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.