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Neil Gaiman: Piracy vs. Obscurity

Credit: The Kitten's Toe

On Friday, 24th October, I attended an Open Rights Group event where Neil Gaiman spoke about the impact of digital “piracy” on authors such as himself.  His thesis was that the free availability of content from books, even when it is contemporaneously for sale in print, is in fact beneficial for the creator.  This is, he said, because their greatest challenge, in a world crowded with writers, is to be “tasted” by potential readers and publishers.

He recounted a few of his own experiences with publishing free content on his website, noting that in each instance, the net effect was an increase in his book sales.  He explained that the free availability of books enables new readers to try them out, and (somewhat counter-intuitively) does not discourage potential buyers from buying them.  Some of the explanations he offered were:

Reading books is more pleasant than reading from a computer screen. This seems intuitively true for most people, as the practical advantages of books (low cost, durability, light weight, ease of use, and so on) outweigh those of digital content.  He quoted Douglas Adams as having said that “books are sharks”, highly evolved to suit their purpose, and that “nothing is better at being a book than a book”.  He acknowledged that this could change in the future, but pointed out that there were other ways that he could uniquely profit from his works, such as live readings.

Book buyers derive pleasure from the tangible experiences of owning books and passing them on to friends.  Digital storage and copying, while extremely efficient, do not evoke the same feelings as these physical acts.  Contrast browsing a bookshelf with scanning filenames, or receiving an email attachment with opening a neatly wrapped book.  They offer very different social and sensory experiences.

Readers buy books explicitly to support (“give back to”) the author.  Gaiman compared this to his experience of tasting many flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins and then feeling compelled by guilt to purchase one.  I found this one the least compelling, but he does seem to have many loyal readers.

I think there is some truth in each of these, and would be interested to see research on this subject.  What does motivate buyers, and does this change when they are aware of corresponding content which is free?

There were several good questions and comments, though I didn’t have the opportunity to present one.  This is because I didn’t put my hand up.  I have always been hesitant to ask questions from within an audience.  This, for some reason, makes me even more self-conscious than addressing an audience, perhaps because many of the people are behind me.

I wanted to pose a question about the impact of technological advancement.  The model that Gaiman described for digital books relies on the existence of related works and experiences which cannot be digitally reproduced: physical books, live performances, autographs, and so on.  The technological trend, however, is that digital experiences are becoming richer and richer, and science fiction writers have long extrapolated that they will become indistinguishable from first-hand sensory experiences.

The experience of browsing a bookshop, wandering around an art museum, or attending a musical performance, will eventually be able to be reproduced with such fidelity that it can be exchanged as easily as a photograph.

What will be left to sell when a digital reproduction is virtually as good as the real thing?  How will creativity be rewarded in a world where most of today’s creative works are merely information, and information is truly free?

This situation exists today for the creators of digital works, and the answers are unclear.  The growth and diversity of these works will depend on whether we find ways to sustain their creators.  Tools like the GNU GPL and Creative Commons BY-NC-SA help us to define boundaries around our work, but the system as a whole is not yet well defined or understood, particularly where free software is concerned.

There are many experiments underway in free software economics.  Canonical sells services associated with the software we distribute.  Some developers publish their work in hope of earning a reputation, followed by a job, in much the same way that Gaiman describes.

How about you?  How will your free software works sustain you, so that you can continue to create?


Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 27, 2008 at 12:00

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  1. “How about you? How will your free software works sustain you, so that you can continue to create?”

    Earlier this year our company got bought over by a very large local company, and it just hasn’t been the same for me. About two months ago I wondered whether I should finally make the leap and go on my like I’ve been wanting to do for years, or stick with my stable job (especially considering the world economic status).

    I decided to take the leap, and in just 5 days I will be done with my day job and be working in my own company full time (zanix.co.za). Many local companies attempt to extort as much money as they can from their clients by trying weird legal ways to force them to pay per-site license like fees. I plan to keep things more simple for my clients, they’ll pay for any initial development and research work and then I’ll charge them maintenance fees on a retainer basis for a period of a year (or however we can negotiate it). That way, they don’t have to pay me for thousands of sites where they implement, and I don’t have to count on them implementing anything at all (which may happen in some risky cases). I’m also going to host bug trackers/wikis/etc for these projects, and charge for that. I’m still figuring out exactly what else I’ll be doing for stable income. At the moment I have enough business to cover my salary and the company’s expenses, and in 2-3 months I should be able to hire 2-3 more people. It’s quite rough starting this time of the year, but I believe that if you wait for the perfect time it will never happen. I also hope to work with local OEM’s so that they can bundle Ubuntu recovery disks that will work 100% with the hardware they sell, but that’s one of the many projects I aim for next year, I’ll let you know how it goes, and what makes good money.

    Jonathan Carter

    October 27, 2008 at 13:59

  2. […] da Davide su Ottobre 27, 2008 Il blog di We’ll See riporta la cronaca di un incontro con Neil Gaiman durante un congresso sulla cultura […]

  3. […] Neil Gaiman: Piracy vs. Obscurity […]

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