Copyright Maximalists Harm Authors

26 November 2013 — Falkvinge on Infopolicy

Copyright maximalists want all sorts of new laws to “help authors get paid”. Well, I’m a published author, and all their efforts to “help” cost me money. Even if we strictly limit the argument to printed books, copyright maximalists still only succeed in harming authors and publishers. This is how.

The History of “Using Samba”

This book was first published both as a traditional book and as an e-book suitable for reading and printing from personal computers. Andy Oram, my editor, negotiated a deal where every copy of the Samba program included a copy of Using Samba, so if you wanted a copy, you could get one as part of the normal free download.

There were no limitations on distribution or personal printing, and the license reserved only commercial printing rights to the publisher. Only commercial printers have equipment capable of printing and binding on sufficiently thin paper to make a manageable book. If printed on conventional photocopier paper, the book is over three inches thick. Printing small sections for reference on photocopier paper is perfectly practical, but large-scale printing is not.

The net result is that the book was widely used as a reference on Samba.

What surprised us at the time is that the on-line readers bought the physical book in great numbers. We went from the third-selling book on the subject to the first in a matter of weeks, and the book was one of O’Reilly’s best sellers for the year.

Readers buy books. To be precise, on-line readers buy printed books. They value their convenient form, they make notes in the margins and they lend them to friends. They preferentially buy books that are available on-line, partly because they know they’re not buying a “pig in a poke”, and additionally because the on-line copies are searchable, and in effect serve as a superior index into the printed ones.

This sold a lot of copies of Using Samba, and O’Reilly subsequently found ways to provide a search service for their books as well as free samples, all as part of their on-line offering, Safari. Other publishers noticed that, and have found variations that work for both fiction and non-fiction.

The Response from the Unwise

Some other publishers have not noticed.

Along with the publishers of movies and music, they have convinced themselves that what we saw didn’t happen.

In their world, readers don’t use both on-line and printed books: their readers buy a book once on some device or other, read it and throw it away. Their readers don’t have bookshelves in their houses or offices. In their world, public libraries are a business risk. A public library might allow a reader to read a book, and ever thereafter not be a prospective purchaser of that same book. An e-book is worse: someone might give away many copies, or even bundle a copy with every copy of a popular program.

At the request of these unwise publishers, the United States has for some years been carrying out a risky experiment in law, permitting the publishers to put arbitrary restrictions on books or other media in electronic form. Their “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” prohibits the lawful use of the book if the use is not explicitly permitted by the publisher. This permits publishers to impose any restriction they chose, sometimes flying in the face of established law. Now this is to be imposed by treaty on other countries, in part via the “Trans-Pacific Partnership”. Canada has already succumbed.

Protecting me from Success

The unwise publishers and their friends in government are doing their very best to make sure I don’t give my work away to prospective customers. They know I don’t want to do that, and will use any means within the law and some means which aren’t, to make that impossible.

The effort to prevent copying has led to some explicitly criminal acts: one of Sony’s DRM systems was in fact a root-kit, and at that time breached the criminal codes of Canada and the U.S. Under the DMCA it’s now arguably legal.

In the case of library books, that have successfully forced all e-books to have DRM and region codes. I can’t distribute my e-books via the public library because the monopoly supplier is DRM-only, and imposes lending limits on the libraries. If I publish a book without DRM, they won’t touch it, and thereby won’t let the libraries have it.

If a publisher has any channels which require DRM, their contracts will require all copies have DRM, and wherever possible, region codes to prevent a “Canadian” e-book from being readable in the Caribbean.

They wish a mere claim of downloading to be sufficient to cut a customer off from the ‘net, and to prohibit particular programs, notably bittorrent, and they already have overturned the laws that prohibit them from excluding the blind. This makes prospective customers afraid to download anything that is under copyright.

Three-strike schemes and prohibitions on programs do much the same thing: they cast a chill on all downloading, whether a book or a program that happens to come with a book.

We already have a problem with traditional channels to book sales becoming less effective: trying to cut off my ability to give away free samples cuts off a legal, proven effective, channel that benefits from widespread copying.

They’re wrong

I really do want to bundle a copy of my current book about a program with every single copy of the program. That sells printed books.

Prohibiting me from giving out free samples takes those sales away from me. And from my publisher. And from them, which they would know if they weren’t holding their eyes tight shut.