Worlds & Time

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Problem of Libraries

Dan Simmons' agent asked me for the questions for one of my interviews a few days back. That means nothing, because even once they've seen the questions, there still isn't any guarantee that he'll answer them.

Even so, a request for the questions is something somewhat nice because it means that the agent is actually considering taking the interview to him. She already knew that I wasn't a "real" media source, and I'm assuming that she wasn't going to waste her time if she didn't have to.

The questions look similar, but they are specific to the author to whom they're sent. That's why, for the most part, I'm only sending requests to authors that I've read, because I try to use my knowledge of their works in the interview.

Dan Simmons had a couple of other interviews, so one of the things that I did was read through the other interviews before formulating the questions I asked him. Of course, I'm not perfect and I ended up having to send a clarification within ten minutes because there was an interview that I'd skipped that asked two of the same questions that I'd sent his agent.

That isn't really the thing that I'm writing this blog about. In this interview, Simmons offered a response to one of the most controversial topics in media today: Internet Copyright Infringement. (dun dun dun.)

He says that the battle is just beginning, and that the outcome looks good for writers. His example used the sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who apparently is suing the pants off every person on earth that downloads one of books illegally (He’s the sci-fi world’s Metallica). Obviously, I consider myself a writer, so this should be good news me, but I find myself chilled at his words.

The simple reason that this leaves me cold is that he's phrasing the struggle of copyright in terms of a battle between his side (writers) and the "other side" (readers). There can be no camaraderie in war. If you're not with him, you're against him, and it took me a while to figure out that while I may be an aspiring writer, I'm also a reader. I have to figure out what side I'm on.

Now don't get me wrong, I have never downloaded a novel to read and I have no plans to ever do that, either. I like my books tangible and permanent and the main reason I moved back home instead of into an apartment was the ability to have my own library of books gathered together on real bookshelves.

I completely understand why Simmons calls downloaders thieves. He's upset that he's not being paid when people read his words, and since he makes his living off his books he's completely right to be ticked at that.

However, I find that I have a problem with his logic: The problem of libraries.

Now that I've introduced the main point of this post, I'm going to ignore it for a moment and give you a history lesson through my half-remembered personal perspective.

Way back in the day when the internet was first getting started (i.e. before the foundation of either Google or Amazon) there was this idea that the internet was going to be a place that was based on the free exchange of information. The supposed difference between Hackers and Crackers is the based on that idea. Hackers are people that enter computers and find and use information because they believe they should have the right to know everything, while Crackers are the people that maliciously destroy both computer systems and the information that they hold. If you watch the movie "Hackers" there is a small bit from the Hackers' Manifesto that pursues this idea.

Granted, the government won the terminology war, so today there is no real difference between the terms. Most people probably won't understand the idea of "Crackers" outside of a racial slur for white people, but think Hackers are invariably saboteurs.

That's why, when we first got the internet, there was porn freely available on it. Not that there isn't porn available online now, but it wasn't being sold so heavily back in the day. It was just there for the taking. I can still remember when that finally changed, and you started to have to buy "adult verification services" to get into what had previously been freely viewable sites.

And, even then, for a long time, people posted passwords to get through the filters. There are a couple of sites that still try to do this (I think, all the ones I know of are gone), but the places are too good at making money now, and they get them closed down.

I'm sure that free porn wasn't the idea of the original founders had of the internet, but I have to wonder if they didn't see the internet as some sort of open library. A place where you could check out any book on the shelves to better yourself from the comfort of your own college office (and eventually home).

Compare that to what the internet is now. Everything is sponsored. For example, I'm writing this blog in two places that work essentially the same way. Both want people to pay attention to me so that people will come and read what I have to say. When they come read what I have to say, they also are exposed to ads. The more ads they can show, the more money that they make. I'm not much more than a poorly paid content writer for Rubert Murdoch and Google.

In Simmons' Hyperion, there is a lot of freely available information, mostly characterized as AI living in the datasphere. What he fails to predict (and this is a failure of nearly all of the original cyberpunk that I've read) is the deep need for companies to control the economics of information in a way that is realistic.

Are his own books available for free in this future world of Hyperion?

What about Gibson’s Neuromancer, Williams’ Otherland and Dick’s short stories? Are their own works available in their literary futures for free?

There is, and will be, no treehouse in our real future. Every system must have an economy. That old idea of the internet with free porn is dead.

So, that brings us to the problem I see with libraries: I can check out Simmons' books for free.

America doesn't have it enshrined in the Constitution, but the government has always protected a right to access information. We force our children to go to school so that they can learn to read (even if they rarely use their access to the information that provides). Our government runs the radio waves and offers cheaper public universities so that you can get a degree even if your father didn’t go to Harvard. And it run libraries where I can steal Simmons' books for a week and then bring them back a week later for someone else to steal.

I'm sure that Simmons doesn't have a problem with libraries. He sees that they purchase a couple thousand copies every time he publishes a new book, and he's happy with that, even if eventually twice as many people have read the book than he is eventually paid for. I’ll even bet a dollar that he has, at some point in his life, had a library card himself.

Now, today in internet theft (Re: internet copyright violation), people still pay for copies of his work. Someone buys one of Mr. Simmons' books, scans it, and then distributes it to others at no cost. The only difference between a library check out and a downloaded copy of Ilium is that (due to the ease of disseminating the downloaded copy), Mr. Simmons will only get a thousandth of the cover price instead of a tenth for each person that reads his book.

The people that create these illegal online copies have made it too easy for people. They don't have to drive to the library, wait for it to be returned, or order it on interlibrary loan in order to read his books without paying him.

I'll still buy more Dan Simmons books in the future, even though I could easily download them, because I know that if I don't buy them he'll starve to death and there won't be any more forthcoming. It’s more than worth $30 for a hardback copy of Olympos to know that someday there will be more books of a similar quality.

I don't know if Mr. Simmons has realized that he shouldn't be fighting his readers. I hope so. We live in a world where fighting the people that pay your paycheck isn't a good idea.

I'm not saying that he shouldn't protect his copyright. He should, and if I'm ever published, then I will do the same. But he should also realize that "winning" copyright battles may look different than he imagines from the outside.

Ellison may indeed win every copyright battle he ever is involved in, and get thousands of dollars from it . . . but he might also develop a reputation for disrespecting his readers. I know after reading this, I’m not going to ever buy one of his books unless I read it at the library first.

PVP creator Scott Kurtz offered (and still offers, as far as I know) major newspapers his comic strip for free, upsetting the long time syndicated comic community. He can afford to create his comic full time based on the revenue he brings in creating content and publishing it for free on his website daily. The guys at Penny Arcade make an absolute mint and they only publish three times a week. Respect is currency to these operations. If Tycho started bitching about how he was going to sue the guys that used his art as backgrounds, he’d probably find himself with a substantially smaller readership.

I see something coming that, if he doesn’t like downloading, I suspect he’s going to hate: Online libraries.

In the UK you pay tax on televisions. I don't know if it's a monthly thing, or if it's a one time price when you buy the television, but it doesn't matter because that tax pays for content. In Canada, I've heard there's a tax for blank CDs because it's assumed that at least some of them will be used in burning shared or downloaded media.

The U.S. has to step up. Libraries are quaint and will still be around for generations, but they are no longer the bastions that hold the thought of our society any more. Besides, a national online library with e-books would be about as expensive as a branch library in Scranton, OH but could serve millions and millions more people.

They'll have to figure out some way to pay the authors. Cut them checks for the number of people that read their work, perhaps. Perhaps a straight fee for the ability to reproduce their work. I don't know. In the mean time, books won't go away. I will still be buying them for decades to come. Until Hawking succeeds, I have no reason to give up my library.

There are other things that I don’t know if Mr. Simmons has realized. Not every person that downloads his books would buy them in a store if they weren't available online. Further, some people who learn that he's a good writer downloading his books online may start buying his books. Exposure creates demand, and lonelygirl15 has proved that you can make lots of money offering things that you also offer for free.

Obviously, this has a lot to do with the way online music works as well. The problem is, once the music companies finally figured out how much a song costs online ($0.99) they lost a lot of their ability to claim that each illegal download cost them $300,000 in lost profit.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm entirely clean on the music front. I will say that with part of my remaining iTunes gift certificate, I'm going to buy music that I have already heard for free (on the radio, obviously). And, if I didn't have a gift certificate, I wouldn't be listening to it at all. It’s not worth it to spend my own money on something that I find as trivial as I find music.

Especially when I can go to Yahoo music and listen to the station I set up back when it was still a “Launchcast.” That’s a library of music that I can listen too basically for free, and I’m not breaking any laws.

So, Mr. Simmons can mourn the loss caused by people downloading his work and call them the ignorami, but I hope that I don't have the same illusions as a published author. Hopefully I'll gain enough readers that will pay among all the people that would otherwise never read my work at all.

In the mean time, I’m going to keep my library card handy.

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