Cory Doctorow's ©ontent

Cory Doctorow is an interesting author. He’s just one of many people trying to make a living writing Science Fiction, and while he’s not my favorite author of all time, I have enjoyed his books. What makes Doctorow interesting is that he’s one of the very few people who seek to make a living in content production who seems to ‘get it’. Every book Doctorow has ever had published has been released for free on his website. Not only that, but they’re all licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-US license.

What’s this mean? It means that we’re free to share, remix, and create derivative works of any of Doctorow’s books, as long as we attribute the original work as being his, don’t use our creation to make money, and license our contribution under the same license. If you’re not familiar with what the Creative Commons is, and why it’s important, the FAQ is a good place to start.

©ontent is a collection of essays, editorials, and op-eds that Doctorow has written for various publications over the recent years, where he addresses this issue of Content Production in the Internet Age. The point he makes is simple: the way the major producers are going about this is all wrong. I happen to agree. As I said, Doctorow has released free, re-mixable eBooks of all his books online. As part of that, the books have had something like a 30:1 download to sale ratio. On the surface, that looks kind of bleak. In reality, Doctorow argues, every last one of his books has outperformed the sales expectations of his publisher, so sales are better than he had any ‘right’ to expect.

The most relevant question, and the one for which there is no means to answer, is whether or not this would have been true without the free download. I agree with Doctorow’s ultimate statement, that most likely it wouldn’t be. Book Actuaries have made careers out of estimating how many copies of books to print based on statistical models of how well a book is likely to sell. It’s their job, it’s what they do. I’m sure these guys absolutely love being wrong from time to time, but for them to have been consistently wrong…it’s statistically unlikely, unless there is some form of positive correlation between the eBooks and the paper book sales.

The point that rises time and again throughout ©ontent is simple. Content Producers need to stop looking at content ‘piracy’ as lost sales. People who pirate media, more often than not, never would have paid for it anyway. And for Doctorow, the 30:1 ratio, he views more as if 30 people looked at his book in the bookstore, and one out of every 30 actually bought it, the publisher would be ridiculously ecstatic. And they are. Music is a similar thing. In the early days of Napster, an enormous amount of music was traded, but what doesn’t usually come up at that time, is that music sales were very strong during that time. Sure, not every song downloaded was met with a CD Sale, and there may have been more downloads than there were sales, but not everyone who looks at that CD is going to buy it anyway.

I’ve had this happen before. I began downloading Firefly back in 2004, and after watching one or two episodes, I ran out and bought the DVDs, at least partially because they’re reasonably priced. A lot of other shows, I’ve downloaded to watch, but I haven’t bought because I believe the price is too high for the physical media, and if the digital version is available at a reasonable price (rare), it’s got DRM. I’m a Linux user, I don’t have access to a legal means to view that media, so I don’t buy it.

What Doctorow argues is that DRM damages the industry as a whole. DRM is not hard to bypass by users who wish to, and for users who want to do the right thing and pay for media, they resent the seemingly arbitrary limitations put on their freedom to use the media where they wish. I see this argument regularly.

“But DRM doesn’t have to be proof against smart attackers, only average individuals! It’s like a speedbump!”

While average individuals may not be able to break DRM on their own, they are generally smart enough to search Google to find tools to do the cracking for them. But more appropriate the ‘average individual’ is an honest individual, and they’re not interested in ripping people off. They’re perfectly fine with paying for media, and will do so provided the media is good enough, and the restrictions on it’s use are reasonable. Unfortunately, those two caveats rarely apply.

I’m going to have more posts over the next few weeks talking about the issues of DRM and Trusted Computing, but I’d fully suggest reading Doctorow’s book. Not sure you want to buy it? It’s freely available. If you like it, buy it, or do what I’m doing, donate a copy to your local library. It’s a good collection of essays, and I’d suggest anyone interested in the logistics of Content Publishing and DRM read through it.