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The Copyright Thing

Aaron Swartz lists among his tips for book authors this one:

Donate to the public domain. Once you've recouped the cost of creating the book (and potentially the cost of writing your next one) please donate it to the public domain (i.e. give up your copyright). The copyright system was created only to increase the size of the public domain; please don't cheat the public by taking more of it than you need.

Now I don't want to get off on a rant here, and I realize Aaron's accomplished a whole helluva lot in his lifetime, but this is coming from someone who, so far as I can tell, hasn't published a book yet. I'm not a fan of blanket statements, especially when it comes from someone who's yet to do what he's talking about.

In fact, I have issue with the whole "copyright is bad, Creative Commons is good" thinking that pervades some people's thought trains lately. This site - NSLog(); - is listed under a Creative Commons license, but only because it's not something I wish to ever really publish in a book. It's too temporal to be a book. This link won't matter in a year.

But imagine I write a book. Who can accurately say when I've recovered the cost of writing that book (or my next one)? If I even loosely base a book on events in my life that cover twenty years, when exactly can I consider my expenses to have been "covered"? Furthermore, why would I, as an author, willingly release my book to the public domain, effectively nullifying any money I might make from it, "because it's the right thing to do." I have a family to provide for, and if my book can do that, well dammit, it's gonna stay that way!

Of course, that's one argument. Tom Clancy is probably glad he didn't release some of his first books into the public domain - look at all the money he made selling the ideas to movie companies.

But Aaron's point of view probably doesn't involve money. Guess what? It should. Tom Clancy can do more with a bunch of money to help "the common good" than he can by releasing the rights to his book (which other people would undoubtedly use to make themselves wealthier). Tom can spend his extra money funding his local school district. Or donating it to a writing contest. Or funding a protest against war in Iraq, if he wants. I fail to understand how releasing the copyright for "The Hunt for Red October" would have benefitted anyone more than a pithy $50,000 charitable donation from the extra $10M he might have made (I'm making these numbers up) from retaining the copyright.

Sometimes, things go too far. The CC license is fine for this site. But c'mon, for all authors? Either I've missed the point, or Aaron's failed to convince me that he's right. I'm guessing it's the prior. 😛

7 Responses to "The Copyright Thing"

  1. "Who can accurately say when I've recovered the cost of writing that book (or my next one)?"

    You. The point is to depend on the author's honesty to not charge the public an unfair price for the work. (The current price (all the money I can get) seems unfair to me.)

    The $10M argument is bogus. Should we all use Windows because giving Gates our money allows him to feed starving Africans, but if we spread it across competing operating systems no one would be able to do such things? Should all the car companies charge exorbinant prices so they have more money to spend on protecting the environment?

    We do have some things like this: taxes. But people always seem to be claiming that there are too much of those and they're collected by our elected officials! Why do you think a system where anyone who writes a book we want to read can tax us is any better?

  2. The $10M thing may be bogus, but again, he may only contribute $5,000, but that $5,000 might better help "society" than releasing some spy novel to the public domain.

    Guilt tripping people who have amde a career of something into giving things up to the public domain has got to have more behind it than "because you should."

    Your Windows argument is irrelevant, I think. I never claimed Windows should be in the public domain - we are talking about books. How much does a book released to the public domain really benefit the public? Enough to justify giving up potentially, say, 50 years of royalty checks or the rights to a movie version? I don't think so.

  3. The public domain has nothing to do with the bogusness of the argument -- you're saying that we should give someone more money because they know how to spend it better than we do. I don't think people would like that plan very much, mostly because if they did they'd ask that person what to do with the money and do it themselves.

    If someone would have made $5000 by not putting a book in the public domain, then the public will get $5000 if they would. The math isn't difficult.

  4. Aaron, my argument has nothing to do with someone knowing how better to spend the money.

    If someone makes another $10M off a book, hell, I'd say he's already contributed more to society through taxes (sales, income, property, etc.) than the public domain would benefit from having the book.

    You can not measure how much the public domain "benefits" from something in a dollar value, so I'm inclined to place the "value" of such an act at $0. You're offering up a weak argument that the author should do it "for the good of it" and that argument holds no water, because there's no way to measure either when the costs have been recovered or how much the "public" would benefit.

  5. If someone is going to make $10M from selling a book and he puts it into the public domain instead, then the public saves $10M. I thought this was obvious.

    Copyrigt doesn't make money out of thin air. Like taxes, it takes it from people like you and I.

  6. Aaron: it doesn't work that way. Just as a farmer should not give away everything he produces "for the good of it," authorship is a skill and writing a trade.

  7. [...] talked with Aaron only a few times in my years, and he posted on this blog in response to a post I made about him exactly nine years ago to the day. Coincidentally, it was on [...]