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Cory Doctorow on Giving Away Free E-Books and the Morality of “Copying”

From the Mises blog. Archived comments below.

Cory Doctorow on Giving Away Free E-Books and the Morality of “Copying”

Sep. 16, 2008

Insightful and interesting comments by Cory Doctorow (and surprisingly sound, given that Doctorow unfortunately favors socialized medicine (see this Free Talk Live interview):

Why do you give away your books?
Giving away ebooks gives me artistic, moral and commercial satisfaction. The commercial question is the one that comes up most often: how can you give away free ebooks and still make money?

For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy. Mega-hit best-sellers in science fiction sell half a million copies — in a world where 175,000 attend the San Diego Comic Con alone, you’ve got to figure that most of the people who “like science fiction” (and related geeky stuff like comics, games, Linux, and so on) just don’t really buy books. I’m more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who’s in the tent bought a ticket to be there.

Ebooks are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it’s in their nature. And many of those copies have a destination, a person they’re intended for, a hand-wrought transfer from one person to another, embodying a personal recommendation between two people who trust each other enough to share bits. That’s the kind of thing that authors (should) dream of, the proverbial sealing of the deal. By making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them.

What’s more, I don’t see ebooks as substitute for paper books for most people. It’s not that the screens aren’t good enough, either: if you’re anything like me, you already spend every hour you can get in front of the screen, reading text. But the more computer-literate you are, the less likely you are to be reading long-form works on those screens — that’s because computer-literate people do more things with their computers. We run IM and email and we use the browser in a million diverse ways. We have games running in the background, and endless opportunities to tinker with our music libraries. The more you do with your computer, the more likely it is that you’ll be interrupted after five to seven minutes to do something else. That makes the computer extremely poorly suited to reading long-form works off of, unless you have the iron self-discipline of a monk.

The good news (for writers) is that this means that ebooks on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper.

So ebooks sell print books. Every writer I’ve heard of who’s tried giving away ebooks to promote paper books has come back to do it again. That’s the commercial case for doing free ebooks.

Now, onto the artistic case. It’s the twenty-first century. Copying stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today (or if it does, it’ll be because civilization has collapsed, at which point we’ll have other problems). Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century. There’s something charming about making work you don’t want to be copied, in the same way that it’s nice to go to a Pioneer Village and see the olde-timey blacksmith shoeing a horse at his traditional forge. But it’s hardly, you know, contemporary. I’m a science fiction writer. It’s my job to write about the future (on a good day) or at least the present. Art that’s not supposed to be copied is from the past.

Finally, let’s look at the moral case. Copying stuff is natural. It’s how we learn (copying our parents and the people around us). My first story, written when I was six, was an excited re-telling of Star Wars, which I’d just seen in the theater. Now that the Internet — the world’s most efficient copying machine — is pretty much everywhere, our copying instinct is just going to play out more and more. There’s no way I can stop my readers, and if I tried, I’d be a hypocrite: when I was 17, I was making mix-tapes, photocopying stories, and generally copying in every way I could imagine. If the Internet had been around then, I’d have been using it to copy as much as I possibly could.

There’s no way to stop it, and the people who try end up doing more harm than piracy ever did. The record industry’s ridiculous holy war against file-sharers (more than 20,000 music fans sued and counting!) exemplifies the absurdity of trying to get the food-coloring out of the swimming pool. If the choice is between allowing copying or being a frothing bully lashing out at anything he can reach, I choose the former.


Archived comments:

Comments (14)

  • Artisan
  • It’s an opinion.

    Sounds to me like: electricity companies give away gasoline because thus they can tie the people better to energy consumption habits?!

    Theres a similarity with the following marketing strategy in fact:
    web browsers are distributed for free because the technology gives a special tie to the customer FOR SELLING HIM SOMETHING ELSE LATER. (Not for selling him the same browser later of course)

    But what does Doctorow or other authors otherwise sell? Why is he an interesting agent on the market I wonder?

  • Published: September 17, 2008 5:22 AM

  • ktibuk
  • “and surprisingly sound, given that Doctorow unfortunately favors socialized medicine”

    You are surprised when an IP socialist, also favors socialized medicine?

    Hahahaha. I needed that laugh today.

  • Published: September 17, 2008 5:39 AM

  • Peter
  • Well, if you use the term “IP socialist” correctly – that is, to refer to the pro-IP position – no; but Doctorow is here supporting the “IP-capitalist” position alongside socialized medicine. And Artisan seems to be missing the point: he does indeed want to sell his books, not “something else later”.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 5:54 AM

  • Laurent GUERBY
  • So the critics of IP are “socialists”? Who are you kidding?

    IP is one of the most heavy handed GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION in the otherwise free market. It’s a fundamentally PROTECTIONNIST ANTI FREE TRADE government policy.

    IP is currently holding back innovation and creating massive amount of corruption at all level.

    To quote an evil “socialist” “communist” (choose the right answer 🙂 on the IP topic:

    “”” Just to illustrate how great out ignorance of the optimum forms of delimitation of various rights remains – despite our confidence in the indispensability of the general institution of several property – a few remarks about one particuilar form of property may be made. […]

    The difference between these and other kinds of property rights is this: while ownership of material goods guides the user of scarce means to their most important uses, in the case of immaterial goods such as literary productions and technological inventions the ability to produce them is also limited, yet once they have come into existence, they can be indefinitely multiplied and can be made scarce only by law in order to create an inducement to produce such ideas. Yet it is not obvious that such forced scarcity is the most effective way to stimulate the human creative process. I doubt whether there exists a single great work of literature which we would not possess had the author been unable to obtain an exclusive copyright for it; it seems to me that the case for copyright must rest almost entirely on the circumstance that such exceedingly useful works as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, textbooks and other works of reference could not be produced if, once they existed, they could freely be reproduced.

    Similarly, recurrent re-examinations of the problem have not demonstrated that the obtainability of patents of invention actually enhances the flow of new technical knowledge rather than leading to wasteful concentration of research on problems whose solution in the near future can be foreseen and where, in consequence of the law, anyone who hits upon a solution a moment before the next gains the right to its exclusive use for a prolonged period.”””

    The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, 1988 (p. 35) Friedrich von Hayek

    I’m curious about what Mises said about IP, any information welcomed.

  • Published: September 17, 2008 6:07 AM

  • ktibuk
  • The “P” in the IP is “property”.

    If you are against intellectual private property, you are an IP socialists.

    There are also people who say “land” can not be private property and they have their excuses but that doesn’t change the fact that they are socialists.

    Also Hayek gives some utilitarian arguments but my positions are ethical, thus I don’t care what stimulates what production or would enough intellectual works would have been produced in a socialist setting. I don’t despise socialism because it is inefficient, I despise it because it is unethical.

    And the patent system has major flaws because it is a government invention to socialize IP after a certain period of time, and its shortcomings are not sufficient arguments against private property.

  • Published: September 17, 2008 6:28 AM

  • Inquisitor
  • If the thing in question cannot be property (because it is not scarce) it is not socialism to highlight this fact. Land socialists cannot evoke the non-scarcity of land to disqualify it as property – because it’s patently false. Not so with ideas.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 7:09 AM

  • Inquisitor
  • As for Mises, he considered ideas non-scarce as well, as can be seen in his discussion of the law of returns in HA.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 7:13 AM

  • Stephan KinsellaAuthor Profile Page
  • Kitbook, Just because “property” is part of the state-label attached does not mean it is. C’mon. And recognizing property rights in land does not infringe rights in other property that already exists. Recognizing IP rights does.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 8:37 AM

  • Peter
  • ktibuk: you’re just playing with words. If I define “IP” to stand for “idiotic protectionism”, then you, by supporting IP, are an idiotic protectionist, by definition! The fact that the P stands for “property” doesn’t make it property.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 8:40 AM

  • Person
  • And Stephan, just because the state enforces an obligation, doesn’t mean that obligation is unjustifiable.

    The fact that some people like to give away their property doesn’t mean property is illegitimate.

    “And recognizing property rights in land does not infringe rights in other property that already exists. Recognizing IP rights does.”

    So does recognizing EM spectrum rights.

  • Published: September 17, 2008 8:43 AM

  • William H. Stoddard
  • The comparison that strikes me when I read ktibuk’s argument is slavery. Before the Civil War amendments, people in a number of American states had invested significant capital in buying black people as slaves; those amendments took that wealth away from them, without compensation. Are we to call that “socialism” and denounce it as unethical? It is, after all, a denial of property rights in human beings.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 9:24 AM

  • RKArmour
  • Eric Flint, science fiction author (Publisher is Baen) has written at some length to this. He has provided actual sales and royalty figures on books he has provided online in multiple formats (including RTF). It has caused some of his works to be reprinted to meet the growth in demand.

    Since I am not clever enough to provide a link, you will have to look up the Baen Free Library… Not a charitable concern, but a profit chasing one. Mr. Flint is the ‘librarian’ and will add meaningful grist for the mill far more articulately than I can.

    And if you enjoy SF, check it out… I bet you’ll buy some.

  • Published: September 17, 2008 10:13 AM

  • Glen
  • Even if one accepts that the “P” in IP stands for property, you would then be agreeing to the proposition that government defines property. One of the basic premises of socialism is that property is defined by government.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 11:49 AM

  • Ohhh Henry
  • He’s hoping to make it up on volume.
  • Published: September 17, 2008 12:49 PM

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