Saturday, December 29, 2007


One of the things you can count on in the hyper-charged world of the new media is that people will take a good -- or at least innocuous -- idea and utterly beat it to death.

That's pretty much what has happened with Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Now understand, I have nothing against SEO per se. What I object to is the blind attempt to substitute tricks for serious content. The belief that if you're just clever enough in messing with Google, or Yahoo, or whatever, you will be successful whether or not you've got anything to say that people want to hear.

The business of getting a high placement in Google has become a growth industry on the web. There are dozens of consultants, books, articles and even videos out there purporting to show you how to move up in the rankings so you appear earlier when someone searches a particular word or phrase.

Some of the methods SEO companies employ are ethically -- interesting, to say the very least. For example some of them have noticed that getting mentioned in blogs increases your page ranking, so they began offering pay per mention deals where they'd pay bloggers to mention their clients in their blogs. A couple of months ago Google changed its algorithm, as it does when these kinds of schemes get too obnoxious, and started removing the page ranks of the paid-off bloggers. Needless to say there was much fluttering in the dovecotes of the companies promoting these schemes.

So what, you may ask, is wrong with that? After all higher rankings mean more business. So why not try to get the highest ranking you possibly can?

There are two things wrong with this. I find this particular scheme personally offensive because it violates old-school journalistic ethics which say you should clearly and unequivocally separate advertising from content.

Perhaps that's just me and a few old newspaper dinosaurs. But the second problem is both more general and much worse.

What's wrong with it is that essentially SEO of any sort is an attempt to game the system. It tries to use the characteristics of Google's search algorithms to increase ranking instead of concentrating on what those rankings are supposed to reflect.

And that, simply put, is content. Ultimately content is what draws viewers. Relevant content presented in an interesting way will bring in people and what's more it will provide you with the strongest possible kind of advertising -- word of mouth.

If these optimized sites were offering real value it wouldn't much matter how Google did its math. They'd still come out well. And in fact the sites that combine SEO with real, useful content do pretty well consistently. They may use SEO to help sell the sizzle, but there's steak there too.

Selling the sizzle not the steak is fine. But it presupposes that there is in fact a steak under all the sizzle. SEO quickly becomes a matter of being all sizzle and no steak. It is the equivalent of a sideshow barker making outrageous claims to lure people into the tent, where the "eighth wonder of the world" turns out to be a completely disappointing experience. And that, far too often, is what you get from highly 'optimized' sites.

This isn't new, of course. Advertising has had this problem in cycles for years. Advertisers have squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on ads that got noticed but ultimately didn't sell the product. Since I minored in advertising in college I've seen the cycle repeat in television and print probably three or four times.

The problem is exacerbated in web advertising because the main measurement of success is page views. Advertisers want page views and click through and that's what web sites try to deliver, no matter how.

Of course the problem with this approach is that neither page views nor click throughs make a dime for the advertiser. It takes sales to do that and these measures do not necessarily translate into sales. In fact if the reader finds that high-ranking page doesn't reflect his or her actual interest, you can pretty much guarantee it won't result in a sale. Such pages, no matter how expertly optimized for ranking, are wasted money for advertisers and ultimately the people who put them up.

One of the reasons SEO has grown to the bloated proportions it has is that search engine rank represents an easy, cheap metric. Ten years ago when no one in the web business had any money, you could justify taking the easy way out and using search rank as the way to decide where to put the pittance you had to spend on advertising.

Of course that's no longer true and the entire web advertising industry is realizing they need better metrics.

What is going to happen, and indeed it is already beginning to happen, is that advertisers are going to get wise to what actually sells products online. When that happens SEO will diminish to its proper proportions.

Friday, December 14, 2007


(BUFFALO, N.Y. —) A 48-year-old man entangled in an Internet love triangle built largely on lies was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison for killing his rival for the affection of a woman he had never met.

Thomas Montgomery, who posed as an 18-year-old Marine in online chats, pleaded guilty in August to gunning down Brian Barrett, 22, in a parking lot at the suburban Buffalo factory where they worked.

The motive was jealousy, investigators said. Both were involved online with a middle-aged West Virginia mother — who herself was posing as an 18-year-old student.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Google as part of the job process?

Lately I've seen a couple of posts, including this one on John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog, about using Google as part of the employment screening process.

Makes sense, right? If you're looking to hire John Smith you want all the information you can get, and Google is a rich source of information on just about anything, including John Smith.

Fine, only which John Smith are you looking at?

In fact trying to use Google to get serious information on someone is usually a really, truly, really bad idea. Without a lot of extra effort and additional identifying information you can't be sure who you've got.

Now "Rick Cook" isn't a terribly common name, but a Google search reveals that I've done a lot of stuff I was totally unaware of.

My favorite is making custom furniture in a little shop in Port Orford, WA.

The close runner-up is my time as a spokesman for a Florida national forest where I'm worried about escaped pet pythons growing to enormous size and eating all the wildlife -- not to mention the tourists.

I also like my time as an engineering manager on the Mars Rover project at JPL.

And I'm doing my bit for the environment as one of the leading "green" architects in America.

Did I mention I am head of security for a casino near New Orleans? Or that I'm the ex-mayor of a small town in California.

And speaking of California I'm also a fairly successful basketball coach in the Los Angeles area.

Oh yeah, I died in a helicopter crash in Scotland several years ago.

Now no one who knows much about me as a computer journalist and sometime writer of science fiction and fantasy novels full of bad computer jokes is likely to confuse any of those people with me. But there are some Rick Cooks out there who can be confused with me -- to the detriment of us both.

For example, I'm a partner in a major high-tech public relations firm. And I'm an expert on the OS/2 operating system. And I'm a regular poster on several newsgroups related to computer technology. And I'm active in the gaming universe.

Those are harder to disambiguate.

In fact unless you have a really good method of singling out your "Rick Cook" from all the other "Rick Cooks" out there it's just about impossible to know who's done what. This is especially true in areas like arrests that don't involve information that would be on a job application.

Even geographical proximity won't do it. There are at least three Rick Cooks in my urban area. The one who I really don't want to be mistaken for is the one who's a prison guard.

Googling your own or someone else's name may be a fun party game, but as a method of gathering information for serious purposes like employment it represents an abuse of the new media.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


As I write this the screenwriters’ strike is edging toward its second week and no end in sight.

In one sense that’s beneath the notice of this blog. After all, we’re concerned with the new media and society, not with who’s going to get what percentage of which products. In another sense, it represents yet another example of the inability of big media companies to adapt to a radically changing landscape.

My prediction is that sooner or later the strike will be settled more-or-less on the writers’ terms. And it ultimately won’t make a damn bit of difference.

If you’re not sure what all the fuss is about, WebPro has a good video summary

Of course WebPro’s story is mostly from the standpoint of the writers. The media companies aren’t saying anything, which is probably the best thing they can do. First, they’re going to be cast as the bad-guys in this by hordes of drivel-starved television fans no matter what they say.

Second, they’ve been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the revenue potential of the internet, telling their investors that there are huge profits in internet entertainment while telling the writers no one is making money off it.

I’m willing to believe no one is making money off internet television, but that’s irrelevant. The writers are asking for royalties, not an up-front payment and sooner rather than later the entertainment companies are going to be making money off the internet. And more and more of it as time goes on.

Strategically the studios’ position smacks of the kind of especially myopic lawyers and accountants who infest big corporations. This wasn’t planned by strategic visionaries at the studios for darned sure. (Assuming that the phrase “strategic visionaries at the studios” isn’t a completely oxymoron.)

What is going on here is essentially another performance of the Dinosaur Follies. The media company dinosaurs are so busy trying to jostle the writers away from the tasty new growth in the swamp that they’re ignoring the much larger issues screaming down on them out of the sky.

The real problem the entertainment companies face is the same as the one faced by their music industry subsidiaries. Their business model is less and less effective in the world of the new media. You can see this in declining television viewership, stagnant numbers of moviegoers and the faint scent of desperation beginning to waft out of Hollywood and New York.

The decline in television watching has received a lot of attention, but the state of the movies has received much less attention, especially since numbers were up slightly in 2006 after declining in 2005.

In fact the 2006 movie attendance report from the Motion Picture Industry Association of America shows an industry in trouble and heading for crisis. This isn’t just the fact that movie admissions are still off from the 2002 levels. (This is the important number since it represents tickets sold and it dropped from 1.4 billion in 2002 to 1.33 billion in 2006.) It’s the pattern.

What that pattern shows is an industry increasingly relying on its best customers (frequent moviegoers) because it is having trouble attracting customers in general. The numbers also reinforce what everyone has known for the last 20 years. You’ve got to have a blockbuster to succeed.

Rising costs and stagnant ticket sales have pretty much killed the moderately successful movie, just as they have eliminated the moderately successful television series. Increasingly the only way to survive in either industry is to hit a home run with nearly every at bat. (In the case of television it’s generally accepted that if a show doesn’t last for three seasons – the magic number for syndication – it’s not going to make money.)

This need for home runs is a classic sign of an imploding industry being squeezed between rising costs and stagnant demands. Eventually most such industries are either squeezed out of existence or reduced to tiny niches.

The semi-morons running the entertainment industry may not be able to read the writing on the wall, but they can read a balance sheet. One of the reasons for their intransigence in the current strike is that they’re desperate for more revenue – and they’re stupid enough to think they can get it by squeezing the people who make money for them.

Nor is this the most ridiculous notion the entertainment industry has come up with. the MPAA is pushing for bizarre schemes like licensing home theaters (basically any house with a couch and a 29-inch television screen) for $50 a year.

"Just because you buy a DVD to watch at home doesn't give you the right to invite friends over to watch it too,” an MPAA spokesman explained in defending this piece of lunacy. “That's a violation of copyright and denies us the revenue that would be generated from DVD sales to your friends."

Not even a Congress bribed with millions in campaign contributions ($217 million since 1990) would buy that one, but it’s a measure of the studios’ desperation that they’d even propose such nonsense.

However in pushing into the world of the new media, the studios face a more fundamental problem. They don’t understand the differences between internet based media and movies and television. For the most part they’re still thinking in terms of episodic television and movies and ignoring the kind of interactivity and community that comes from with the media they’re trying to invade.

Ironically part of the problem is that the price of poker is going down. It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to produce videos of decent, or at least interesting, quality. What’s more the tools are getting simpler and more powerful, which makes it easier to “break into the movies” online.

To get a tiny hint of where the technology is taking us, take a look at Beowulf, which is hitting theaters this week. With its incredible graphics and blends of animation and actors, Beowulf is anything but a cheap home-made production. However inside a decade those kinds of effects will be readily available to anyone who wants them, just as the breathtaking effects in the original Star Wars trilogy can be reproduced pretty much at will by amateur video makers today.

The critical point in this for the future of the movie industry is that what you can do in a computer you don’t need to do on a sound stage, complete with the large number of experts and associated expenses. Need to fix the lighting? That’s a couple of mouse clicks on the computer, not a crew of highly paid electricians fiddling with the lights for a couple of hours.

Of course there are other features that will play an even bigger part in these new online entertainments. One of the most important is interactivity and the resulting community. Increasingly entertainment is going to be about communities interacting in created worlds. The model is going to more closely mimic World of Warcraft than Beowulf.

This is utterly alien to the ‘sit back and take what we push at you’ model of traditional studio products. That mismatch alone is going to make it hard for the studios. And there are a lot of other problems I’m not going to try to go into just now.

So how will the writers come out of these fundamental changes? Probably better than the studios but not as well as they will out of the strike. Writers are a notoriously adaptable bunch, and most of us are able to turn our hands to a lot of different kinds of writing. While screenwriting is about the most highly specialized form of fiction writing out there, and screenwriters are in their own way prisoners of the system they’ve enjoyed over the decades, the flexible ones will do all right.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


While think of wholesale copying in terms of file sharing and novels posted without permission, there are a lot of other ways copyrighted material is misused on the web.

Over at TechCrunch, Erick Schonfeld notes that his posts are being ripped off wholesale by sploggers.

Splogs, in case your cave doesn’t have broadband, are spam blogs. They are the parasites of the blogosphere and they leech off legitimate blogs and bloggers to drive traffic to their sites and make money off the efforts of real bloggers. The ‘content’ of such blogs is either noise or stolen.

What Erick is complaining about is stolen content. Sploggers are stealing TechCrunch’s content wholesale and posting it without attribution on their splogs, surrounded by ads. This generates ad revenue for the splogger with virtually no work.

This is not a trivial problem for some blogs. In Erick’s case a single post was reposted in whole or in part nearly six hundred times. In itself that’s not surprising since TechCrunch is a popular source of technology news and comment. Most of these sites merely quoted extensively from TechCrunch articles and a few reprinted the articles in their entirety with attribution and links back to Michael’s site.

However there were a lot of sploggers who used the material as splog fodder. As Erick notes: “And of those, 115—or 25 percent of the original—were plastered with ads, making money off our work without so much as a link.”

It wasn’t just individual posts. Some of the sploggers were stealing TechCrunch posts repeatedly and presenting them without attribution to generate page views and ad revenue.

Judging by the responses, TechCrunch isn’t alone in the problem. Several other bloggers chimed in on the forum to report they have had material stolen by sploggers as well. And indeed anyone who does much web surfing will find these sploggers all over the place. I ran into one last week following up on a mention of one of my articles.

Equally predictably there was a small band of the morally tone deaf who roundly criticized Erick for complaining about being splogged while TechCrunch opposes the RIAA and others who are trying to crack down on free distribution of copyrighted material such as music. Attempts to make the critical distinctions were roundly ignored by the “intellectually lazy” (in another poster's phrase) who just wanted to run up their snark scores.

What follows started as a response to Erick's original post and has been suitably edited, emended, and (perhaps not so suitably) expanded for this post. I’ll start with the practicalities for someone who’s being splogged in this fashion and then we’ll get back to the distinction between this and file sharing.

Note also that none of this deals with bloggers who quote extensively from other blogs with proper attribution and linkbacks. We’re talking about scammers who are making money by stealing other people’s work and using it to generate ad revenue.

The practicalities
I do have a few practical (?) suggestions for anyone whose content is being stolen wholesale.
  • The first is to watermark your copy. Not your pages, your copy. Embed the watermark in the text file, not as a separate background layer. That way any robot who scoops it up will also get the "TechCrunch" (or whatever) all over it.
  • The second suggestion – which should really be the first – is to personalize your posts. That is, make the material truly yours by things like repeated mentions of your site in your posts, multiple links to related articles on your site, adopting a more personalized slant in your posts, etc.

Sploggers aside, this is a good idea anyway because it helps to distinguish your ‘product’ from all the other blogs out there. Vanilla prose, like vanilla layouts, are much less effective at attracting and keeping readers that something that is truly yours. This is true even in technical blogs.

Blogging is a form of communication that works best when your readers have a sense of who you are. That’s true of web interaction in general. Among other things, it helps to build a sense of community if your readers feel they know you. And community is one of the most important generators of repeat views, word of mouth and all the other happy little marks of blogosphere merit.

These suggestions go to the problem of attribution. The sploggers aren't going to go to the trouble of teasing this stuff out of your posts, especially the rewritten copy. That's too much like work after all. On the other hand, the misguided bloggers who think of themselves as legitimate are likely to make the effort. Which provides a useful distinguishing characteristic. Perhaps the misguided ones are susceptible to a gentle note about blogger etiquette.

There are also a couple of legal-type things you can do without turning into a junior-jackboot version of the RIAA or spending a ton of money.

  • The first, and most important, is to copyright your blog. Make sure every post is copyrighted and include a statement of terms of use in the TechCrunch site. This can be as copy-friendly as you want to make it, but specifically deny things like posting without attribution and requiring things like linking. Also include a phrase about the posts being free for non-commercial use. This puts you on a firm footing legally.
  • Next, and almost as important, is complain long and loud to Google about all the AdSense ads the sploggers are using to make money off the stolen material. Under the AdSense agreement, Google has broad authority to terminate the agreement – and the ad revenue if it feels the blogger is misbehaving. With luck Google will pull the splogger’s AdSense agreements. Even if Google does nothing on your specific complaints, if enough bloggers complain about the misuse of their posts, Google will be forced to deal with the problem.
    • Like any scheme of theft for profit, the sploggers’ greatest vulnerability is the money and the trail it leaves behind. Going after the sploggers advertising agreements is the most direct form of attack and it hits them where they live.
    • If you decide to go this route it’s important to establish that there is a pattern of misuse. Google or other ad services aren’t going to care about a single stolen post. However if you can demonstrate that the splogger has repeatedly stolen large chunks of your work and used it without attribution, Google or whoever is going to be a lot more receptive. For one thing they understand quite well that there’s the potential for a lawsuit against them based on a pattern of supporting bad or illegal practices.
  • And finally, there's that ol’ debbil the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. File DMCA takedown notices against the egregious offenders with their ISPs or blog services and force them to remove the offending articles. The DMCA makes this extremely easy to do. All it takes is a letter containing the appropriate language and the site or its ISP is virtually forced to comply. You can automate the process and keep doing it every time one of these guys reposts another of your articles. The sploggers will find easier prey soon enough.

Which leaves us with the purported hypocrisy of being angry at sploggers while supporting, or at least tolerating, file sharing and such. I've preached from the very beginning in Heresy Pornography and Treason that while free copying of material is an inevitable part of our brave new online world, theft for profit is not.

For the morally tone deaf among you: I'm saying it's unstoppable, not that it is all right. As an author I've had stuff ripped off and posted on the web (in Russian, no less!) without payment or permission. I may not like it, but I recognize I can't stop it and I'm not losing any sleep over it. Okay?

But that's not what's going on here. Unlike people randomly reposting TechCrunch articles with or without attribution, people who steal content to sell it, whether directly or by loading their stolen content with AdSense ads, are in a different class, both practically and, at least in my mind, morally. Sploggers can be stopped because there's a money trail.

But what, some of you ask, about the torrent sites that are loaded with ads? Why aren’t we upset about them? First, I don’t know anyone who has any particular soft spot for the ad-supported sites. A lot of people will reflexively defend them when they come under attack by the RIAA or other copyright Nazis, but you’ll notice that shutting down even a popular site doesn’t arouse one-tenth the rage that the RIAA going after welfare mothers and teenage girls does.

Yet like the sploggers these sites are terribly vulnerable. Why doesn’t the industry mount a concerted campaign to shut them down instead of more-or-less randomly going after the most popular file sharing sites? After all, the sites are vulnerable because unless they're doing business through the late, unlamented, Russian Business Network they can be tracked and shut down.

Why aren't they being shut down en masse? Because the RIAA and their ilk have chosen instead to conduct a campaign of legal terrorism aimed at intimidating the average downloader in the hope of scaring them out of the practice. In other words they're crazy as a gang of bedbugs and not behaving rationally.

And copiers for profit should be stopped. Copying and reposting without economic gain is, perhaps, homage. Reposting for profit is theft and should not be tolerated.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


There is an oft-stated assumption that print media, especially books, are more accurate than what appears on the web. In fact you'll often hear it said that any information from the web is automatically suspect.

There's a sense in which that's true. But what the people making those statements forget is that information that appears in books is -- or should be -- suspect as well.

When I was a newspaperman
(to resurrect an obsolete term) I was frequently amazed, and usually, appalled at how uncritically people accepted something as true simply because it had been committed to print.

Ah, but that's newspapers,
the critics protest. Books are inherently much more accurate because they are written by experts and pass through an editing process.

To paraphrase Mr. Bumble: If the critic believes that, then the critic, sir, is an ass.

I've written books as well and I've seen first-hand how that 'editing process' works. Mostly it doesn't.

There is also the incontrovertible fact that there are a mountain of horribly inaccurate books out there. Some are wrong for political reasons, some are wrong because the information is outdated and some are wrong because they are simply, flat wrong and the writer's didn't know what they were talking about.

Case in point: I was just boxing up some of my library to give to Goodwill when I ran across a shining example I had picked up a few years ago in a fit of optimism. The title was "A Manual of Foreign Dialects For Radio, Stage And Screen", copyright 1943. Since I write fiction I'm always interested in improving my dialogue. And I figured this could help.

Boy, was I wrong!

It is painfully obvious the authors, a husband-and-wife team of dialect coaches, had tin ears and were massively ignorant to boot. While there's some good information in the prefatory parts of the book and they manage, after a fashion, some of the more common (in 1943) dialects, their advice on how to speak with, say, a Japanese accent is utterly ludicrous.

The example isn't chosen at random. I have visited Japan in much more than the usual tourist role, learned to speak Japanese at a kindergarten level and studied Japanese culture in something more than a haphazard fashion for a number of years. I am by no means an expert, but I have listened to a lot of Japanese and tried to reproduce faithfully what I heard.

The authors have no idea what a Japanese accent sounds like and their attempts to guide actors to reproduce it is absurd. Their 'explanations' are even more ridiculous. For example they claim kana (a phonetic syllabary used to write Japanese words) is a separate language.

They claim the Japanese don't like to pronounce two consonants together. It's not a matter of like. The Japanese syllabaries have only one naked consonant, "n". All the other "letters" are consonant-vowel combinations, or worse. Japanese are conditioned to add vowels after consonants, both in loan words (like basubaru -- baseball) and in speaking other languages like English.

Similarly they repeat the sterotype of Japanese hissing when they start to speak. In all the time I have dealt with Japanese, listened to Japanese, watched Japanese movies and television shows to help learn the language, etc., etc., etc. I have never, ever heard a Japanese hiss in this fashion.

Since I also spent some time in Ireland, I checked the section on Irish dialect as well. It is better, but much of it is not-very-good examples a form called "stage Irish" which the Irish abhor. Stage Irish is a phony Irish dialect that actors, mostly English and American, cooked up to 'sound Irish.' It is not at all the way the Irish speak naturally. (Hint: If you hear someone say "faith and begorra", whack him over the head with your shillelagh.)

In short, the book is a wildly inaccurate farrago of nonsense. Yet it was put into print and issued by a reputable publisher. And unlike a similar production on the web -- were one unwise enough to attempt it -- it can't be corrected by counter-postings from the more knowledgeable people. Instead it sits there like some strange insect preserved for the ages in amber.

The real point is that you can't automatically trust anything because it appears on the web or in print. Critical thinking is a vitally important skill and has been practically since the invention of literacy. The difference is that the web not only further highlights the need, it makes it much easier to cross check the information

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Personally I think "intellectual property" is surrounded by its very own stupid field.

It seems like every time the subject of copyrights, patents, or trademarks emerges, someone, usually a big corporation, gets enmeshed in the stupidity field and does something really, really dumb.

But now comes the defense industry with what has to be the all time low in stupefying copyright/trademark incompetence. The really bad thing is it isn't something new. It's been going on for years.

Big defense contractors are demanding -- and getting -- licensing fees from model airplane companies for making models of military aircraft!

This is so breathlessly dumb on so many levels words (very nearly) fail me.

Legal idiocy aside, this is a classic case of giving yourself a pedicure with a tommy gun, both practically and from a PR standpoint.

Now let's see... Who designs these aircraft and other vehicles for our oligarchy of bloated, inefficient defense contractors? Why engineers, of course. And where do we get engineers? From engineering schools. And who enrolls in those engineering schools? Why young men and women who have a desire to design and build things? And where did they get this desire? From building things in their youth, like, oh, I dunno, Model Freaking Airplanes!

Wanna bet that the French, the Chinese and the Indians aren't doing everything they can to aim their kids toward engineering by encouraging them to do things like build model airplanes. And what are our defense contractors doing? Right. They're demanding money so people can produce model kits that kids can build.

But of course that doesn't matter. In a few years we'll outsource all that design work to places like India and China anyway, and we'll buy more of our aircraft from the French. So who cares whether our kids get interested in the grubby details of engineering? Meanwhile, full speed ahead and soak those little so-and-sos for all we can get. Teach them what American capitalism is really about, by God!
Engineers? We don't need no steenking engineers. We got lawyers!

Nor are the amounts of money insignificant be it noted. The licensing fee amounts to up to 8 percent of the cost of an $8 plastic model. You have to be familiar with the hobby business to realize how big a bite that represents out of everyone's razor-thin margins.

The second little detail is this business is a PR disaster in the making for an industry that needs all the good, or at least neutral, PR it can get. At a time when the cost of our high tech toys has doubled from the confident estimates of contractors and the DOD a few years ago (The F-35 has gone from $30 million to $60 million, or more) the last thing the contractors need is to be seen as a bunch of penny-pinching money-grubbing SOBs.

Siphoning money out of children's pockets does wonders for that image.

While the amount of money might be a big concern for the model airplane companies, most of whom are tiny by defense standards, it isn't even pocket change for LockMart and the other hybrids that charge us stupidly large amounts of money for their products. In fact the few thousand dollars a year they collect on each of these deals probably doesn't even cover the costs of the legal thuggery involved.

And people are starting to catch on. There's a bill in Congress to end this nonsense and I'd love to see the defense bozos trying to defend their stand. Should be more fun than watching cigarette execs swear under oath that nicotine is not addicting.

Ironically the defense leeches are getting support from their minions (in the original sense of the term) in the Defense Department. As another story on this massive case of institutional dumbth notes:

The Pentagon, however, “strongly opposes” Andrews’ provision, devoting an entire page to the issue in its latest authorization appeals package. Such appeals are typically reserved for last-ditch efforts to save big DOD programs from funding cuts.

DOD “can envision no valid reason why a trademark owner should ever be compelled to allow another entity to use that intellectual property, even for reasonable license fees,” the appeal says.

Obviously someone at the Pentagon needs to get his or her eyeglasses cleaned -- or to get a new guide dog.

Or alternatively they can just spend a minute looking at how much it costs the Air Force to recruit someone to work on the real thing. If the clowns in the Defense Department had a lick of sense -- and could manage to get their noses out of the defense contractors' back pockets -- they'd not only prohibit licensing fees, they'd subsidize the model companies for helping them get recruits.

However this particular piece of military yahooism serves as an adequate introduction to the legalities of this tissue of nonsense.

First, of course, those military designs were developed with taxpayer money -- potloads of it. The designations, such as F-22 Raptor, were assigned by the government. Where do these vultures in pinstripes get off demanding money so kids can built toy replicas of American military designs?

I doubt seriously the basic shapes and external details of any aircraft, military or commercial, even be copyrighted, under the functionality provisions of the copyright law. Granted these guys are claiming trademark, not copyright, but I think that's even shakier for much the same reasons. But who's got the money to fight an arcane trademark case in court against the contractors and their law firm of Rich, Greedy & Powerful? They're sucking in so much money from the public trough they can bury just about anyone.

And even if by some miracle the outline of something like the F-22 can be copyrighted, or trademarked, what moron decided that the design should be owned by the company that built the thing with government money?

But enough. This is an utterly silly, massively stupid and finally pointless exercise. It simply demonstrates once more -- if there is some cave-dwelling Kallikak out there who still needs a demonstration -- how completely our intellectual property laws are broken.

(Whew) Thank you. I feel much better now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


"There are some things it is impossible to parody. Today's parody is tomorrow's design document"
The collected sayings of Wiz Zumwalt

In his blog, Jeff Gomez is loudly proclaiming that print is dead. He adduces some interesting if not necessarily completely convincing arguments. For further enlightenment, Jeff suggests consulting the full form of his argument -- in a printed book called "Print is Dead."

Meanwhile, one of my favorite editors, Esther Schlinder describes her attempts to get press credentials to the Blog World conference and expo, which is devoted to blogging, Web 2.0 and other harbingers of the future. Before handing out credentials, the staff wants to see articles she has written on the subject. And it wants them faxed! Neat trick since almost all of the writing on the subject, Esther's included, appears online with no paper copies whatsoever.

And finally, the Storage Networking Industry Association, SNIA, has prepared a very good tutorial on its troubled SMI-S storage management standard. The tutorial -- all 116 pages of it in tiny little type -- is available as a pdf on SNIA's website. With printing blocked so you can't print out a copy to actually read.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Copyright redux

I really didn't intend for this to be a blog about copyrights, but it seems like every day brings new news highlighting the intellectual poverty of the old media in this area.

From Radiohead's new album to the latest RIAA silliness, to some other stuff, there's a lot of copyright news I intend to comment on.

It's not all about copyright. A fascinating essay of the wisdom of crowds and how it applies to everything from evolution to wikis (not my essay, but I intend to comment on it). More on community building, the crossovers between MMPORGs and network television, virtualizing reality versus really virtualized reality, and, of course, virtual trade shows.

As soon as things get sorted out, watch this space.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Over at TechCrunch Erick Schonfeld has a post on Apple's iPhone as an example of a company choosing the wrong business model.

In the world of high technology, plagiarism is called "using a proven business model." And it is. Every business has a model and nearly of them get at least most of their model from someone else. Which means nearly every company is building on pre-existing success. Or, sometimes failure.

Choosing an inappropriate business model can be anything from limiting to deadly, especially when a company introduces significant new technology. That means it's important to choose the right model.

Fortunately there's a simple rule to help decide when a business model is right. How closely does the model conform to Cook's Law?

Cook's Law, immodestly named after yours truly, is simply this:

Anything that doesn't add value to the person paying for it is not only dispensablle, it will be dispensed with

Someone, usually the consumer, pays for any good or service. Any feature or cost that does not add value for the consumer is surplus and will probably be eliminated.

Apple demonstrated Cook's Law brilliantly with the iPod and then violated it egregiously with the iPhone.

Pre iPod the music business consisted of selling albums at high prices. If customers wanted their own copy of the music, they either had to tape it off the radio, download a pirate MP3 or pay lot of money for a collection of songs, most of which they probably weren't interested in.

The price of albums is high because music travels through an unusually convoluted supply chain from the artist to the customer. The actual cost of production of a CD is typically only a few cents. But in addition to the artist, there are a host of others who must be paid, including the record company, the promoters, the wholesalers, the sales reps and the music stores.

Now, how much of that actually benefits the person buying the music? Well, the artist, obviously, and the cost of recording the music in purchasable form, but that's basically it. Everything else in that cost chain benefits someone other than the customer. Hence, under Cook's Law, everything else is dispensable - and going to be dispensed with as soon as someone finds a way.

The iPod represented a way. With an iPod customers could download only the songs they were interested in and pay less than a dollar each for them. Not surprisingly customers have swarmed to iPods, to the detriment of the traditional music supply chain. Suddenly a second-rank computer company found itself a giant in the music business.

Apple could have followed the conventional business model in the music industry, selling complete albums through kiosks in music stores for about the same price as CD albums. In fact there had been a couple of attempts to do just that with MP3s before the iPod. But that was the wrong way to do things and the companies sank without a trace.

So Apple comes out of the iPod looking like a genius, tries to repeat its success with the iPhone - and falls flat on its face.

As Schonfeld points out, Apple chose to model its iPhone on the cell phone business. Now cell phones have a lot in common with the traditional music industry. It is a complex business model with a lot of features that add no value whatsoever to the customer. In fact a lot of those 'features' benefit no one but the cell phone company.

Specifically what Apple chose to do was to lock in its US customers with ATT as the service provider. If you want to use an iPhone you not only have to purchase the device, you have to sign a service contract with ATT.

In fact the situation was worse with the iPhone than it was with conventional cell phones. I happen to use Cingular (ATT) for my phone service, but I was given the first phone on my account for free and only had to pay a nominal up-front cost for the other phones on my plan. The monthly fee per phone number is low enough that we switched our house phone over to my wife's cell phone. All in all, I'm not dissatisfied with the arrangement.

I say 'not too dissatisfied' because there are some things I don't like about cell phone service. You're locked into the provider and most additional services and features have to come from the provider. If there was open competition and the ability to change freely among providers, the price of service would be a lot less. Further, if I decide to change providers, I'm strongly discouraged from taking my phone with me

An iPhone has all these disadvantages and more. With an iPhone you have to pay several hundred dollars up front and you're locked in to one provider. This may be highly profitable for Apple and ATT, but it violates Cook's Law by providing nothing to the consumer. So it's hardly surprising that buyers started looking for ways around this lock-in.

Hackers being hackers, it wasn't long before a number of people had figured out how to unlock the iPhone and the hacks started appearing on the web.

Rather than recognize the mistake in its model, Apple is fighting back by making changes in the software which will deactivate cracked phones. That will work until the hackers produce the next round of cracks and the futile, expensive and ultimately pointless arms race is on.

This is a race that Apple can't win. More to the point it's a race that Apple shouldn't want to win. The only thing this accomplishes in the long term is to annoy its customers and to drive them to alternatives as the alternatives appear.

And they will appear, if the iPhone is the great idea Apple thinks it is. Heck, even the Newton, Apple's last attempt at a small-form computing device attracted competitors, and it was no great shakes in the market.

The cell phone industry took its business model from the landline phone industry, which traces its business model back to the days of the Bell monopoly. The cell phone industry is vulnerable as well and it is slowly changing.

What Apple has in the iPhone is a combination computer-phone. It would have done much better to model its iPhone business on the computer part of the combination. As Schonfeld points out:

"You don't ask Apple permission to download software off the Web for your Mac. And you would never agree to buy a laptop that only worked with only one broadband provider. Why should the iPhone be any different?"

Why indeed?

And the iPhone device that ultimately succeeds - whether from Apple or anyone else - won't be any different. It will be sold like a computer, with all the freedom and customization you get with a computer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Except it isn't of course. The response I've gotten to these posts suggests we're going to be revisiting the issues as developments warrant. So let's just say it's the final chapter for now.

So, after parts I, II, and III of this series, the logical question is "what can we do about it?"

There is a lot we can do, but none of it is aimed at stopping people from posting copyrighted fiction on free sites. That ain't gonna happen, no matter how much the dinosaurs bellow in the swamps.

However that is a long, long way from saying copyrights are useless and authors can't expect to get paid for their work. Copyrights are not useless and authors can not only expect to get paid, most of the smart ones can expect to make more money in this brave new world than in the old.

The bad news is that genre fiction is going to be available for free on the internet. There is simply no way to stop it. SFWA can file all the DMCA takedown notices it wants. Individual authors can sue if they want. Crazed Luddite SFWA vice-presidents can rant about "netscabs" (on other people's pages because they're too technophobic to have one of their own). And none of it matters. People will continue to post copyrighted works for free. For every one you can shut down there will be two, or ten or 20 more.

The technology has simply moved beyond the kind of control publishers had a hundred years ago. Live with it.

(There is also going to be a sea change in the way genre fiction, especially science fiction and erotica, are going to be distributed in this country. This will probably mean the death of a lot of major publishers, and the transformation of the book store into something nearly unrecognizable. There are a lot of complex reasons for this and it really deserves a post of its own.)

The good news about all this is there is going to be a lot more genre fiction available to readers at a lot lower prices and as a class the authors are going to be a lot better compensated.

One way or another, most genre fiction is going to be sold over the internet. You'll either buy it directly on your own computer, or you'll get it in electronic or print form from something like a print on demand kiosk. You may even download and print books on your home system. That's not as big a job as you might think. To see what I mean DAGS "Blue Squirrel".

The Real Solution To Piracy

But while you can't stop free distribution you can stop is piracy for profit. Whether it's designer knock-offs, DVD movies or online fiction, if someone is paying for it, it's a lot easier to control.

"Stop" is a misnomer. You can't really stop piracy. But you can crack down on it hard enough to keep it down to an acceptable level.

The reason is that there's a money trail. If you can't locate the pirate through the work posted, you can locate them by following the money. That's why outfits like the RIAA have been a lot more successful at shutting down the commercial pirates than the file sharers.

The legitimate publisher has some advantages as well. One of the big ones is convenience. Why go to the trouble of searching out a pirate site, when you can go to someplace like Amazon and get everything you want in one place?

Today the incentive is money. Novels are expensive. When books are instantly available for, say, a dollar each, it becomes much less of incentive. In fact for most people it drops below the action threshold.

And yes, we can make novels available for a dollar or so each without significantly cutting into the author's royalties. In fact the late G. Harry Stine and I were in the process of forming just such an online publishing venture several years ago when Harry's untimely death ended the project. Our rather extensive calculations indicated that not only would the authors make as much money as they do now, but the profits to the publisher would be quite nice as well. Most of the cost of a book today is eaten up in an unwieldy system of production and distribution - but that's a subject for another post.

One of the reasons is that as cost goes down, sales go up. I firmly believe that low-cost books will sell enough to swamp the effects of pirate postings - which, as we saw in a previous post in this series, probably aren't resulting in that many lost sales anyway.

So, low price means high sales and less piracy. We've seen this happen before, specifically in the software industry. Back in the early 1980s Borland stood the software business on its head with Turbo Pascal, a full implementation of the Pascal programming language, complete with a nice little Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for the amazing price of $35. That was perhaps a tenth of what competing versions of Pascal were selling for and Borland sold a ton of copies.

What was interesting about this was that unlike most of its high-priced rivals, Turbo Pascal wasn't copy protected. Borland made no attempt to stop anyone from copying the disks. Phillipe Kahn, Borland's saxophone-playing president, figured that by keeping the price so low - for the time anyway - he removed most of the incentive to steal Turbo Pascal.

It's worth noting that except for games, most software companies have followed Kahn's lead. Software copy protection as a field isn't dead, but it is generally moribund.

Okay, that's not the whole story. And the way it isn't the whole story is interesting in itself. Kahn did one other thing with Turbo Pascal: He provided a neatly printed manual, which was (misnomer alert) perfect bound (/misnomer alert) like a paperback book. That meant that if you opened it flat to copy it, the spine cracked and the pages fell out. What Kahn did (and having met the guy I'm sure he did it deliberately) was to provide a way to add value to a legitimate purchase that the pirates couldn't match.

Changes in the product

But what about fiction? It doesn't need a manual, after all.

No it doesn't, but that's the other part of the change we're facing. The nature of what authors sell is going to change as well. Increasingly, it won't be just a book or a story, it will be membership in a community.

Successful works of genre fiction tend to build communities naturally. You can see the proof walking the halls of any science fiction convention. Savvy authors are going to use new media tools to capitalize on this to build not just sales, but a loyal following and to provide other products as well.

To see a very early example of this, stop by Baen Publishing's web site and pay special attention to the "1632" universe in all its ramifications. 1632 was originally the brainchild of Eric Flint, who also manages the Baen Free Library. It is the story of a West Virginia coal mining town suddenly plunked down in Germany at the height of the 30 Years War. It is alternate history at its finest and most fun and the original novel has been followed up by a sprawling collection of novels and short story collections. It has also spawned a very active fan base, many of which hang out at the Baen web site, especially in the forum called "Baen's Bar."

The development is still nascent, but with a little imagination it's easy to see how something like the 1632 phenomenon could provide even more value to the readers - value that a lot them would be willing to pay for.

Changes in the authors

The other thing this encourages is a completely different approach to writing genre fiction. While there will undoubtedly be authors who will continue to do things the way we do them now, the ones who will be most successful will be the ones who embrace the notion of community-building around their fiction.

In a sense this is a throwback to the 19th Century when popular authors like Twain and Dickens made more of their money on lecture tours than they did from the sales of their books. However the effect will be enhanced, amplified and zoomed up by the use of everything from web sites and blogs to YouTube videos and MySpace pages.

The author becomes the focus of community and the only thing the free posters will do is build that community further.

The world will be different, the demands on the authors will be different, but in many ways, both socially and financially, it will be a much more rewarding world for those who are willing to adapt.

Friday, September 14, 2007

WHACK THE GOPHER III: The Return of the Mutant Grandson

While the economics of posting copyrighted work for free on the internet should determine the effort to respond to it, that is not the thing that ultimately determines an effective response.

That is possibility. In other words, can you shut the posters down at any price, not just an economically justifiable one?

The short answer is no.

It doesn't matter whether the free posting of copyrighted work is legal - which it assuredly is not. It doesn't matter if it is moral - which it arguably is not. It doesn't even matter if it causes economic loss to the authors - which is apparently does not. What does matter is whether it can be stopped.

And it can't be. It's as simple as that. And this is point where SFWA vice-president Andrew Burt and his ilk are utterly, completely clueless.

(Burt, of course, is the one who guided the SFWA into filing a massive takedown request under the DMCA against a site in an effort to get them to remove copies of works by Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov. The thing turned into a farce when it become obvious that many of the works on the list were not by Silverberg or Asimov and at least one of them had been made freely available under the Creative Commons license.)

Given the structure of the internet there is simply no way to stop the free (in both senses) exchange of copyrighted works, be they music, games or the science fiction stories. There simply are far too many people posting them from far too many places all over the world.

This should be obvious, especially in the light of the Recording Industry of America Association's (RIAA) campaign and its results. RIAA has shut down dozens of web sites displaying pirated music, destroyed a couple of companies (notably Napster) which encouraged the practice and gotten judgments and big fines against dozens of people allegedly exchanging music. All of this, please note, at a cost of millions of dollars.

And the effect on the copying and exchange of recordings? Just about none whatsoever. For every site shut down, for every pirate sued, another, or two or ten spring up to take its place. After years of effort the RIAA is even further from its stated goal of stopping free exchange of copyrighted work than it was when it started. (The RIAA's claims to the contrary won't stand examination. They claim that they've slowed the growth of file sharing, not stopped it or reversed it. Even that claim is highly suspect considering how explosively file sharing grew in the years before the RIAA launched its terror campaign. For one things, explosive growth tends to slow naturally after a few years.)

Well, there has been one effect. In four years, the RIAA has gone from being a relatively unknown mouthpiece for record companies to one of the most hated outfits in America. This is due to a combination of idiotic arguments and fascist legal tactics which have turned even people who've never downloaded a song against the RIAA. Granted that's an accomplishment, but I don't think it's a positive either for the organization or the record companies it represents.

All this is so blatant that even the RIAA now admits the program can't stop piracy.

(The place where the RIAA has been most successful is shutting down paid services that encouraged the practice. That's significant for the real solution to the problem - and the subject for Part IV of this series.)

Half bright ideas

Now as I said before, Burt is misguided but he's not an idiot. He's also computer savvy enough to come up with his own approach to the problem. Burt proposed a half-bright scheme called Shades of Gray involving widely distributing damaged copies of works to swamp the (irony) 'legitimately pirated' (/irony) ones. His theory is that online readers won't be able to trust the copies they find online so they'll buy the books.

The scheme is half-bright because Burt apparently didn't consider what the people who wanted to post these works would do in response to this kind of sanctioned electronic vandalism. The first thing that will happen, of course, is that the pirate community will develop filters to detect the grayed copies. The response will be to develop more sophisticated graying methods - at considerable expense, and the pirates will respond with more sophisticated filters. The result is an arms race and to date such races have typically gone to the pirates.

Again the music and movie industry's example is instructive. They have poured huge amounts into developing copy protection schemes for DVDs and those are being broken almost as fast as they're put into use.

The failure of the DMCA

Even the DMCA, which started this particular thread of nonsense, is pretty much ineffective. As we saw with the SFWA idiocy, a DMCA notice will make a site take down a work, whether it is actually by the person who claims to have written it or not. But the DMCA can't prevent someone from re-posting the same work, especially if they do a little massaging first.

Let's take my story from Analog a few years back "And He Did Ride" about a rather bewildered young man who is sent onto a nasty planet on a rescue mission with an extremely unusual mount. Assume someone OCRs it and posts the file on a site. Then let's further assume that I, the author, in a fit of high dudgeon (and low madness) issue a DMCA demand that the story be removed. The site complies.

End of story? Not hardly.

A poster simply changes the title to "Through The Great Gruesome Swamp By Mechanical Frog", reformats it to fool the filters, says it's by "Fudrucker Q. Hudsucker" and posts it. Since these things are at best quickly scanned before they're posted, it's going to take a long time for someone who isn't in on the gag to find out. Meanwhile there are people out there on the internet spreading the word that Fudrucker Q. Hudsucker's latest opus is really that Rick Cook story about the giant mechanical frog.

Better filters, you say? What happens if I convert the story to a series of image files, one image per page, and give it a pretty, but non-distracting background? The result is much larger, but coming up with a filter to catch it is going to be damn near impossible.

And note the person doing the posting doesn't have to be a computer expert. The pattern for tools against copyright is that the experts write the software and distribute it. Ordinary, if dishonest, schmoes download it and use the easy GUI interface to process the stuff they want to post.

This is not, please note, theoretical. This kind of re-posting goes on every day on YouTube and a lot of other less-well-known sites. We saw an extreme example of this was model Daniela Cicarelli's attempt to block a YouTube video showing her and her boyfriend having sex on a beach in Cadiz Spain. A court ruled the couple's privacy had been violated and ordered YouTube to remove the video. YouTube responded that it had removed the video - repeatedly. People kept reposting it and the result was another round of whack the gopher. The Brazilian court then ordered the video blocked from appearing in Brazil and YouTube and communications companies responded by cutting off YouTube to most of Brazil because there was no other way to keep the video out. Finally some sanity prevailed and another judge overturned the ruling.

Now further note Ms. Cicarelli's net worth undoubtedly exceeds the net worth of SFWA. I don't know how much she and her banker boyfriend spent fighting this thing, but it was probably much more than SFWA could afford to spend on a similar exercise.

And the net result was nothing. The video is still out there and would have been out there even if there was some way to keep it off YouTube.

I don't feel too sorry for Ms. Cicarelli. Granted, her privacy was violated, but anybody having sex in public has to expect that someone will notice. But again, there's simply no way to prevent stuff like this.

The real answer to online posting of copyrighted works is to use common sense. Common sense in the first instance about what can possibly be prevented. And then common sense on what can be economically prevented.

Only after something has passed through those filters can we usefully discuss the moral and legal aspects of the situation.

Does that mean copyright is useless? No. It means you can't stop people from posting for free. Which leads to the next, and I hope, final installment of this thing.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


In the first part of this series of posts I excoriated the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for acting like a junior-jackboot version of the RIAA in issuing a bunch of DMCA takedown orders against documents on a site called Scriptd. The most obvious problem was that many of the works SFWA claimed were written by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg were in fact written by others - unless Asimov and Silverberg had flourishing careers writing gay porn their fans never knew about.

The point man on this buffalo stampede over the cliff was Andrew Burt, a SFWA vice-president and computer science professor at the University of Denver, who has been waging a long campaign to take harsher measures against people who post copyrighted works on free sites.

(And don't read too much into Burt's position. One of the effects of the problems with SFWA I outlined in the first post is that the organization is vulnerable to electing whack jobs as officers.)

In spite of the idiotic manner SFWA handled the Scriptd case, Andrew Burt is not an idiot. What he is, in my opinion, is fixated.

Burt has been gulping down the copyright Kool-Aid by the glass and he's drunk so much of it he's lost all sense of proportion on the issue.

Burt and the Spider Lady

He reminds me so much of nothing as the Spider Lady - a severely arachnophobic old lady who lives in my neighborhood. The Spider Lady wants the City of Phoenix to eradicate every spider in the city and she's constantly trying to get her neighbors to sign petitions urging the city to spray wholesale with various nasty insecticides. Since most of us value our pets, children and health she had been notably unsuccessful.

Actually the comparison is unfair to the Spider Lady. A large proportion of the spiders in Phoenix are poisonous black widows and homeowners who don't take precautions will soon find their webs everywhere. The Spider Lady may be nuts, but she's focused on a real problem.

Where Burt and the Spider Lady converge is their utter inability to see beyond their stated problems to the utter folly of their "solutions". Even if you drenched every square foot of Phoenix with DDT you wouldn't eradicate the spiders, no matter how many you killed. And even if SFWA bankrupted itself in the effort, it will never shut down all the sites posting copyrighted works for free.

Burt has a FAQ (which is not, please note, an official SFWA publication) that does about the best possible job for laying out the argument against 'piracy'. It extensively discusses the legal and moral issues involved in copyright violation on the web and disposes of some of the more jejune arguments in favor of it.

And, typically of his approach, he utterly ignores the economic and practical aspects of the situation.

I'll cover practicality in the next post. For now let's look at the economics because the rational part of this flap is about money.

The Guiding Principle of Security
Burt may be a computer scientist but he's pretty clearly not an expert on computer security. Well, neither am I, but I write about it extensively which gives me some little exposure to the field. On the evidence a good deal more than Burt has.

The key principle in any computer security system is proportionality. The proposed security solution shouldn't cost more than the possible loss caused by a breach of security.

So the first question is, how much is piracy costing SF authors?

The answer, apparently, is 'not very much.'

Science fiction and fantasy authors are notoriously paid a pittance for their work. For each copy of a paperback book the author usually receives less than 50 cents. Hardbacks with higher royalty rates and much smaller sales usually pay the author about a dollar a copy. Advances are just that; advances against royalties which must be repaid before the author sees any additional money.

While it's true that a very few authors sell enough copies to turn those pittances into substantial sums, only a tiny minority of authors can eke out even a poverty-level income from writing fiction.

The next question is 'how much does this kind of copyright violation cost authors?'

The short answer is 'apparently virtually nothing.' The longer answer starts with the nature of sales of fiction books.

Book sales notoriously follow the Long Tailed Power Law. That is, most of the sales are made in the first couple of royalty periods a book is on the market. After that sales drop off sharply - how sharply depends on the work and the author, but typically they have dropped to almost nothing three or four years out.

So even if you take a popular author like the late Isaac Asimov or Robert Silverberg, who hasn't written much recently, the current expected sales figures on any of these books would be low. It's worth noting that all of Silverberg's works on named in SFWA's DMCA demand were several years old. Which means that since the total sales are small the economic impact would be small as well.

There is some evidence to suggest this is the way it works. I just went back through my old royalty statements to confirm the lack of effect of freely available copies online. A couple of my Wiz books are up in the Baen Free Library, a pioneering effort by the late and much-lamented Jim Baen to use the web intelligently by offering copies of selected Baen books free online. (Not copyright violation, please note. Those of us who participate freely agreed to make out books available for free. I did it because I believed it would increase the sales and longetivity of my books overall. On the whole I've been borne out.)

I'm a particularly useful canary in this particular coal mine because I haven't published a new book in nearly 10 years or a short story in six or seven - not since heart surgery and attendant problems put a serious pause in my writing career. So we've got a series of books that's several years old with no additions in about a decade and two of them made available free online several years ago.

If there was significant economic harm to authors from freely available copies of their works, you'd expect to see an inflection in my royalties about the time my books went on the Baen Free Library. In fact there isn't. The curve diminishes, of course, but it stays smooth.

But the argument of harm to authors faces even bigger hurdles than that. In order to accurately calculate the harm from free downloads you have to account for any increased sales resulting from the author's inadvertent free samples.

I'd argue that my long-term sales have improved because the free advertising has extended the sales at low levels. There's no obvious inflection point in the royalty curve, but I'm still collecting a couple of hundred in royalties every year. This is unusual for books that have been out that long.

I know that freely available copies of books online do boost at least some authors' sales because I've become regular readers of series and authors I first encountered in the Baen Free Library. For example I've probably spent more than $100 on copies of Eric Flint's books since reading "1632" and "1633" online at the Baen Free Library. Now granted, perhaps $10 of that has actually gone to Eric and his co-authors, but those are sales that never would have been made if I hadn't read "1632" online.

By the way, the argument equating the number of free downloads with the number of lost sales is utterly specious. Most of the studies, and common sense, show very few of the people who have stolen something in violation of copyright would have ever bought the item. Thing of the computer types with hard drives packed full of pirated software, most of which they never access and don't even know how to use. The argument has been thoroughly discredited in the case of software and similar numbers turn up with music and books.

Now you would think that if there were major economic losses here the people pursuing the people posting this stuff would be the ones losing the most money - the publishers. In fact book publishers have shown remarkably little interest in going after online copyright violators. Except for situations like trying to keep the latest Harry Potter from reaching the net before it reaches the stores, there's almost no enforcement action from publishers.

The reason is that modern publishers have an almost reptilian focus on economics. If it costs more to go after the pirates than it does to suffer the piracy they won't bother.

And yes, I've had my works posted online without permission. A few years ago Ernest Hogan and I co-authored an "Aztec dinosaur detective story, noir" titled "Obsidian Harvest". It appeared originally in Analog and was reprinted in Gardner Dozois' "18th Annual Year's Best Science Fiction" anthology.

Since then the story has appeared in an unauthorized Russian translation. Am I happy about it? Not especially. Am I losing sleep over it? No. Am I going to call out the copyright dogs? Not hardly. The losses are just too small.

In short, whatever the moral argument against illegal posting, the economic argument simply doesn't hold water. The losses to science fiction and fantasy authors are simply too small to worry about. (Games and game-related material? I don't know. That's not something I follow.)

And it is simply totally impractical to make a serious effort to shut down sites that post copyrighted works on line for free. That's an issue we'll discuss in the next installment.

Coming soon to a screen near you:

Whack The Gopher III :The Mutant Grandson

Saturday, September 1, 2007


Just because you write about the future doesn’t mean you understand it. The case in point is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s recent foray into Piss-Off-Your-Customers-Like The-RIAA Sweepstakes.

Recently SFWA, under the leadership of its vice-president Andrew Burt, mounted a DCMA blitz against the document-sharing site Scribd. The organization demanded the site remove a pile of files that it alleged infringed on the copyrights of SF writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg under pain of prosecution for copyright infringement.

Problem was, a lot of the documents in the SFWA demand weren’t works by Asimov or Silverberg. The demand, which swore that the works named were copyrights owned by those two authors, included such things as a bibliography of science fiction aimed at junior high school students, a paper (not by Asimov or Silverberg) titled “A History of Intellectual Discussion of 'Accelerating Change', and a lot of gay fiction that the authors obviously never had anything to do with.

What the mental giants at SFWA apparently did was to go through Scribd and grab every URL that contained the words “Asimov” or “Silverberg”, bundle them into a shotgun complaint, swear every one of those works was by Silverberg or Asimov, and shoot the whole pile of poop off to Scribd as a DCMA demand. Apparently no one even bothered to read through the list of items they were swearing – mendaciously and probably illegally – were owned by those two authors.

If this strikes you as damn peculiar, you’re not alone. Science fiction author Cory Doctorow is livid .One of the works on the SFWA hit list was Doctorow’s “Down and out in the Magic Kingdom”, which he released under the Creative Commons license which specifically allows free distribution. Now Doctorow is receiving angry mail from fans accusing him of hypocrisy.

So why did Scribd take down the stuff that wasn’t by Asimov or Silverberg? Because the DMCA is pretty peculiar in itself. As Doctorow notes: “In the real world, you couldn't get a book taken out of a bookstore or an article removed from the newspaper without going to court and presenting evidence of infringement to a judge, but the DMCA only requires that you promise that the work you're complaining about infringes, and ISPs have to remove the material or face liability for hosting it.”

The DMCA is in fact part of the movie and record industry’s last gasp effort to protect an unprotectable position in the internet age. It was passed after heavy lobbying by those groups in a futile effort to curb the use of digital media to distribute copyrighted material. As a quick survey of the web will demonstrate it hasn’t worked.

The DMCA is draconian in its provisions simply because it is just about useless for its intended purpose – as the experience of both record companies and movie studios have shown since it was passed.

Anyone who attempts to seriously apply the DCMA to prevent free distribution of material ends up playing an endless game of whack-the-gopher. As fast as one ‘infringing’ site is taken down, two more pop up. In some cases the material reappears on the same site under a different name. YouTube is rife with examples of this.

The one thing a DCMA dragnet is good for is annoying the fans. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has managed to make itself one of the most hated organizations in the country by using the DCMA and similar tactics against people who share music files. Now SFWA is playing the same game.

The difference is, SFWA has a much smaller war chest and faces a much more tightly knit fan community. Science fiction fandom is a close group and active fans tend to be opinion leaders in SF and Fantasy much more than the fans of records and movies. Pissing off the fans it notorious for having an immediate, and detrimental, impact on sales.

So what in God’s name possessed SFWA to act like this? Like the original request and the DCMA, SFWA is pretty peculiar in its own right.

The first thing you’ve got to understand about the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is that it isn’t. Like the Holy Roman Empire, which in Voltaire’s phrase was “neither holy, Roman nor an empire,” SFWA is not an organization of science fiction and fantasy writers. While some of the leading SF and Fantasy writers belong, the vast majority of the members are people who barely meet SFWA’s extremely lax publication requirements. They are not professional SF or Fantasy writers in any meaningful sense of the term and many of them haven’t published a word of either science fiction or fantasy in years.

One result is that the real concerns of writers who earn substantial amount of their income from writing the stuff are largely ignored while the membership spends its time in endless debate on tempests in teapots like the quality of the food in the SFWA hospitality suite at the last convention they attended or rewriting the rules for the annual Nebula awards.

The SFWA publications where this stuff is discussed have (to quote Doonesbury) “all the subtle dynamics of a nursery school recess”. The meetings can be even worse.

Another result is that because the membership mostly aren’t writers they are easily swayed on issues they ‘should’ care about. Since they’re writers, they ‘should’ care about copyright, obviously.

To be perfectly fair to SFWA, back in the bad old days there were a number of unethical publishers who took shameless advantage of SF writers by violating their rights wholesale. The oldest magazine in the field went through a period (after many changes of ownership) where they republished stories from their back issues without further payment to the authors – who had received a pittance for selling all rights to the stories in the first place. This left a certain confused sensitivity to issues of copyright in some of the older members.

The third result of SFWA’s absurd membership composition is that when someone comes along with a strongly held opinion on something other than the Nebula rules or the quality of the food in the SFWA suite, he or she can often sway the membership into doing things which are silly, pointless or downright stupid. After all, why not? It’s not going to affect the average member’s livelihood and it’s not like it really matters if you haven’t had a story published in the last ten years and have no reasonable hope of ever having another published in a paying market.

That’s another characteristic of SFWA. If a tiny group is fanatic on a subject they can just keep bringing it up and bringing up and bringing it up until eventually they get the result they want, if only by a fluke. Of course the pendulum is then likely to swing the other way, but in the meantime SFWA is committed to a wrong-headed course of action.

All these things come together in the case of copyright to produce a Perfect Storm of Silliness.

This has been building for some time. The flap over free postings on the internet started about ten years ago when one or two people began to beat the drums against these awful copyright violations. Never mind that no one was making a dime off these postings. Never mind that, much more to the point, it was effectively impossible to stop.

As someone who was covering the internet and new media even then, I knew the limits on enforcement in the new environment. It was obvious to anyone who looked at the situation that as long as the posters didn’t try to charge for the work, there was no hope of stopping the practice. No matter how many sites you shut down there were always more.

And as a writer with several novels and stories already under my belt, I knew perfectly well the effect that this kind of campaign was going to have on the fans. They weren’t going to like it, a lot of them wouldn’t see the point of it, and science fiction fans being science fiction fans, they were likely to react very negatively, to the detriment not just of the individual authors but of the field as a whole.

I wasn’t alone in these realizations, but I was very much a rara avis. While a fair number of SFWA members are technically trained and a few of them are extremely knowledgeable about the web and the new media, it was obvious most members were not merely not aware of what was happening, some of them were best described as aggressively ignorant of the impact of the impending technological changes. They didn’t know, they didn’t want to know and by God, things were going to continue in publishing just as they always had. Now about the food at the last Worldcon…

I thought about pointing all this out, but I quickly realized it was futile. The exchanges in the newsletter made it obvious that reason had already gone by the board and I didn’t see any point in jumping into that particular hog wallow.

It was the final straw. I had become increasingly disenchanted with the organization because of its ineffectiveness as a voice for actual writers, its constant bickering and the bull-headed resistance to anything that might be a substantive change.

The irony of an organization made of up people who wrote about the future about to be blindsided by that same future was delicious, but it wasn’t enough to keep me in the organization. I let my membership lapse and I’ve never looked back.