Back to Nature

Michael Eisen sums up the problem with Nature’s convoluted new free access policy:

First we had “open access” in which people can download, read, reuse and redistribute content. Then we had “public access” in which people can download and read content. Now we have “free access” in which people can read for free in a proprietary browser, and can’t download or print.

Is the new Nature policy, which allows authorized readers to create links to heavily-DRMed but full-text copies of articles, a step forward in access to knowledge? I’m skeptical. With so many restrictions, it makes the informal exchange of PDF copies look like an enviable system.

More on music, the long tail, and streaming

There’s lots of other exciting things happening in the field of public interest authorship. Professor Pamela Samuelson and I have a post up on the Authors Alliance blog on the GSU case and there’s a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic of education and fair use happening today at noon (Pacific Time). These are important topics, directly on point for this blog’s theme, and I’ll get back to them shortly. But for right now, let’s talk more about the music business.

First, and I think this should be obvious, but music is as related to the public interest as any other kind of art of culture. Musicians can easily be “public interest authors” who prioritize creating a shared culture. So I’d argue the issue of how musicians get paid isn’t entirely off-topic. In any case, this is my blog so I don’t know why I’m trying to justify myself.

The other day I lamented that streaming dollars seem to have a tendency to float to the top, perhaps exacerbating the tendency for the most popular artists to capture the bulk of revenues in the music economy. There have been some extra developments in this space, particularly with Steve Albini giving an address in which he opines that the digital distribution of music has been a tremendously positive thing for musicians and consumers. It’s heartening to see a take on digital distribution that isn’t doom-and-gloom (and I agree with many of the particulars of his points, particularly regarding the orphan works problem.) While I’m inclined to also be thrilled at the sheer availability of music that would be rotting unheard (or unmade!) in the absence of the internet, I don’t think this observation makes the mechanics of streaming royalties irrelevant. Let’s be thrilled with what the internet has made possible for the distribution of knowledge and culture, and let’s also care about the mechanics of how these things work.

Now, it feels to me (more on this forthcoming) that there is a large group of commentators whose critique of the knowledge/culture economy is directed toward the difficulties of making a simple living. I think we can debate whether “the Progress of Science” is better served by windfalls granted to a small handful of apparent lottery winners, or by livable incomes earned by a professional class of creators. But let’s go ahead and do the more human thing and favor the less exploitative option. Let’s assume that steady incomes trump shockingly large windfalls. Let’s also assume that what Taylor Swift considers a pittance (i.e., $500,000–$2,000,000 per streaming service per year) is actually a windfall. Given that the median household income in the United States in 2012 was ~$51,371 (PDF), I think this is fair.

Reading one idea on how streaming royalties could better foster payments to nonsuperstars (i.e., by apportioning royalties according to subscribers rather than to spins), I came up with my own idea.

Decreasing marginal royalty rates.

Sharply increase the royalties for the first however many spins, and let them drop off with increasing numbers.

Aside from my unamerican tendency to be skeptical of windfalls, what’s wrong with this plan?

Streaming Royalties, Taylor Swift, Inequality

If it seems like I only post when Taylor Swift has something to say, well, maybe so. Taylor just has that sort of magnetism!

In any case, the net’s been all aflutter over Swift’s decision to pull her music from the streaming service Spotify for the release of her new album. Is she behind the times? Is she a brave voice for artists’ rights? Does Spotify pay hit artists a pittance, or is Taylor Swift raking in the millions?

My first reaction is that the coverage has been terribly overblown. Swift, her label, her team, have almost certainly crunched the numbers and taken the path they expect will be most profitable. This doesn’t seem insidious or inspiring—looks like business to me.

But watching the war of words between streaming services and artists who feel ripped off by streaming services, I was struck by one way in which the business model of streaming could tend to exacerbate the winner-take-all structure of the culture industry, as compared to album sales.

Streaming breaks down barriers to listening to music that makes popular music available and enticing to a larger audience than ever before. Consumers who, in the past, might have directed their music consumption entirely to a smaller catalog with fewer chart-toppers can now also play the new Pharrell track when it suits their mood.

Anecdotally, this mirrors how I behave as a consumer. As a purchaser of new albums, the relatively high purchase price has always directed my spending toward the music I most wanted. This meant that, aside from a small handful of CDs, none of my music spending went toward the most popular music.

Today, I use a paid streaming service. I still buy albums (admittedly, fewer than I used to), and my purchasing patterns are still more or less the same in terms of what kinds of albums I buy. But when I stream music, I’m far more likely to consume contemporary popular hits than when purchasing. I’ve definitely streamed Taylor Swift and Jay-Z, along with all sorts of hit artists from the last three decades whose records I would never think to buy unless I found them in the bargain bin at a thrift store.

What this means is that some of my music dollars, and the dollars of people like me, are being diverted toward the coffers of the ultra-successful in ways they weren’t before. In some sense, I imagine this would mean that popular artists are more popular than before, even if small artists are just as popular as ever (does that make sense?). My concern is not really about what this means for the total size of the pie, but rather about how it’s divvied up. It seems eminently possible that the streaming economy is one where small and indie artists take a smaller share just by virtue of how consumer behavior might be altered when the act of consumption is distinct from the act of paying.

People will continue to argue about to whether the sky is rising or falling. But whether Spotify—one streaming service of many—is paying Taylor Swift $500,000 or $2,000,000 per year seems beside the point. There’s always money available for those at the top of the pyramid, I’d prefer to know about how things look closer to the bottom.

update: 2014-11-13 15:37

Lara writes in to disagree. At the all-you-can-eat-of-whatever-you-can-find buffet of music streaming, why should we believe that gourmands are adding funnel cake to their plates at a greater rate than the fast food crowd is sampling the caviar?

She’s right: I don’t know. This post was rank speculation pulled from an anecdote. The hope would be that near-universal access would grow interest in the long tail, but I don’t know that this is the case. Without question, the accessibility provided by broad-based streaming services is good news for the discoverability of long tail works and those who would access them, but how that translates into payments is another question entirely.

The Authors Guild, Authors United, Amazon, and the DOJ

Authors United has been broadcasting its intention to get the DOJ to investigate Amazon for possible antitrust violations for at least the week or two.

Now the Authors Guild is fessing up that the rally-the-DOJ approach is one that they’ve been working on for some time, albeit on the sly. The Wall Street Journal appears to have outed their strategy, leading to the Authors Guild announcement. Now, I don’t have a Wall Street Journal account and can’t read its scoop, but this is what I gather. I’m sure I could get access through the Berkeley Library, but I’ll work on figuring that out later.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that the two organizations are on parallel tracks, as “[t]he Guild has been working closely with the grassroots group Authors United” in its efforts on the Amazon Question.

I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m unconvinced about the merits of an antitrust claim against Amazon. Given the state of the law and the inaction of the DOJ, it seems like the DOJ might share some of my reservations.

But that doesn’t make me anti-investigation per se. It’s probably a waste not the best use of government resources, but it can be hard to see evidence of malfeasance if you don’t look.

Paywalls and the Logic of Perfect Control

I’ve just recently discovered and become a reader of Scratch, “a digital magazine about the relationship between writing, money, and life.” Now, I don’t think I agree with much of the editorial perspective, but I care a lot about many of the motivating questions (e.g., how do/should writers get paid?), so thoughtful reflections on the subject, helpfully compiled in one place, make for a useful resource and are worth the $20/year subscription.

In any case, Scratch’s not-paywalled blog recently posted a piece called “Paywall Parkour: How to Rip Off Your Friends,” in which Porter Anderson argues that paywall jumping is a moral failing. Now, I’m hardly going to defend paywall jumping writ large—I think the decision to erect a paywall is firmly within a given business’ rights, and rightly so (although I do take issue with the mechanism by which the DMCA enforces aspects of those rights).

But Anderson’s vision is still troubling to me (even beyond the now-standard use of language like “stealing” and even “robbing”[1]). The problem is that Anderson has bought into what James Boyle calls the “logic of perfect control”[2] hook, line, and sinker. Anderson writes:

Internet-based media should be the perfect answer to the imperfection of print newspapers, which can be passed around free. The technical capability to wall off one’s offerings, perhaps metering how many free-trial samples each user can receive, should be win-win-win for media, their writers, and their readers.

Emphasis added. Now, I admit that I’m not the sharpest when it comes to picking up on written irony, but I’ve read this through a number of times now and I’m fairly sure that this was written straight. Is this a commonly held belief among writers, that the portability and reusability of physical copies is a flaw?

Continue reading “Paywalls and the Logic of Perfect Control”

Are authors special snowflakes? A preview of what I’m working on

Watch this video, in which Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild, rejects the label of “special snowflake.”

It’s worth it just for the sparring at the end. “Don’t you call me a special snowflake!,” is going straight into my handbook of classic rejoinders.

In any case, Robinson is right that the term “special snowflake” is being used to demean, but it cuts to the heart of what a lot of talk is currently about: are books different from other consumer products? Do books and their authors deserve special treatment?

While these questions are implicitly addressed all over the place—for instance, in the video above—they’re difficult enough (and, I think, the right answers nuanced enough) so as to deserve a more thoughtful unpacking. I’ve got one in the works, stay tuned.

Young people these days!

Young people are failing to shoulder the weight of their cultural inheritance. They have the attention spans of gnats, they don’t pay for anything (which would be a feat in any case, because they certainly don’t work), their tastes are vapid, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they’re all mostly illiterate. Get off my lawn!

I’m sure every generation endures this kind of bunk. It’s a rite of passage. But lest we all start believing the allegations by osmosis, a now several-months-old Pew Research study on public library use is making the rounds to chasten the millennials’ detractors, at least with regard to the “kids these days don’t read” charge. There’s lots of good information in there (especially for library lovers), but here’s the summary of the finding on book reading:

Millennials are quite similar to their elders when it comes to the amount of book reading they do, but young adults are more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months. Some 43% report reading a book—in any format—on a daily basis, a rate similar to older adults. Overall, 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older. Young adults have caught up to those in their thirties and forties in e-reading, with 37% of adults ages 18-29 reporting that they have read an e-book in the past year.

Take a gander at the summary or, if you’ve got a few extra minutes, flip through the whole report (PDF).

Internet Slowdown Day

Today, a number of prominent websites are “slowing down” by prominently featuring a persistent loading wheel. It’s an illustration of how the web might look without net neutrality, the principle that internet service should allow equal access to the whole network. The way things are looking in the courts, in Congress, and at the FCC, net neutrality won’t be sticking around without a little bit effort from those of us who care about it.

While today’s big-name participants are largely tech companies (which makes sense; financially, they have the most to lose), net neutrality matters just as much to the little guy.

The internet is empowering for voices that want to be heard precisely because it largely does away with the kind of scarcity that restricts and slows access to physical books, records, videos, etc.

Which isn’t to say that that authors aren’t completely free from scarcity online. Indeed, bandwidth, electricity, processing power, and digital storage are all finite. But their abundance relative to the resources needed to, say, store a book and distribute it all around the world functionally does away with limitations.

How cool is that?

Today’s net isn’t strictly speaking neutral. But it’s neutral enough that it preserves this kind of opportunity for authors. That’s all subject to change if we allow service providers to restrict (or increase) bandwidth based on the speaker and what it can afford to pay.

So let’s slow down today and hope that we don’t have to do so tomorrow.

Poetry, short fiction, and print-only journals

Two years ago this November, my then-fiancée, Lara, accepted her first publication offer for a short story. A few months later, her work appeared in the pages of The Greensboro Review, a semiannual literary journal associated with UNC Greensboro’s MFA program.

Lara mugs with her all-too-rare paper copy of the Greensboro Review

For Lara, the experience was rewarding. From editing through publication, TGR was great to work with and provided welcome insight into her story. And having that paper copy to keep as a memento is a treat. But it comes with a downside: the Greensboro Review is a print-only publication. Anyone wanting to read Lara’s first story would have to track down a copy of Issue 93—not something you’re likely to stumble across in your local bookstore or library.

For many authors of short fiction and poetry, being read and being online are increasingly interwoven. These works are discovered and shared on the web. If a print subscriber enjoyed the story and wanted to pass it on, they wouldn’t even have a good link to send to a friend. There’s no amazon listing, no worldcat page, no easy way to track down a copy—all that’s available is the journal’s homepage and whatever paper copies may exist out in the wild.

Over at H_NGM_N Books, poet Mike Puican deals with this problem head-on, giving his reasons why he no longer submits to print-only journals. Puican starts from the premise that he wants his work to be read:

Whenever I have a poem published, I like to let people know about it. . . . If that poem is in a print-only journal, it is, unfortunately, not likely those people will buy it from a local bookstore or a website that carries it. If it is online, not only do I share the news of the publication, I share a link to the poem. Now everyone has the chance to read it. And it’s very easy for them, if they feel so inclined, to “like” the poem, comment on it and share it with their networks.

Puican is also concerned about making sure that his works last. Periodicals are transient and go out of print quickly, but a digital presence can be much hardier. “This may be the first time in history”, he writes, “that writers don’t have to worry about their work disappearing from public view.”

The good news for writers of paper-bound pieces is that small, print-only journals are usually author-friendly when it comes to rights, usually asking for little more than the right of first publication and perhaps a brief embargo (of course, I haven’t read your contract and this blog is never legal advice). When the journal takes only the rights it needs, the author is left free to take their work elsewhere. It’s not necessarily easy for these authors to get their works online—building websites, typesetting work, and ensuring that it can all be easily found are not trivial tasks. But it’s a huge help that the option is there.

Much easier, in any case, to start with a publication that promises some degree of lasting accessibility from the get-go. In this regard, Puican’s take home point sounds right to me, where he writes:

I’m not one of those saying print is dead and everything should now be online. All I’m saying is that the Internet has opened opportunities for poets and that we should take advantage of them to get our work out to the world.

For now, Lara’s first story is largely unavailable. But it won’t stay that way for long: the Greensboro Review left Lara with the rights to the story and with a little bit of elbow grease we’ll get it online, where it stands a much greater chance of being read.

Opening legal education: New coursebook from Duke’s CSPD

Textbooks are essential instructional tools but they’re not without problems. Most familiar to students is the problem of cost: textbook prices have been significantly outstripping inflation for some time, rising 82% between 2003 and 2013 and giving rise to some fairly terrifying charts. But there’s also the issue of tailoring. There might not be a textbook that’s a perfect match for a given instructor’s needs, but the traditional model requires students to purchase material their instructors may have no interest in teaching.

While authors from a variety of fields are making strides to bring accessible and open educational resources into the mainstream, legal education is particularly poised for change.

The most recent development comes from the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, where law professors James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins have published an excellent[1] open casebook and statutory supplement, Intellectual Property: Law & the Information Society. The first in a series the Center plans on publishing, the book is now available as a free download or for an affordable price in print.

As intellectual property scholars with a more-than-passing familiarity with open licensing, Boyle and Jenkins are eager to explain how they came to publish an open coursebook. Their FAQ is worth reading for anyone wondering, for instance, whether they are “against professors who want to be paid for their work and time” or why they “have a paper version at all.

Publishing under a Creative Commons license, Boyle and Jenkins fully expect that others will modify the book in order to make it work for their needs. They write that “[t]he book is intended to be a textbook for the basic Intellectual Property class, but because it is an open coursebook, which can be freely edited and customized, it is also suitable for an undergraduate class, or for a business, library studies, communications or other graduate school class.”

While traditional publishers have been exploring digital distribution, they haven’t worked to pass the benefits onto students. Aspen, a Wolters Kluwer imprint, made headlines earlier this year when it announced plans to use its heavily-DRMed (and still quite expensive) digital editions to hamstring the used textbook market. It is increasingly clear that the promise of digital publishing is more likely to be realized by committed authors rather than by traditional publishers.

And the launch of the Duke open casebook series is only the latest effort in a growing trend in legal education whereby textbook authors are taking advantage of digital distribution to increase the accessibility and change the nature of course materials. For instance, the Harvard Law School Library and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society have built a textbook creation service, H20, that allows users to develop, remix, and share custom course materials based on CC-licensed source material.

A slightly different approach to some of the same problems is exemplified by Semaphore Press, a for-profit publisher of law school casebooks that considers accessibility to be an essential part of it mission. I recently had the chance to talk on camera with Lydia Loren, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and Semaphore Press co-founder. Semaphore charges $30 for a download of any of its DRM-free casebooks, but also provides a pay-what-you-want option to ensure that students have access to their assigned texts.

Boyle and Jenkins write that “Legal education is already expensive; we want to play a small part in diminishing the costs of the materials involved.” In tandem with these other efforts and in light of the growing consensus that traditional textbook publishing could better fulfill its educational purpose, it might be enough to make a difference.

Intellectual Property: Law & the Information Society is available as a free download or for an affordable price in print.

[1] Full disclosure: my own legal education benefited from the beta version of this coursebook, and from the instruction of both Professors Boyle and Jenkins.