Thursday, December 08, 2011

the free culture sustainability myth, part 2

There is a video of fantasy and graphic-fiction author Neil Gaiman currently circulating among the  acolytes of online free culture. It appears to have been produced by the Open Rights Group, an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights online, for which Gaiman is himself a patron. In the video, Gaiman discusses the beneficial effect so-called piracy has had on the market for his books, opening up foreign readerships and spreading his name and reputation widely. The author celebrates traditional notions of sharing and lending books, and expresses his own certainty that more readers discover their favorite authors by borrowing books than by buying them.

You can see Gaiman's video discussion here.

I don't necessarily disagree with anything Gaiman has to say in the video. In fact, my own experience of free digital download showed a similar unscientific trending toward greater audience and sales (albeit on a much smaller scale). Still, I do wonder if there isn't more to be heard from this very established author on the topic of traditional copyright. Specifically, I wonder... does this video show an author who is convinced enough by the notions of free culture and "sharing" to move into the always-free-digital, self-publication model discussed in my last posting?

Very, very doubtful.

Gaiman is currently enjoying a successful and lucrative career in traditional publishing with one of the world's largest English-language houses, HarperCollins. The "free" novel he references in the video, American Gods, is not available for free download, and is rather traditionally protected by his publishers with an all rights reserved copyright declaration, as are all the books listed on Gaiman's website. Readers can read the first chapter of that novel on Gaiman's website here. Time-limited free-distribution is not groundbreaking or particularly new, and the free sample chapter is a marketing strategy as old as the hills. Neither of these tactics are intended to excuse or encourage actual piracy.

In the video Gaiman expresses the belief that pirated free copies out there on the Internet do not represent lost sales. I think it's true that not every "shared" pirate copy can be counted as a lost sale, but I'm pretty sure an always-free model counts against sales at a certain point. Not only is that just common sense, but the numbers in Cory Doctorow's free-digital experiment definitely point to a plateau effect for the fan building encouraged by free-digital.

Of course, if piracy really had no negative effect on book sales and only expanded the paid market for an author, one would expect Gaiman's publisher to encourage it.

They do not.

In fact, HarperCollins is so protective of copyright they found themselves the target of free culture criticism when they suggested that libraries should have to repurchase e-book licenses after a certain number of borrowings from their collection.

Gaiman himself has a history of copyright litigation documented in detail on his wikipedia page. As far as I can tell, rights to his intellectual property and the sale of copies of that IP represent the business of being Neil Gaiman.

So, what of the pirates then?

Authors like Doctorow and Gaiman have bought themselves a lot of love from the free culture crowd with bold public statements blurring the lines between genuine sharing and outright piracy. At the same time, they benefit immensely from traditional publishing models and the hard slog of cultural workers within copyright-dependent industries. It's a neat parlour trick, but I imagine it leaves a pretty sour taste in the mouths of those battling to preserve traditional publishing in the face of rising piracy.

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Sandy Crawley said...

As usual you dissect the nuance of the free culture stance and reveal the inner contradictions of their fuzzy thinking around the value of information. It is always unfortunate when successful authors and academics become figureheads for the erosion of a system from which they themselves have derived a living. My question is always are they dishonestly hypocritical or merely myopic?

Finn Harvor said...

Excellent post: closely reasoned with a strong and convincing conclusion. It's worth noting that piracy doesn't "help" Gaiman succeed -- his sales do. If he's quote unquote okay about piracy, it's because it's not currently hurting him.