Copyleft: publishers have everything to gain by adopting it


L’Unità, 20 February 2003

Wu Ming 2

Recently, the discussion on copyright and its infringement has come to sound like another dispute, the one on drug addiction treament. In both cases, issues are both of a practical and moral nature, but the moral issues – on which anyone can have their say – always prevail over the practical ones, making people forget about real figures, data and the lessons of concrete experience.

As a consequence, nobody gets much done, prejudices have the upper hand and self-styled “experts” or “insiders” come out and show that they don’t have a clue. In both discussions, those who try hard to keep their feet on the ground, give examples and cite precedents, are doomed to long-term failure, for even the demonstration of a theorem may be subject to utterly non-scientiphical evaluation. Unless…

Unless we intervene early. While the music industry has been left to run wild, unable to face the transformation that’s wiping out the record industry as we knew it, the publishing industry has not yet gone mad. Maybe it is still possible to talk about reality. Here we give at least three examples which should be taken into consideration.

1. Two years ago, at the beginning of 2001, sci-fi author Eric Flint launched a revolutionary project. He persuaded his publisher, Baen Books, to build a free-of-charge virtual library containing many novels from Baen’s catalogue, all of them still on the market. People could log on and download dozens of novels in electronic form, each of them available in five formats.

One might think it was going to be a suicide, for each downloaded text would correspond to one unsold copy of the book. That’s what market analysts on the payroll of corporate record labels keep telling us every day. Well, any “ideological” prejudice was swept away by an inconfutable proof: from the moment their books appeared on the shelves of Eric Flint’s virtual library, most authors have witnessed an increase in sales. One example above all: Mother of Demons, by Eric Flint himself, sold 9,694 copies from September 1997 to the end of 2000. In the following eigtheen months, while the text was freely downlodable from the website, the book doubled its sales: 18,500 copies.

Of course such an increase could be explained on other grounds. Mother of Demons is Flint’s debut novel. In the meanwhile, the author became more famous. Let’s cling on the lowest matter-of-fact assumption then: the presence of that novel in the free library caused no damage to Flint and/or his publisher. 

If you pardon me the sin of self-quotation, the same thing happened with Wu Ming / Luther Blissett. Our debut novel Q has been freely downloadable for a long time, in several formats, from our website, and yet its paper circulation (and commerce) suffered no loss, and the book keeps on selling very well.

There’s much more. Those who say that on-line availability of a cultural product (be it music, literature or whatever) damages its sales in any form, may show us catastrophic sales progress charts, but still they cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship between free downloading and the drop in demand. On the contrary, Eric Flint can show us tons of e-mail by readers who say they downloaded the text to check it out and, when they read a few pages on their computer and saw it was worth it, they went to the bookstore and bought a copy, or they kept reading it in electronic form and then presented friends with copies of the novel or, at the very least, they praised the novel in public (it’s called free advertising).

Of course there are people who downloaded and read the novel but did not purchase a copy, nor did they praise the book. Most likely they wouldn’t have bought the book anyway, and that unsold copy can’t be put down to the free library. Zero from zero doesn’t leave -1.

Moreover, word of mouth even operates in reverse order: if someone is disappointed with a book they paid $15 for, then they’ll advise other people against buying it, but if they’re dissapointed with a book they downloaded for free, it will be enough to say: “I didn’t like it, but why not try it yourself, it’s free”. No car seller forbids potential customers a test drive on the new model lest they consume gas and use up the tires. If he does it, he’ll find himself on the rocks very soon.

And yet an uncanny sensation of fear still shields the public opinion from such sensible arguments, and we are driven to think that had the book invented recently, authorities would question whether it is lawful or not to borrow them, and the existence of libraries would be considered an attack on commerce, and declared illegal. 

Many people, especially in the record industry, try to disprove these examples and say that publishers are lucky because a book is harder to reproduce than a CD. This is an important difference, but not substantial, as the next example demonstrates.

2. O’Reilly is a publishing house dealing with handbooks on programming, hand coding, software, new technologies etc., either on paper or in electronic form. O’Reilly holds a notable position on the market. Some books in their catalogue sell hundreds of thousands of copies. It is clear that a handbook of this kind is not an object likely to be fetishized: one may as well read it on home-printed A4 sheets. And yet, there’s been no decrease in the sales of purchasable e-texts, even if they can be easily pirated.

According to O’Reilly, “piracy” is a natural market risk, like shoplifting in a bookstore. Indeed, shoplifting causes more damage because a stolen book will disappear from the shelf but not from the account book, which means that the bookseller won’t reorder until s/he realizes it was stolen, thereby potential customers won’t find it, and this really turns into one more unsold copy. The case is different when someone buys an e-book from O’Reilly then decides to share its content on the Internet. Book have always been lent, from time immemorial. At worst, this kind of “piracy” is a sort of graduated taxation: the more an author gets famous, the more his/her books are pirated, and the other way around: the more books are pirated, the more their author gets famous. After all, to any artist indifference is worse an enemy than piracy will ever be. Things change if someone buys an e-book from O’Reilly then put it up for sale on their own website. Quite surprisingly the readers themselves point out such violations. O’Reilly gives an explanation of this.

The publisher’s website features a special section called Safari Bookshelf [‘…for when you’ve absolutely gotta-have-it now!’]. By paying $10 a month people can subscribe to this service and search across all the books in the catalogue. Once you’ve chosen one or a few texts, you can put them on your virtual shelf for 30 days and read them (or print them). No “pirate” site makes best offers, and this is what earns O’Reilly his tenner.

This example proves that “piracy” can be fought by offering better services at reasonable prices.

Perhaps the future will bring us electronic books so astounding that the industry will drop paper once and for all. Should this happen, publishers could carry on by offering this kind of on-line services, selecting the best texts out of the global ocean of writing, launching new authors, keeping prices low, allowing customers to choose between several frontcovers, and more…

By the day such products come to light, e-commerce will be different as well, one click will be all customers need to do in order to pay 2 or 3 euros for a downloadable text found on a publisher’s website, attached with the cover, editorial news, reviews… I think there would be a lot of clicks, and authors would gain much more money than the current 10% of the price. Oh, and there would be on-line exchanges and presents, word of mouth and all. What’s wrong with that?

Even the prestigious Massachussets Institute of Technology is taking steps in this direction.

3. The MIT OpenCourseWare project is an attempt to bring university back to its original purpose: make culture universal instead of sell portions of it to people who can afford the price.

Since October 2002 the lecture notes and documents used by several MIT teachers can be consulted at

Within three or four years the project will cover all the 2000 courses of the institute.

The project has a social purpose. Many people who are not enrolled and may not benefit from all the MIT services can access the content of prestigious classes anytime. This number of people includes teachers from other universities who may use that material and combine them with their own output. It’s “Open source teaching”, by which students have everything to gain.

In fact MIT president Charles Vest also expects to gain something, and not only prestige, fame, recognition. Many of these lecture notes refer to books published by the MIT itself, and Vest is sure there will be an increase in the sales. That’s what happened with the texts published by another academic institution, National Academies Press, that gives on-line access to all the 2100 books in its catalogue. These are expensive books, NAP publishes the reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. The same books may be purchased in another section of the website. Last year on-line customers bought 40,000 e-books from the website, it was NAP’s most profitable year ever, and there was no decrease in the traditional sales (bookstores, mail order etc.).

These examples point in the direction of new, viable strategies. It is possible to have a good credit balance whilst protecting the rights of customers and benefiting from the nature of the Net. In the entertainment and cultural industry most corporations have fallen into the trap of repression and are paying dearly for fighting the whole society. Other economic subjects may either follow the same path or get rid of prejudice and look for a more “aethical” and “responsible” profit, which is a profit nonetheless.