it," you've found one of these people who confuse copyright and trademark; what's more, this statement isn't particularly true of trademark, either). I once got into an argument with a senior Disney TV exec who truly believed that if you re-broadcasted an old program, it was automatically re-copyrighted and got another 95 years of exclusive use (that's wrong).

So this is where copyright breaks: When copyright lawyers try to treat readers and listeners and viewers as if they were (weak and unlucky) corporations who could be strong-armed into license agreements you wouldn't wish on a dog. There's no conceivable world in which people are going to tiptoe around the property they've bought and paid for, re-checking their licenses to make sure that they're abiding by the terms of an agreement they doubtless never read. Why read something if it's non-negotiable, anyway?

The answer is simple: treat your readers' property as property. What readers do with their own equipment, as private, noncommercial actors, is not a fit subject for copyright regulation or oversight. The Securities Exchange Commission doesn't impose rules on you when you loan a friend five bucks for lunch. Anti-gambling laws aren't triggered when you bet your kids an ice-cream cone that you'll bicycle home before them. Copyright shouldn't come between an end-user of a creative work and her property.

Of course, this approach is made even simpler by the fact that practically every customer for copyrighted works already operates on this assumption. Which is not to say that this might make some business-models more difficult to pursue. Obviously, if there was some way to ensure that a given publisher was the only source for a copyrighted work, that publisher could hike up its prices, devote less money to service, and still sell its wares. Having to compete with free copies handed from user to user makes life harder -- hasn't it always?

But it is most assuredly possible. Look at Apple's wildly popular iTunes Music Store, which has sold over one billion tracks since 2003. Every song on iTunes is available as a free download from user-to-user, peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa. Indeed, the P2P monitoring company Big Champagne reports that the average time-lapse between a iTunes-exclusive song being offered by Apple and that same song being offered on P2P networks is 180 seconds.

Every iTunes customer could readily acquire every iTunes song for free, using the fastest-adopted technology in history. Many of them do (just as many fans photocopy their favorite stories from magazines and pass them around to friends). But Apple has figured out how to compete well enough by offering a better service and a better experience to realize a good business out of this. (Apple also imposes ridiculous licensing restrictions, but that's a subject for a future column).

Science fiction is a genre of clear-eyed speculation about the future. It should have no place for wishful thinking about a world where readers willingly put up with the indignity of being treated as "licensees" instead of customers.


And now a brief commercial interlude:

If you're enjoying this book and have been thinking of buying a copy, here's a chance to do so:


In Praise of Fanfic

(Originally published in Locus Magazine, May 2007)

I wrote my first story when I was six. It was 1977, and I had just had my mind blown clean out of my skull by a new movie called Star Wars (the golden age of science fiction is 12; the golden age of cinematic science fiction is six). I rushed home and stapled a bunch of paper together, trimmed the sides down so that it approximated the size and shape of a mass-market paperback, and set to work. I wrote an elaborate, incoherent ramble about Star Wars, in which the events of the film replayed themselves, tweaked to suit my tastes.

I wrote a lot of Star Wars fanfic that year. By the age of 12, I'd graduated to Conan. By the age of 18, it was Harlan Ellison. By the age of 26, it was Bradbury, by way of Gibson. Today, I hope I write more or less like myself.

Walk the streets of Florence and you'll find a copy of the David on practically every corner. For centuries, the way to become a Florentine sculptor has been to copy Michelangelo, to learn from the master. Not just the great Florentine sculptors, either -- great or terrible, they all start with the master; it can be the start of a lifelong passion, or a mere fling. The copy can be art, or it can be crap -- the best way to find out which kind you've got inside you is to try.

Science fiction has the incredible good fortune to have attracted huge, social groups of fan-fiction writers. Many pros got their start with fanfic (and many of them still work at it in secret), and many fanfic writers are happy to scratch their itch by working only with others' universes, for the sheer joy of it. Some fanfic is great -- there's plenty of Buffy fanfic that trumps the official, licensed tie-in novels -- and some is purely dreadful.

Two things are sure about all fanfic, though: first, that people who write and read fanfic are already avid readers of writers whose work they're paying homage to; and second, that the people who write and read fanfic derive fantastic satisfaction from their labors. This is great news for writers.

Great because fans who are so bought into your fiction that they'll make it their own are fans forever, fans who'll evangelize your work to their friends, fans who'll seek out your work however you publish it.

Great because fans who use your work therapeutically, to work out their own creative urges, are fans who have a damned good reason to stick with the field, to keep on reading even as our numbers dwindle. Even when the fandom revolves around movies or TV shows, fanfic is itself a literary pursuit, something undertaken in the world of words. The fanfic habit is a literary habit.

In Japan, comic book fanfic writers publish fanfic manga called dojinshi -- some of these titles dwarf the circulation of the work they pay tribute to, and many of them are sold commercially. Japanese comic publishers know a good thing when they see it, and these fanficcers get left alone by the commercial giants they attach themselves to.

And yet for all this, there are many writers who hate fanfic. Some argue that fans have no business appropriating their characters and situations, that it's disrespectful to imagine your precious fictional people into sexual scenarios, or to retell their stories from a different point of view, or to snatch a victorious happy ending from the tragic defeat the writer ended her book with.

Other writers insist that fans who take without asking -- or against the writer's wishes -- are part of an "entitlement culture" that has decided that it has the moral right to lift scenarios and characters without permission, that this is part of our larger postmodern moral crisis that is making the world a worse place.

Some writers dismiss all fanfic as bad art and therefore unworthy of appropriation. Some call it copyright infringement or trademark infringement, and every now and again, some loony will actually threaten to sue his readers for having had the gall to tell his stories to each other.

I'm frankly flabbergasted by these attitudes. Culture is a lot older than art -- that is, we have had social storytelling for a lot longer than we've had a notional class of artistes whose creativity is privileged and elevated to the numinous, far above the everyday creativity of a kid who knows that she can paint and draw, tell a story and sing a song, sculpt and invent a game.

To call this a moral failing -- and a new moral failing at that! -- is to turn your back on millions of years of human history. It's no failing that we internalize the stories we love, that we rework them to suit our minds better. The Pygmalion story didn't start with Shaw or the Greeks, nor did it end with My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is at least thousands of years old -- think of Moses passing for the Pharaoh's son! -- and has been reworked in a billion bedtime stories, novels, D&D games, movies, fanfic stories, songs, and legends.

Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original -- no two tellings are just alike -- and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. That's why writers don't really get excited when they're approached by people with great ideas for novels. We've all got more ideas than we can use -- what we lack is the cohesive whole.

Much fanfic -- the stuff written for personal consumption or for a small social group -- isn't bad art. It's just not art. It's not written to make a contribution to the aesthetic development of humanity. It's created to satisfy the deeply human need to play with the stories that constitute our world. There's nothing trivial about telling stories with your friends -- even if the stories themselves are trivial. The act of telling stories to one another is practically sacred -- and it's unquestionably profound. What's more, lots of retellings are art: witness Pat Murphy's wonderful There and Back Again (Tolkien) and Geoff Ryman's brilliant World Fantasy Award-winning Was (L. Frank Baum).

The question of respect is, perhaps, a little thornier. The dominant mode of criticism in fanfic circles is to compare a work to the canon -- "Would Spock ever say that, in 'real' life?" What's more, fanfic writers will sometimes apply this test to works that are of the canon, as in "Spock never would have said that, and Gene Roddenberry has no business telling me otherwise."

This is a curious mix of respect and disrespect. Respect because it's hard to imagine a more respectful stance than the one that says that your work is the yardstick against which all other work is to be measured -- what could be more respectful than having your work made into the gold standard? On the other hand, this business of telling writers that they've given their characters the wrong words and deeds can feel obnoxious or insulting.

Writers sometimes speak of their characters running away from them, taking on a life of their own. They say that these characters -- drawn from real people in our lives and mixed up with our own imagination -- are autonomous pieces of themselves. It's a short leap from there to mystical nonsense about protecting our notional, fictional children from grubby fans who'd set them to screwing each other or bowing and scraping before some thinly veiled version of the fanfic writer herself.

There's something to the idea of the autonomous character. Big chunks of our wetware are devoted to simulating other people, trying to figure out if we are likely to fight or fondle them. It's unsurprising that when you ask your brain to model some other person, it rises to the task. But that's exactly what happens to a reader when you hand your book over to him: he simulates your characters in his head, trying to interpret that character's actions through his own lens.

Writers can't ask readers not to interpret their work. You can't enjoy a novel that you haven't interpreted -- unless you model the author's characters in your head, you can't care about what they do and why they do it. And once readers model a character, it's only natural that readers will take pleasure in imagining what that character might do offstage, to noodle around with it. This isn't disrespect: it's active reading.

Our field is incredibly privileged to have such an active fanfic writing practice. Let's stop treating them like thieves and start treating them like honored guests at a table that we laid just for them.


Metacrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia

(Self-published, 26 August 2001)

0. ToC:

0. ToC

0.1 Version History

1. Introduction

2. The problems

2.1 People lie

2.2 People are lazy

2.3 People are stupid

2.4 Mission: Impossible -- know thyself

2.5 Schemas aren't neutral

2.6 Metrics influence results

2.7 There's more than one way to describe something

3. Reliable metadata

1. Introduction

Metadata is "data about data" -- information like keywords, page-length, title, word-count, abstract, location, SKU, ISBN, and so on. Explicit, human-generated metadata has enjoyed recent trendiness, especially in the world of XML. A typical scenario goes like this: a number of suppliers get together and agree on a metadata standard -- a Document Type Definition or scheme -- for a given subject area, say washing machines. They agree to a common vocabulary for describing washing machines: size, capacity, energy consumption, water consumption, price. They create machine-readable databases of their inventory, which are available in whole or part to search agents and other databases, so that a consumer can enter the parameters of the washing machine he's seeking and query multiple sites simultaneously for an exhaustive list of the available washing machines that meet his criteria.

If everyone would subscribe to such a system and create good metadata for the purposes of describing their goods, services and information, it would be a trivial matter to search the Internet for highly qualified, context-sensitive results: a fan could find all the downloadable music in a given genre, a manufacturer could efficiently discover suppliers, travelers could easily choose a hotel room for an upcoming trip.

A world of exhaustive, reliable metadata would be a utopia. It's also a pipe-dream, founded on self-delusion, nerd hubris and hysterically inflated market opportunities.

2. The problems

There are at least seven insurmountable obstacles between the world as we know it and meta-utopia. I'll enumerate them below:.

2.1 People lie

Metadata exists in a competitive world. Suppliers compete to sell their goods, cranks compete to convey their crackpot theories (mea culpa), artists compete for audience. Attention-spans and wallets may not be zero-sum, but they're damned close.

That's why:

  • A search for any commonly referenced term at a search-engine like Altavista will often turn up at least one porn link in the first ten results.

  • Your mailbox is full of spam with subject lines like "Re: The information you requested."

  • Publisher's Clearing House sends out advertisements that holler "You may already be a winner!"

  • Press-releases have gargantuan lists of empty buzzwords attached to them.

Meta-utopia is a world of reliable metadata. When poisoning the well confers benefits to the poisoners, the meta-waters get awfully toxic in short order.

2.2 People are lazy

You and me are engaged in the incredibly serious business of creating information. Here in the Info-Ivory-Tower, we understand the importance of creating and maintaining excellent metadata for our information.

But info-civilians are remarkably cavalier about their information. Your clueless aunt sends you email with no subject line, half the pages on Geocities are called "Please title this page" and your boss stores all of his files on his desktop with helpful titles like "UNTITLED.DOC."

This laziness is bottomless. No amount of ease-of-use will end it. To understand the true depths of meta-laziness, download ten random MP3 files from Napster. Chances are, at least one will have no title, artist or track information -- this despite the fact that adding in this info merely requires clicking the "Fetch Track Info from CDDB" button on every MP3-ripping application.

Short of breaking fingers or sending out squads of vengeful info-ninjas to add metadata to the average user's files, we're never gonna get there.

2.3 People are stupid

Even when there's a positive benefit to creating good metadata, people steadfastly refuse to exercise care and diligence in their metadata creation.

Take eBay: every seller there has a damned good reason for double-checking their listings for typos and misspellings. Try searching for "plam" on eBay. Right now, that turns up nine typoed listings for "Plam Pilots." Misspelled listings don't show up in correctly-spelled searches and hence garner fewer bids and lower sale-prices. You can almost always get a bargain on a Plam Pilot at eBay.

The fine (and gross) points of literacy -- spelling, punctuation, grammar -- elude the vast majority of the Internet's users. To believe that J. Random Users will suddenly and en masse learn to spell and punctuate -- let alone accurately categorize their information according to whatever hierarchy they're supposed to be using -- is self-delusion of the first water.

2.4 Mission: Impossible -- know thyself

In meta-utopia, everyone engaged in the heady business of describing stuff carefully weighs the stuff in the balance and accurately divines the stuff's properties, noting those results.

Simple observation demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption. When Nielsen used log-books to gather information on the viewing habits of their sample families, the results were heavily skewed to Masterpiece Theater and Sesame Street. Replacing the journals with set-top boxes that reported what the set was actually tuned to showed what the average American family was really watching: naked midget wrestling, America's Funniest Botched Cosmetic Surgeries and Jerry Springer presents: "My daughter dresses like a slut!"

Ask a programmer how long it'll take to write a given module, or a contractor how long it'll take to fix your roof. Ask a laconic Southerner how far it is to the creek. Better yet, throw darts -- the answer's likely to be just as reliable.

People are lousy observers of their own behaviors. Entire religions are formed with the goal of helping people understand themselves better; therapists rake in billions working for this very end.

Why should we believe that using metadata will help J. Random User get in touch with her Buddha nature?

2.5 Schemas aren't neutral

In meta-utopia, the lab-coated guardians of epistemology sit down and rationally map out a hierarchy of ideas, something like this:


Black holes





Washing Machines





Nuclear fission

Nuclear fusion

"Mean Devil Woman" Louisiana Hot-Sauce

In a given sub-domain, say, Washing Machines, experts agree on sub-hierarchies, with classes for reliability, energy consumption, color, size, etc.

This presumes that there is a "correct" way of categorizing ideas, and that reasonable people, given enough time and incentive, can agree on the proper means for building a hierarchy.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Any hierarchy of ideas necessarily implies the importance of some axes over others. A manufacturer of small, environmentally conscious washing machines would draw a hierarchy that looks like this:

Energy consumption:

Water consumption:




While a manufacturer of glitzy, feature-laden washing machines would want something like this:





The conceit that competing interests can come to easy accord on a common vocabulary totally ignores the power of organizing principles in a marketplace.

2.6 Metrics influence results

Agreeing to a common yardstick for measuring the important stuff in any domain necessarily privileges the items that score high on that metric, regardless of those items' overall suitability. IQ tests privilege people who are good at IQ tests, Nielsen Ratings privilege 30- and 60-minute TV shows (which is why MTV doesn't show videos any more -- Nielsen couldn't generate ratings for three-minute mini-programs, and so MTV couldn't demonstrate the value of advertising on its network), raw megahertz scores privilege Intel's CISC chips over Motorola's RISC chips.

Ranking axes are mutually exclusive: software that scores high for security scores low for convenience, desserts that score high for decadence score low for healthiness. Every player in a metadata standards body wants to emphasize their high-scoring axes and de-emphasize (or, if possible, ignore altogether) their low-scoring axes.

It's wishful thinking to believe that a group of people competing to advance their agendas will be universally pleased with any hierarchy of knowledge. The best that we can hope for is a detente in which everyone is equally miserable.

2.7 There's more than one way to describe something

"No, I'm not watching cartoons! It's cultural anthropology."

"This isn't smut, it's art."

"It's not a bald spot, it's a solar panel for a sex-machine."

Reasonable people can disagree forever on how to describe something. Arguably, your Self is the collection of associations and descriptors you ascribe to ideas. Requiring everyone to use the same vocabulary to describe their material denudes the cognitive landscape, enforces homogeneity in ideas.

And that's just not right.

3. Reliable metadata

Do we throw out metadata, then?

Of course not. Metadata can be quite useful, if taken with a sufficiently large pinch of salt. The meta-utopia will never come into being, but metadata is often a good means of making rough assumptions about the information that floats through the Internet.

Certain kinds of implicit metadata is awfully useful, in fact. Google exploits metadata about the structure of the World Wide Web: by examining the number of links pointing at a page (and the number of links pointing at each linker), Google can derive statistics about the number of Web-authors who believe that that page is important enough to link to, and hence make extremely reliable guesses about how reputable the information on that page is.

This sort of observational metadata is far more reliable than the stuff that human beings create for the purposes of having their documents found. It cuts through the marketing bullshit, the self-delusion, and the vocabulary collisions.

Taken more broadly, this kind of metadata can be thought of as a pedigree: who thinks that this document is valuable? How closely correlated have this person's value judgments been with mine in times gone by? This kind of implicit endorsement of information is a far better candidate for an information-retrieval panacea than all the world's schema combined.


Amish for QWERTY

(Originally published on the O'Reilly Network, 07/09/2003)

I learned to type before I learned to write. The QWERTY keyboard layout is hard-wired to my brain, such that I can't write anything of significance without that I have a 101-key keyboard in front of me. This has always been a badge of geek pride: unlike the creaking pen-and-ink dinosaurs that I grew up reading, I'm well adapted to the modern reality of technology. There's a secret elitist pride in touch-typing on a laptop while staring off into space, fingers flourishing and caressing the keys.

But last week, my pride got pricked. I was brung low by a phone. Some very nice people from Nokia loaned me a very latest-and-greatest camera-phone, the kind of gadget I've described in my science fiction stories. As I prodded at the little 12-key interface, I felt like my father, a 60s-vintage computer scientist who can't get his wireless network to work, must feel. Like a creaking dino. Like history was passing me by. I'm 31, and I'm obsolete. Or at least Amish.

People think the Amish are technophobes. Far from it. They're ideologues. They have a concept of what right-living consists of, and they'll use any technology that serves that ideal -- and mercilessly eschew any technology that would subvert it. There's nothing wrong with driving the wagon to the next farm when you want to hear from your son, so there's no need to put a phone in the kitchen. On the other hand, there's nothing right about your livestock dying for lack of care, so a cellphone that can call the veterinarian can certainly find a home in the horse barn.

For me, right-living is the 101-key, QWERTY, computer-centric mediated lifestyle. It's having a bulky laptop in my bag, crouching by the toilets at a strange airport with my AC adapter plugged into the always-awkwardly-placed power source, running software that I chose and installed, communicating over the wireless network. I use a network that has no incremental cost for communication, and a device that lets me install any software without permission from anyone else. Right-living is the highly mutated, commodity-hardware- based, public and free Internet. I'm QWERTY-Amish, in other words.

I'm the kind of perennial early adopter who would gladly volunteer to beta test a neural interface, but I find myself in a moral panic when confronted with the 12-button keypad on a cellie, even though that interface is one that has been greedily adopted by billions of people worldwide, from strap-hanging Japanese schoolgirls to Kenyan electoral scrutineers to Filipino guerrillas in the bush. The idea of paying for every message makes my hackles tumesce and evokes a reflexive moral conviction that text-messaging is inherently undemocratic, at least compared to free-as-air email. The idea of only running the software that big-brother telco has permitted me on my handset makes me want to run for the hills.

The thumb-generation who can tap out a text-message under their desks while taking notes with the other hand -- they're in for it, too. The pace of accelerated change means that we're all of us becoming wed to interfaces -- ways of communicating with our tools and our world -- that are doomed, doomed, doomed. The 12-buttoners are marrying the phone company, marrying a centrally controlled network that requires permission to use and improve, a Stalinist technology whose centralized choke points are subject to regulation and the vagaries of the telcos. Long after the phone companies have been out-competed by the pure and open Internet (if such a glorious day comes to pass), the kids of today will be bound by its interface and its conventions.

The sole certainty about the future is its Amishness. We will all bend our brains to suit an interface that we will either have to abandon or be left behind. Choose your interface -- and the values it implies -- carefully, then, before you wed your thought processes to your fingers' dance. It may be the one you're stuck with.


Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books

(Paper for the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference, San Diego, February 12, 2004)


This talk was initially given at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference [ ], along with a set of slides that, for copyright reasons (ironic!) can't be released alongside of this file. However, you will find, interspersed in this text, notations describing the places where new slides should be loaded, in [square-brackets].

For starters, let me try to summarize the lessons and intuitions I've had about ebooks from my release of two novels and most of a short story collection online under a Creative Commons license. A parodist who published a list of alternate titles for the presentations at this event called this talk, "eBooks Suck Right Now," [eBooks suck right now] and as funny as that is, I don't think it's true.

No, if I had to come up with another title for this talk, I'd call it: "Ebooks: You're Soaking in Them." [Ebooks: You're Soaking in Them] That's because I think that the shape of ebooks to come is almost visible in the way that people interact with text today, and that the job of authors who want to become rich and famous is to come to a better understanding of that shape.

I haven't come to a perfect understanding. I don't know what the future of the book looks like. But I have ideas, and I'll share them with you:

1. Ebooks aren't marketing. [Ebooks aren't marketing] OK, so ebooks are marketing: that is to say that giving away ebooks sells more books. Baen Books, who do a lot of series publishing, have found that giving away electronic editions of the previous installments in their series to coincide with the release of a new volume sells the hell out of the new book -- and the backlist. And the number of people who wrote to me to tell me about how much they dug the ebook and so bought the paper-book far exceeds the number of people who wrote to me and said, "Ha, ha, you hippie, I read your book for free and now I'm not gonna buy it." But ebooks shouldn't be just about marketing: ebooks are a goal unto themselves. In the final analysis, more people will read more words off more screens and fewer words off fewer pages and when those two lines cross, ebooks are gonna have to be the way that writers earn their keep, not the way that they promote the dead-tree editions.

2. Ebooks complement paper books. [Ebooks complement paper books]. Having an ebook is good. Having a paper book is good. Having both is even better. One reader wrote to me and said that he read half my first novel from the bound book, and printed the other half on scrap-paper to read at the beach. Students write to me to say that it's easier to do their term papers if they can copy and paste their quotations into their word-processors. Baen readers use the electronic editions of their favorite series to build concordances of characters, places and events.

3. Unless you own the ebook, you don't 0wn the book [Unless you own the ebook, you don't 0wn the book]. I take the view that the book is a "practice" -- a collection of social and economic and artistic activities -- and not an "object." Viewing the book as a "practice" instead of an object is a pretty radical notion, and it begs the question: just what the hell is a book? Good question. I write all of my books in a text-editor [TEXT EDITOR SCREENGRAB] (BBEdit, from Barebones Software -- as fine a text-editor as I could hope for). From there, I can convert them into a formatted two-column PDF [TWO-UP SCREENGRAB]. I can turn them into an HTML file [BROWSER SCREENGRAB]. I can turn them over to my publisher, who can turn them into galleys, advanced review copies, hardcovers and paperbacks. I can turn them over to my readers, who can convert them to a bewildering array of formats [DOWNLOAD PAGE SCREENGRAB]. Brewster Kahle's Internet Bookmobile can convert a digital book into a four-color, full-bleed, perfect-bound, laminated-cover, printed-spine paper book in ten minutes, for about a dollar. Try converting a paper book to a PDF or an html file or a text file or a RocketBook or a printout for a buck in ten minutes! It's ironic, because one of the frequently cited reasons for preferring paper to ebooks is that paper books confer a sense of ownership of a physical object. Before the dust settles on this ebook thing, owning a paper book is going to feel less like ownership than having an open digital edition of the text.

4. Ebooks are a better deal for writers. [Ebooks are a better deal for writers] The compensation for writers is pretty thin on the ground. Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback's original science fiction magazine, paid a couple cents a word. Today, science fiction magazines pay...a couple cents a word. The sums involved are so minuscule, they're not even insulting: they're quaint and historical, like the WHISKEY 5 CENTS sign over the bar at a pioneer village. Some writers do make it big, but they're rounding errors as compared to the total population of sf writers earning some of their living at the trade. Almost all of us could be making more money elsewhere (though we may dream of earning a stephenkingload of money, and of course, no one would play the lotto if there were no winners). The primary incentive for writing has to be artistic satisfaction, egoboo, and a desire for posterity. Ebooks get you that. Ebooks become a part of the corpus of human knowledge because they get indexed by search engines and replicated by the hundreds, thousands or millions. They can be googled.

Even better: they level the playing field between writers and trolls. When Amazon kicked off, many writers got their knickers in a tight and powerful knot at the idea that axe-grinding yahoos were filling the Amazon message-boards with ill-considered slams at their work -- for, if a personal recommendation is the best way to sell a book, then certainly a personal condemnation is the best way to not sell a book. Today, the trolls are still with us, but now, the readers get to decide for themselves. Here's a bit of a review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom that was recently posted to Amazon by "A reader from Redwood City, CA":


> I am really not sure what kind of drugs critics are

> smoking, or what kind of payola may be involved. But

> regardless of what Entertainment Weekly says, whatever

> this newspaper or that magazine says, you shouldn't

> waste your money. Download it for free from Corey's

> (sic) site, read the first page, and look away in

> disgust -- this book is for people who think Dan

> Brown's Da Vinci Code is great writing.

Back in the old days, this kind of thing would have really pissed me off. Axe-grinding, mouth-breathing yahoos, defaming my good name! My stars and mittens! But take a closer look at that damning passage:


> Download it for free from Corey's site, read the first

> page

You see that? Hell, this guy is working for me*! [ADDITIONAL PULL QUOTES] Someone accuses a writer I'm thinking of reading of paying off Entertainment Weekly to say nice things about his novel, "a surprisingly bad writer," no less, whose writing is "stiff, amateurish, and uninspired!" I wanna check that writer out. And I can. In one click. And then I can make up my own mind.

You don't get far in the arts without healthy doses of both ego and insecurity, and the downside of being able to google up all the things that people are saying about your book is that it can play right into your insecurities -- "all these people will have it in their minds not to bother with my book because they've read the negative interweb reviews!" But the flipside of that is the ego: "If only they'd give it a shot, they'd see how good it is." And the more scathing the review is, the more likely they are to give it a shot. Any press is good press, so long as they spell your URL right (and even if they spell your name wrong!).

5. Ebooks need to embrace their nature. [Ebooks need to embrace their nature.] The distinctive value of ebooks is orthogonal to the value of paper books, and it revolves around the mix-ability and send-ability of electronic text. The more you constrain an ebook's distinctive value propositions -- that is, the more you restrict a reader's ability to copy, transport or transform an ebook -- the more it has to be valued on the same axes as a paper-book. Ebooks fail on those axes. Ebooks don't beat paper-books for sophisticated typography, they can't match them for quality of paper or the smell of the glue. But just try sending a paper book to a friend in Brazil, for free, in less than a second. Or loading a thousand paper books into a little stick of flash-memory dangling from your keychain. Or searching a paper book for every instance of a character's name to find a beloved passage. Hell, try clipping a pithy passage out of a paper book and pasting it into your sig-file.

6. Ebooks demand a different attention span (but not a shorter one). [Ebooks demand a different attention span (but not a shorter one).] Artists are always disappointed by their audience's attention-spans. Go back far enough and you'll find cuneiform etchings bemoaning the current Sumerian go-go lifestyle with its insistence on myths with plotlines and characters and action, not like we had in the old days. As artists, it would be a hell of a lot easier if our audiences were more tolerant of our penchant for boring them. We'd get to explore a lot more ideas without worrying about tarting them up with easy-to-swallow chocolate coatings of entertainment. We like to think of shortened attention spans as a product of the information age, but check this out:

[Nietzsche quote]

> To be sure one thing necessary above all: if one is to

> practice reading as an art in this way, something

> needs to be un-learned most thoroughly in these days.

In other words, if my book is too boring, it's because you're not paying enough attention. Writers say this stuff all the time, but this quote isn't from this century or the last. [Nietzsche quote with attribution] It's from the preface to Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals," published in 1887.

Yeah, our attention-spans are different today, but they aren't necessarily shorter. Warren Ellis's fans managed to hold the storyline for Transmetropolitan [Transmet cover] in their minds for five years while the story trickled out in monthly funnybook installments. JK Rowlings's installments on the Harry Potter series get fatter and fatter with each new volume. Entire forests are sacrificed to long-running series fiction like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, each of which is approximately 20,000 pages long (I may be off by an order of magnitude one way or another here). Sure, presidential debates are conducted in soundbites today and not the days-long oratory extravaganzas of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but people manage to pay attention to the 24-month-long presidential campaigns from start to finish.

7. We need all the ebooks. [We need all the ebooks] The vast majority of the words ever penned are lost to posterity. No one library collects all the still-extant books ever written and no one person could hope to make a dent in that corpus of written work. None of us will ever read more than the tiniest sliver of human literature. But that doesn't mean that we can stick with just the most popular texts and get a proper ebook revolution.

For starters, we're all edge-cases. Sure, we all have the shared desire for the core canon of literature, but each of us want to complete that collection with different texts that are as distinctive and individualistic as fingerprints. If we all look like we're doing the same thing when we read, or listen to music, or hang out in a chatroom, that's because we're not looking closely enough. The shared-ness of our experience is only present at a coarse level of measurement: once you get into really granular observation, there are as many differences in our "shared" experience as there are similarities.

More than that, though, is the way that a large collection of electronic text differs from a small one: it's the difference between a single book, a shelf full of books and a library of books. Scale makes things different. Take the Web: none of us can hope to read even a fraction of all the pages on the Web, but by analyzing the link structures that bind all those pages together, Google is able to actually tease out machine-generated conclusions about the relative relevance of different pages to different queries. None of us will ever eat the whole corpus, but Google can digest it for us and excrete the steaming nuggets of goodness that make it the search-engine miracle it is today.

8. Ebooks are like paper books. [Ebooks are like paper books]. To round out this talk, I'd like to go over the ways that ebooks are more like paper books than you'd expect. One of the truisms of retail theory is that purchasers need to come into contact with a good several times before they buy -- seven contacts is tossed around as the magic number. That means that my readers have to hear the title, see the cover, pick up the book, read a review, and so forth, seven times, on average, before they're ready to buy.

There's a temptation to view downloading a book as comparable to bringing it home from the store, but that's the wrong metaphor. Some of the time, maybe most of the time, downloading the text of the book is like taking it off the shelf at the store and looking at the cover and reading the blurbs (with the advantage of not having to come into contact with the residual DNA and burger king left behind by everyone else who browsed the book before you). Some writers are horrified at the idea that three hundred thousand copies of my first novel were downloaded and "only" ten thousand or so were sold so far. If it were the case that for ever copy sold, thirty were taken home from the store, that would be a horrifying outcome, for sure. But look at it another way: if one out of every thirty people who glanced at the cover of my book bought it, I'd be a happy author. And I am. Those downloads cost me no more than glances at the cover in a bookstore, and the sales are healthy.

We also like to think of physical books as being inherently countable in a way that digital books aren't (an irony, since computers are damned good at counting things!). This is important, because writers get paid on the basis of the number of copies of their books that sell, so having a good count makes a difference. And indeed, my royalty statements contain precise numbers for copies printed, shipped, returned and sold.

But that's a false precision. When the printer does a run of a book, it always runs a few extra at the start and finish of the run to make sure that the setup is right and to account for the occasional rip, drop, or spill. The actual total number of books printed is approximately the number of books ordered, but never exactly -- if you've ever ordered 500 wedding invitations, chances are you received 500-and-a-few back from the printer and that's why.

And the numbers just get fuzzier from there. Copies are stolen. Copies are dropped. Shipping people get the count wrong. Some copies end up in the wrong box and go to a bookstore that didn't order them and isn't invoiced for them and end up on a sale table or in the trash. Some copies are returned as damaged. Some are returned as unsold. Some come back to the store the next morning accompanied by a whack of buyer's remorse. Some go to the place where the spare sock in the dryer ends up.

The numbers on a royalty statement are actuarial, not actual. They represent a kind of best-guess approximation of the copies shipped, sold, returned and so forth. Actuarial accounting works pretty well: well enough to run the juggernaut banking, insurance, and gambling industries on. It's good enough for divvying up the royalties paid by musical rights societies for radio airplay and live performance. And it's good enough for counting how many copies of a book are distributed online or off.

Counts of paper books are differently precise from counts of electronic books, sure: but neither one is inherently countable.

And finally, of course, there's the matter of selling books. However an author earns her living from her words, printed or encoded, she has as her first and hardest task to find her audience. There are more competitors for our attention than we can possibly reconcile, prioritize or make sense of. Getting a book under the right person's nose, with the right pitch, is the hardest and most important task any writer faces.


I care about books, a lot. I started working in libraries and bookstores at the age of 12 and kept at it for a decade, until I was lured away by the siren song of the tech world. I knew I wanted to be a writer at the age of 12, and now, 20 years later, I have three novels, a short story collection and a nonfiction book out, two more novels under contract, and another book in the works. [BOOK COVERS] I've won a major award in my genre, science fiction, [CAMPBELL AWARD] and I'm nominated for another one, the 2003 Nebula Award for best novelette. [NEBULA]

I own a lot of books. Easily more than 10,000 of them, in storage on both coasts of the North American continent [LIBRARY LADDER]. I have to own them, since they're the tools of my trade: the reference works I refer to as a novelist and writer today. Most of the literature I dig is very short-lived, it disappears from the shelf after just a few months, usually for good. Science fiction is inherently ephemeral. [ACE DOUBLES]

Now, as much as I love books, I love computers, too. Computers are fundamentally different from modern books in the same way that printed books are different from monastic Bibles: they are malleable. Time was, a "book" was something produced by many months' labor by a scribe, usually a monk, on some kind of durable and sexy substrate like foetal lambskin. [ILLUMINATED BIBLE] Gutenberg's xerox machine changed all that, changed a book into something that could be simply run off a press in a few minutes' time, on substrate more suitable to ass-wiping than exaltation in a place of honor in the cathedral. The Gutenberg press meant that rather than owning one or two books, a member of the ruling class could amass a library, and that rather than picking only a few subjects from enshrinement in print, a huge variety of subjects could be addressed on paper and handed from person to person. [KAPITAL/TIJUANA BIBLE]

Most new ideas start with a precious few certainties and a lot of speculation. I've been doing a bunch of digging for certainties and a lot of speculating lately, and the purpose of this talk is to lay out both categories of ideas.

This all starts with my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom [COVER], which came out on January 9, 2003. At that time, there was a lot of talk in my professional circles about, on the one hand, the dismal failure of ebooks, and, on the other, the new and scary practice of ebook "piracy." [alt.binaries.e-books screengrab] It was strikingly weird that no one seemed to notice that the idea of ebooks as a "failure" was at strong odds with the notion that electronic book "piracy" was worth worrying about: I mean, if ebooks are a failure, then who gives a rats if intarweb dweebs are trading them on Usenet?

A brief digression here, on the double meaning of "ebooks." One meaning for that word is "legitimate" ebook ventures, that is to say, rightsholder-authorized editions of the texts of books, released in a proprietary, use-restricted format, sometimes for use on a general-purpose PC and sometimes for use on a special-purpose hardware device like the nuvoMedia Rocketbook [ROCKETBOOK]. The other meaning for ebook is a "pirate" or unauthorized electronic edition of a book, usually made by cutting the binding off of a book and scanning it a page at a time, then running the resulting bitmaps through an optical character recognition app to convert them into ASCII text, to be cleaned up by hand. These books are pretty buggy, full of errors introduced by the OCR. A lot of my colleagues worry that these books also have deliberate errors, created by mischievous book-rippers who cut, add or change text in order to "improve" the work. Frankly, I have never seen any evidence that any book-ripper is interested in doing this, and until I do, I think that this is the last thing anyone should be worrying about.

Back to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom [COVER]. Well, not yet. I want to convey to you the depth of the panic in my field over ebook piracy, or "bookwarez" as it is known in book-ripper circles. Writers were joining the discussion on alt.binaries.ebooks using assumed names, claiming fear of retaliation from scary hax0r kids who would presumably screw up their credit-ratings in retaliation for being called thieves. My editor, a blogger, hacker and guy-in-charge-of-the-largest-sf-line-in-the-world named Patrick Nielsen Hayden posted to one of the threads in the newsgroup, saying, in part [SCREENGRAB]:

> Pirating copyrighted etext on Usenet and elsewhere is going to

> happen more and more, for the same reasons that everyday folks

> make audio cassettes from vinyl LPs and audio CDs, and

> videocassette copies of store-bought videotapes. Partly it's

> greed; partly it's annoyance over retail prices; partly it's the

> desire to Share Cool Stuff (a motivation usually underrated by

> the victims of this kind of small-time hand-level piracy).

> Instantly going to Defcon One over it and claiming it's morally

> tantamount to mugging little old ladies in the street will make

> it kind of difficult to move forward from that position when it

> doesn't work. In the 1970s, the record industry shrieked that

> "home taping is killing music." It's hard for ordinary folks to

> avoid noticing that music didn't die. But the record industry's

> credibility on the subject wasn't exactly enhanced.

Patrick and I have a long relationship, starting when I was 18 years old and he kicked in toward a scholarship fund to send me to a writers' workshop, continuing to a fateful lunch in New York in the mid-Nineties when I showed him a bunch of Project Gutenberg texts on my Palm Pilot and inspired him to start licensing Tor's titles for PDAs [PEANUTPRESS SCREENGRAB], to the turn-of-the-millennium when he bought and then published my first novel (he's bought three more since -- I really like Patrick!).

Right as bookwarez newsgroups were taking off, I was shocked silly by legal action by one of my colleagues against AOL/Time-Warner for carrying the alt.binaries.ebooks newsgroup. This writer alleged that AOL should have a duty to remove this newsgroup, since it carried so many infringing files, and that its failure to do so made it a contributory infringer, and so liable for the incredibly stiff penalties afforded by our newly minted copyright laws like the No Electronic Theft Act and the loathsome Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA.

Now there was a scary thought: there were people out there who thought the world would be a better place if ISPs were given the duty of actively policing and censoring the websites and newsfeeds their customers had access to, including a requirement that ISPs needed to determine, all on their own, what was an unlawful copyright infringement -- something more usually left up to judges in the light of extensive amicus briefings from esteemed copyright scholars [WIND DONE GONE GRAPHIC].

This was a stupendously dumb idea, and it offended me down to my boots. Writers are supposed to be advocates of free expression, not censorship. It seemed that some of my colleagues loved the First Amendment, but they were reluctant to share it with the rest of the world.

Well, dammit, I had a book coming out, and it seemed to be an opportunity to try to figure out a little more about this ebook stuff. On the one hand, ebooks were a dismal failure. On the other hand, there were more books posted to alt.binaries.ebooks every day.

This leads me into the two certainties I have about ebooks:

1. More people are reading more words off more screens every day [GRAPHIC]

2. Fewer people are reading fewer words off fewer pages every day [GRAPHIC]

These two certainties begged a lot of questions.


  • Screen resolutions are too low to effectively replace paper

  • People want to own physical books because of their visceral appeal (often this is accompanied by a little sermonette on how good books smell, or how good they look on a bookshelf, or how evocative an old curry stain in the margin can be)

  • You can't take your ebook into the tub

  • You can't read an ebook without power and a computer

  • File-formats go obsolete, paper has lasted for a long time

None of these seemed like very good explanations for the "failure" of ebooks to me. If screen resolutions are too low to replace paper, then how come everyone I know spends more time reading off a screen every year, up to and including my sainted grandmother (geeks have a really crappy tendency to argue that certain technologies aren't ready for primetime because their grandmothers won't use them -- well, my grandmother sends me email all the time. She types 70 words per minute, and loves to show off grandsonular email to her pals around the pool at her Florida retirement condo)?

The other arguments were a lot more interesting, though. It seemed to me that electronic books are different from paper books, and have different virtues and failings. Let's think a little about what the book has gone through in years gone by. This is interesting because the history of the book is the history of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Pilgrims, and, ultimately the colonizing of the Americas and the American Revolution.

Broadly speaking, there was a time when books were hand-printed on rare leather by monks. The only people who could read them were priests, who got a regular eyeful of the really cool cartoons the monks drew in the margins. The priests read the books aloud, in Latin [LATIN BIBLE] (to a predominantly non-Latin-speaking audience) in cathedrals, wreathed in pricey incense that rose from censers swung by altar boys.

Then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Martin Luther turned that press into a revolution. [LUTHER BIBLE] He printed Bibles in languages that non-priests could read, and distributed them to normal people who got to read the word of God all on their own. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here are some interesting things to note about the advent of the printing press:


  • Luther Bibles lacked the manufacturing quality of the illuminated Bibles. They were comparatively cheap and lacked the typographical expressiveness that a really talented monk could bring to bear when writing out the word of God

  • Luther Bibles were utterly unsuited to the traditional use-case for Bibles. A good Bible was supposed to reinforce the authority of the man at the pulpit. It needed heft, it needed impressiveness, and most of all, it needed rarity.

  • The user-experience of Luther Bibles sucked. There was no incense, no altar boys, and who (apart from the priesthood) knew that reading was so friggin' hard on the eyes?

  • Luther Bibles were a lot less trustworthy than the illuminated numbers. Anyone with a press could run one off, subbing in any apocryphal text he wanted -- and who knew how accurate that translation was? Monks had an entire Papacy behind them, running a quality-assurance operation that had stood Europe in good stead for centuries.

In the late nineties, I went to conferences where music execs patiently explained that Napster was doomed, because you didn't get any cover-art or liner-notes with it, you couldn't know if the rip was any good, and sometimes the connection would drop mid-download. I'm sure that many Cardinals espoused the points raised above with equal certainty.

What the record execs and the cardinals missed was all the ways that Luther Bibles kicked ass:


  • They were cheap and fast. Loads of people could acquire them without having to subject themselves to the authority and approval of the Church

  • They were in languages that non-priests could read. You no longer had to take the Church's word for it when its priests explained what God really meant

  • They birthed a printing-press ecosystem in which lots of books flourished. New kinds of fiction, poetry, politics, scholarship and so on were all enabled by the printing presses whose initial popularity was spurred by Luther's ideas about religion.

Note that all of these virtues are orthogonal to the virtues of a monkish Bible. That is, none of the things that made the Gutenberg press a success were the things that made monk-Bibles a success.

By the same token, the reasons to love ebooks have precious little to do with the reasons to love paper books.


  • They are easy to share. Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood went from a midlist title to a bestseller by being passed from hand to hand by women in reading circles. Slashdorks and other netizens have social life as rich as reading-circlites, but they don't ever get to see each other face to face; the only kind of book they can pass from hand to hand is an ebook. What's more, the single factor most correlated with a purchase is a recommendation from a friend -- getting a book recommended by a pal is more likely to sell you on it than having read and enjoyed the preceding volume in a series!

  • They are easy to slice and dice. This is where the Mac evangelist in me comes out -- minority platforms matter. It's a truism of the Napsterverse that most of the files downloaded are bog-standard top-40 tracks, like 90 percent or so, and I believe it. We all want to popular music. That's why it's popular. But the interesting thing is the other ten percent. Bill Gates told the New York Times that Microsoft lost the search wars by doing "a good job on the 80 percent of common queries and ignor[ing] the other stuff. But it's the remaining 20 percent that counts, because that's where the quality perception is." Why did Napster captivate so many of us? Not because it could get us the top-40 tracks that we could hear just by snapping on the radio: it was because 80 percent of the music ever recorded wasn't available for sale anywhere in the world, and in that 80 percent were all the songs that had ever touched us, all the earworms that had been lodged in our hindbrains, all the stuff that made us smile when we heard it. Those songs are different for all of us, but they share the trait of making the difference between a compelling service and, well, top-40 Clearchannel radio programming. It was the minority of tracks that appealed to the majority of us. By the same token, the malleability of electronic text means that it can be readily repurposed: you can throw it on a webserver or convert it to a format for your favorite PDA; you can ask your computer to read it aloud or you can search the text for a quotation to cite in a book report or to use in your sig. In other words, most people who download the book do so for the predictable reason, and in a predictable format -- say, to sample a chapter in the HTML format before deciding whether to buy the book -- but the thing that differentiates a boring e-text experience from an exciting one is the minority use -- printing out a couple chapters of the book to bring to the beach rather than risk getting the hardcopy wet and salty.

Tool-makers and software designers are increasingly aware of the notion of "affordances" in design. You can bash a nail into the wall with any heavy, heftable object from a rock to a hammer to a cast-iron skillet. However, there's something about a hammer that cries out for nail-bashing, it has affordances that tilt its holder towards swinging it. And, as we all know, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

The affordance of a computer -- the thing it's designed to do -- is to slice-and-dice collections of bits. The affordance of the Internet is to move bits at very high speed around the world at little-to-no cost. It follows from this that the center of the ebook experience is going to involve slicing and dicing text and sending it around.

Copyright lawyers have a word for these activities: infringement. That's because copyright gives creators a near-total monopoly over copying and remixing of their work, pretty much forever (theoretically, copyright expires, but in actual practice, copyright gets extended every time the early Mickey Mouse cartoons are about to enter the public domain, because Disney swings a very big stick on the Hill).

This is a huge problem. The biggest possible problem. Here's why:


  • Authors freak out. Authors have been schooled by their peers that strong copyright is the only thing that keeps them from getting savagely rogered in the marketplace. This is pretty much true: it's strong copyright that often defends authors from their publishers' worst excesses. However, it doesn't follow that strong copyright protects you from your readers.

  • Readers get indignant over being called crooks. Seriously. You're a small businessperson. Readers are your customers. Calling them crooks is bad for business.

  • Publishers freak out. Publishers freak out, because they're in the business of grabbing as much copyright as they can and hanging onto it for dear life because, dammit, you never know. This is why science fiction magazines try to trick writers into signing over improbable rights for things like theme park rides and action figures based on their work -- it's also why literary agents are now asking for copyright-long commissions on the books they represent: copyright covers so much ground and takes to long to shake off, who wouldn't want a piece of it?

  • Liability goes through the roof. Copyright infringement, especially on the Net, is a supercrime. It carries penalties of $150,000 per infringement, and aggrieved rights-holders and their representatives have all kinds of special powers, like the ability to force an ISP to turn over your personal information before showing evidence of your alleged infringement to a judge. This means that anyone who suspects that he might be on the wrong side of copyright law is going to be terribly risk-averse: publishers non-negotiably force their authors to indemnify them from infringement claims and go one better, forcing writers to prove that they have "cleared" any material they quote, even in the case of brief fair-use quotations, like song-titles at the opening of chapters. The result is that authors end up assuming potentially life-destroying liability, are chilled from quoting material around them, and are scared off of public domain texts because an honest mistake about the public-domain status of a work carries such a terrible price.

  • Posterity vanishes. In the Eldred v. Ashcroft Supreme Court hearing last year, the court found that 98 percent of the works in copyright are no longer earning money for anyone, but that figuring out who these old works belong to with the degree of certainty that you'd want when one mistake means total economic apocalypse would cost more than you could ever possibly earn on them. That means that 98 percent of works will largely expire long before the copyright on them does. Today, the names of science fiction's ancestral founders -- Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, HG Wells -- are still known, their work still a part of the discourse. Their spiritual descendants from Hugo Gernsback onward may not be so lucky -- if their work continues to be "protected" by copyright, it might just vanish from the face of the earth before it reverts to the public domain.

This isn't to say that copyright is bad, but that there's such a thing as good copyright and bad copyright, and that sometimes, too much good copyright is a bad thing. It's like chilis in soup: a little goes a long way, and too much spoils the broth.

From the Luther Bible to the first phonorecords, from radio to the pulps, from cable to MP3, the world has shown that its first preference for new media is its "democratic-ness" -- the ease with which it can reproduced.

(And please, before we get any farther, forget all that business about how the Internet's copying model is more disruptive than the technologies that proceeded it. For Christ's sake, the Vaudeville performers who sued Marconi for inventing the radio had to go from a regime where they had one hundred percent control over who could get into the theater and hear them perform to a regime where they had zero percent control over who could build or acquire a radio and tune into a recording of them performing. For that matter, look at the difference between a monkish Bible and a Luther Bible -- next to that phase-change, Napster is peanuts)

Back to democratic-ness. Every successful new medium has traded off its artifact-ness -- the degree to which it was populated by bespoke hunks of atoms, cleverly nailed together by master craftspeople -- for ease of reproduction. Piano rolls weren't as expressive as good piano players, but they scaled better -- as did radio broadcasts, pulp magazines, and MP3s. Liner notes, hand illumination and leather bindings are nice, but they pale in comparison to the ability of an individual to actually get a copy of her own.

Which isn't to say that old media die. Artists still hand-illuminate books; master pianists still stride the boards at Carnegie Hall, and the shelves burst with tell-all biographies of musicians that are richer in detail than any liner-notes booklet. The thing is, when all you've got is monks, every book takes on the character of a monkish Bible. Once you invent the printing press, all the books that are better-suited to movable type migrate into that new form. What's left behind are those items that are best suited to the old production scheme: the plays that need to be plays, the books that are especially lovely on creamy paper stitched between covers, the music that is most enjoyable performed live and experienced in a throng of humanity.

Increased democratic-ness translates into decreased control: it's a lot harder to control who can copy a book once there's a photocopier on every corner than it is when you need a monastery and several years to copy a Bible. And that decreased control demands a new copyright regime that rebalances the rights of creators with their audiences.

For example, when the VCR was invented, the courts affirmed a new copyright exemption for time-shifting; when the radio was invented, the Congress granted an anti-trust exemption to the record labels in order to secure a blanket license; when cable TV was invented, the government just ordered the broadcasters to sell the cable-operators access to programming at a fixed rate.

Copyright is perennially out of date, because its latest rev was generated in response to the last generation of technology. The temptation to treat copyright as though it came down off the mountain on two stone tablets (or worse, as "just like" real property) is deeply flawed, since, by definition, current copyright only considers the last generation of tech.

So, are bookwarez in violation of copyright law? Duh. Is this the end of the world? Duh. If the Catholic church can survive the printing press, science fiction will certainly weather the advent of bookwarez.


Lagniappe [Lagniappe]

We're almost done here, but there's one more thing I'd like to do before I get off the stage. [Lagniappe: an unexpected bonus or extra] Think of it as a "lagniappe" -- a little something extra to thank you for your patience.

About a year ago, I released my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, on the net, under the terms of the most restrictive Creative Commons license available. All it allowed my readers to do was send around copies of the book. I was cautiously dipping my toe into the water, though at the time, it felt like I was taking a plunge.

Now I'm going to take a plunge. Today, I will re-license the text of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons "Attribution-ShareAlike-Derivs-Noncommercial" license [HUMAN READABLE LICENSE], which means that as of today, you have my blessing to create derivative works from my first book. You can make movies, audiobooks, translations, fan-fiction, slash fiction (God help us) [GEEK HIERARCHY], furry slash fiction [GEEK HIERARCHY DETAIL], poetry, translations, t-shirts, you name it, with two provisos: that one, you have to allow everyone else to rip, mix and burn your creations in the same way you're hacking mine; and on the other hand, you've got to do it noncommercially.

The sky didn't fall when I dipped my toe in. Let's see what happens when I get in up to my knees.

The text with the new license will be online before the end of the day. Check for details.

Oh, and I'm also releasing the text of this speech under a Creative Commons Public Domain dedication, [Public domain dedication] giving it away to the world to do with as it see fits. It'll be linked off my blog, Boing Boing, before the day is through.

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