Steal This Book, But Buy Me a Beer

The Economist’s Babbage has written a sardonic critique of Amazon’s recently announced decision to allow its customers to lend e-books to one another:

AMAZON.COM says soon you will be allowed to lend out electronic books purchased from the Kindle Store. For a whole 14 days. Just once, ever, per title. If the publisher allows it. Not mentioned is the necessity to hop on one foot whilst reciting the Gettysburg Address in a falsetto. An oversight, I’m sure.

Enumerating the ways in which this current offer fails, he correctly notes that time is running out for publishers. Perhaps it’s already too late.

This prompted a fair amount of back-and-forth among geeks, along fairly predictable lines. The majority riffed on the mantra that Information Wants to be Free, while others tried to find some accommodation between droit d’auteur, commerce and society’s fundamental desire to share:

I realize Slashdot has a certain “information should be free” ethos, but it doesn’t make much sense to build in the ability to give unlimited copies to everyone and think that it won’t undermine the business. While the publishers “wish you to engage in two separate hallucinations”, it seems like lots of other people want us to engage in another hallucination: that giving out unlimited copies won’t turn into a financial problem for booksellers.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s accept that assertion as truth: Infinite distribution necessarily causes financial problems for publishers. That doesn’t explain why they would choose to give fewer lending rights to possessors of digital copies than to those who buy the paper object. Nor does it explain why they charge pretty much the same price for this reduced capability.

We seem to be dealing (yet again) with anti-features: The publishers are actually adding to the consumer’s burden in exchange for nominally lowering the cost and ‘allowing‘ them the convenience of reading an electronic copy of a given book.

As the Economist rightly notes, this won’t stand. Anti-features (including DRM) only need to be removed once. Argue however much you like about the rights of the author. As a writer, I’m pretty damn sympathetic. But realistically, creators have to adjust to the world as it is. People will share things that delight them. They do so with photos, with posters, books, music, TV shows and movies… in short, with everything they can.

And there will always be someone willing to feed that desire.

Yes, it puts creators in a quandary. Yes, it threatens livelihoods and, potentially, might even prevent the next great opus. But to attempt to remodel the world to fit an outdated vision? That’s just insane. I don’t mean stupid -it actually requires a fair amount of imagination to get there- I mean insane, nuts, cuckoo. The idea is premised on the fact that all of society (save the poor, beleaguered author) is wrong, and must change. Even if the first clause is correct, the second does not follow. And even if we accept it logically, we still have no hope of effecting that change through technical means.

I suppose it is possible that we could change society. It’s happened before. But we will not do it with DRM and anti-features.

So what, then, is a creator to do? The best I can come up with right now is enough to make most established professional creators despair: Rely on the kindness of strangers.

Let’s face it; as Adrian Hon says, rampant sharing of books (and music, and TV shows, and movies, and photos, and… well, everything digital) is a fact of life. Some publishers will fail. Some (more) newspapers will die.

But surely there must be some way to extend the practice of gift culture[*] beyond the geek world? Surely there’s a way to turn social approbation into status and status into success?

It already happens in the celebrity world. People will go out of their way to provide goods and services for free -even to pay handsomely- solely because they want appropriate someone’s popularity for their own purposes, be it more guests at a restaurant or more people buying their shirt. Interestingly, celebrity endorsement’s success is inversely proportional to its relationship to straight-up capitalist quid pro quo. We like both the celebrity and the product less when we know their relationship is strictly economic.

Let’s take a perverse example for a gedankenexperiment: Imagine if the Star Wars kid had not only received millions of views, but millions of pennies from people willing not only to laugh at him, but to show a little fellow-feeling as well? Ignore the mechanics for a moment; just imagine what society would be like if our online status were directly related to economic and social standing?

Follow that scenario far enough and one arrives at some fascinating places, not all of them pretty. Jealousy, gossip, pretension and slander become more influential. One has only to get a certain number of people to dislike someone to limit or even end their ability to profit.

Worse yet, if we make it possible for people to take their pennies back, we quickly approach the tyranny of the small town. Life would at times resemble a Hawthorne novel more than anything else.

But it might easily create a few Shakespeares (or more accurately, Lord Chamberlain’s Men) as well, with the populace more than willing to toss a penny[**] each their way and society figures vying to be seen supporting and associating with them.

The mechanisms by which this could be achieved are not hard to imagine. An iPhone or a Facebook app would suffice – if online commerce could ever be wrested from the banks and credit card companies.

The unpredictable part is the non-technical side. Making it not only Good but Desirable to be seen associating one’s wealth with popular figures of all stripes would require a quantum shift in online society. I’m sure if a poll were conducted, most people would agree with the idea of rewarding those who have delighted, entertained or enlightened us in some small way. But as every busker will tell you, there’s an immense gap between the idea and the practice.

I’m going to offer a prediction: Something like this will –must– happen. And sooner rather than later. I await the change with mixed apprehension and excitement.

[*] Eric Raymond may be a kook, but he’s right about this.

[**] According to my admittedly poor math, about 1/2000th of a prosperous merchant’s monthly income.