Followups to the ebooks ethical question

When I have a moment, I’ll try to tally up the responses that I got to “An ethical question involving ebooks”and see if there are any interesting patterns based on self-identified generational markers.  Obviously, this is not a properly controlled survey, so the results aren’t going to mean much, but it is interesting that some fairly passionately written comments came from folks who self-identified as coming from generations that broke with the common stereotypes of their respective demographic groups.   If I were going to commission a study, one thing that I would almost certainly do is to ask pose a similar question about music and mp3’s, and do have the surveys asking the question about ebooks first, and half the surveys asking the questions about music first.  It would be interesting to see if (a) there is a difference in attitudes between music and books, and (b) whether the order of the questions might influence the answers or not.

A number of poeple have asked me about the author’s name and the title of the books/series involved.  I deliberately didn’t include that information, for a number of reasons.  First of all, I don’t believe idenifying the author/books/character involved is relevant to the question at hand, and in fact, might be distracting.  Secondly, given the many comments, some of them quite passionate, I don’t think it would be fair to drag her name into the discussion without her permission first.  I will say that the author does have a fairly extensive internet presence, and has apparently gotten a lot of questions about said character, and in fact whether those books would be made into ebooks.   It’s been made quite clear that while those books were successful, they weren’t that successful, and so from an economic point of view, she chooses to write books that she (and her publishers) feel will be more economically viable.   Because there will likely be no further books published containing this character, it is very unlikely that the publisher will reprint the original series of books — and when asked about whether they would be made available in ebook form, her response was effectively “it’s up to the publisher”,  Apparently she has worked with a number of publishers, and while publisher X hasn’t been willing to publish her books in ebook form, publisher Y has.  Furthermore, it seems that her contracts apparently delegate all decisions about how her books will be published, and whether a large Major Big City Law Firm with Fangs (aka MBCLFF) will go after copyright infringers to her publishers and her agent (who is a lawyer at said MBCLFF, and who could presumably inflict major Hurt on copyright infringers that curry the lawyer’s disfavor).   I don’t know if this is true, or just her way of managing her relationship with her fans by disclaiming all responsibility about publication forms and enforcement decisions to others — but some authors do make such choices, if they are much more interested in the writing and storytelling end of things than the business side of things.

Which brings up an interesting question with respect to copyright enforcement.   It’s pretty obvious that many people will give different answers to the question relating to how much deference should be given to copyrights depending on whether they are owned by The Struggling Author versus whether they are owned by The Big Media Corporate Monolith, with many more allowances given if the question is framed as being primarily about the former rather than the latter.   Another way in which how you frame the question radically changes the outcome depends on whether the focus is on making sure the author (and/or his surviving widow/widower/children) get paid or whether the focus is on control of one’s works.   If you believe the primary justification is an economic one, then that leads to a series of ethical conclusions — the most obvious of which is that if it doesn’t result in a direct (or perhaps indirect) monetary loss to the author, there should not be a moral or ethical problem.   There might be some question as to whether devaluing the secondary market might discourage the sale of new books, and hence indirectly harm the author sufficiently that this should be a concern, but those issues can be worked out.

If however, you believe the primary issue at hand is one of control, a very different set of issues have to get factored into the conversation. For example, what if the author was ashamed of a book or series, and wants it to go quietly out of print, and hopefully disappear. How should that be weighed against fans who disagree with the author and who love the series? What is the right balance? For those who argue that the author’s wishes should be sacrosanct — should we move things more in that direction? What if all texts lived in DRM’ed, encrypted containers, and electronic readers had to ask permission of a central authorization server for the text could be displayed. This would allow the author to, after the fact, disable anyone from reading his or her works, if for some reason the author so desired it. Would that be a good thing? If not — and I hope most authors would agree this would be horrific power to give copyright holders — then it’s clear that author’s moral rights as creators should not be entirely sacrosanct, and that the society also has some claims on preserving its culture, and that once a book has been published and becomes part of the culture, society should have some claim on that book as part of culture. Whether that means that copyright terms should be 14 years or 20 years as opposed to whenever the Disney corporation feels like paying off more legislators to extend copyright terms is one way that question could be asked. Another is whether society should have the right to say that if after some number of years where a work has been abandoned for commercial exploitation, whether it should automatically enter the public domain. There are no obvious answers here.

The final point that I want to make, which may be fairly controversial amongst the Open Source programmers in the room, is that if you believe that copyright should be fundamentally be about economic arguments of “no harm, no foul”, that this is in direct contradiction with the belief that lawsuits should be used in order to enforce the GPL. After all, the conditions imposed by the GPL are fundamentally about control, not about economic issues. Consider — if someone uses the Busybox project in an embedded device — especially if no changes has been made to the code — who has been harmed, economically? No harm, no foul, right? Or if someone uses GPLv3 code in a firmware which is protected by a digital signature — sure, it means that end users who want to modify the firmware and then use it to enhace/extend the device won’t be able to do so. But how does that economically harm the author of the GPLv3 code? Fundamentally, Copyleft schemes are all about extending control over how the code can be used. Hence, if you are an Free Software programmer who cheers on the activities of the SFLC, or who firmly believes that no one should be allowed to mix firmware which is not shipped with source with your GPL’ed software, it is completely and profoundly hypocritical to say, “F*ck the author’s wishes; if it’s not available in the from I want, I should be able to make a derived work to transfer the work into a form that I want.” What if the author is a luddite who hates eBooks and firmly believes and wants to enforce that their works should never be made available in eBook form. How is that fundamentally different from a Free Software Acolyte saying that because they abhor non-free firmware, and don’t want allow their code to be shipped alongside binary-only firmware?