Nascent

Cory Doctorow visits Nature

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, EFF and science fiction fame kindly paid us a visit yesterday and gave a great talk on how he uses the web in writing and promoting his books, as well as broader issues like Google Book Search. My notes are below.

Incidentally, Cory also wrote an entertaining piece for Futures, Nature‘s regular science fiction column. It’s in the 12 January issue. (Appropriately enough, a copy is also available on Cory’s website.)


Cory Doctorow

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Technology and art have an uneasy relationship. Technology can enable, but also disrupts, especially copyright (since copying is essentially a technological activity). An example is sheet music at the dawn of the 20th century: Composers were much more important than performers. People would buy one copy of the sheet music, then create a piano roll or phonograms of the music. Composers were outraged. ‘Charismatic’ performers had a different complaint: they feared losing out to ‘virtuoso’ performers (who sounded better on phonograms but weren’t so impressive in front of a live audience).

The internet radically lowers search costs. Somewhere in the world there is usually a substitute good for what you want, and at a lower cost, but it’s hard to find it. But the cost of discovering ‘art’ has been in freefall since Napster. We are entering an era when you can’t compete based on live performances or virtuosity, but you can compete by having a relationship with your audience.

It’s hard to have a conversation with a million people, but in can be done. See Neil Gaiman’s blog in which he effectively opens and responds to his mailbag in public. This means his readers consider him a friend. We see this in music too. The producer of Babylon 5, Michael Straczynski, spent 3 hours a day on Usenet and built up a strong following, which helped him to make it a success.

SF is ‘weird person’s’ niche and it became a way for these people to find other similar people. The internet has reduced SF reading and increased conference attendance — because now these people can find each other without doing all that reading. At a recent SF conference the makers of a Halo-based video series, Red vs Blue, had many more attendees at their session than some very well known SF authors. SF publishing is still releasing a lot of books, but sales have peaked (in the same way that CD sales have peaked). This is inevitable.

That said, SF has always had a relationship with its fans. SF authors love to build on each other’s stories. The ‘Futurians‘ — a group of SF authors in the 1940s — did this. SF is also the only genre that people can regularly be bothered to manually scan and copy whole books onto the internet.

There is also a genre called fan fiction — e.g., Kirk and Spock’s continuing adventures — that’s mostly written by women. There is substantial debate between fans and authors about what ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ happen in these fictional universes.

SF is also grounded in science. Email clients by default create copies when you hit ‘Reply’. This wouldn’t be the case if the internet was designed by lawyers, but it was designed by engineers and scientists. There are even some people who ask permission to link (and some sites that have ‘linking policies’)!

What’s coming? Cory doesn’t know, but SF writers live in the best place possible to make the most of the future.

Ebooks are highly complementary to print books, they do not replace them, though there is increasing willingness to read on-screen and the hardware is getting better. There will not be specialist book readers — people will use their games systems or phones. We don’t need DRM because they proscribe what a user can do and prohibit everything else by default.

Cory’s novels to date have been very successful. His latest novel allows unlimited commercial exploitation in low-income countries. There is a moral reason to this, but also a commercial reason because the best and brightest from these countries come to the developed world and spend money based on tastes developed at home.

Google Print, now Google Book Search. The SF Writers Association (and other groups) have acted against this based on two principal arguments:

  1. Someone might be able to reconstruct a whole book. This overlooks the fact that there are other, easier ways of doing this.
  2. Google shouldn’t be allowed to profit from any content-related activity without compensating the author. This runs counter to the existing ‘copyright bargain’ that already makes clear what can and can’t be done without an author’s permission.

Recent legal decisions:

  1. Grokster decision: Is a P2P company liable for the infringements of its customers if there are also substantial non-infringing uses? The US Supreme Court said yes, if the company encourages infringing uses. This is a disaster because it’s rarely clear when you develop a technology which uses will be lawful and which won’t (e.g., the VCR was originally promoted by Sony for uses that subsequently turned out to be infringing).
  2. Digital Content Protection Act: Requires anyone making a device for recording, playing or storing radio or TV broadcasts to ensure it can only be used for ‘customary’ uses. By definition this stifles innovation. There is a huge campaign now to defeat this.
  3. ‘Plugging the analog hole’: (Cory calls this the “A-Hole bill”.) Any device with playback functions must stop analog-to-digital conversion unless a special ‘watermark’ indicates permission. A-to-D converters are very simple to make, so they are effectively impossible to control — like trying to control paperclips.

(A Q&A session followed.)

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