Archive for July, 2009

Can Authors Copy the Digital Music Model?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Like most questions in this business, the right answer is “It depends.”

And, since ebooks and digital reading are still embryonic, at less than 1/2 of 1% of the total industry, I’m sure that the answer will change.

In the music world, an enormous amount of the digital music is freeware — legitimately given away by the rightsholders, with the hope that it will be passed on to others. Some people think that the book world should follow suit. I have some thoughts on the issue. (Surprised? I thought not!)

What models are there, so far?

1. Advertising. (This includes sponsorships, product placement and overt ads.) This hasn’t worked even for magazines and newspapers on the Web, and it’s a lot less likely to work for books. Books aren’t timely, there aren’t circulation figures that you can reliably pitch to sponsors, and so on and so forth. I’m not even going to class this as an “It depends” unless you’re selling the umpteenth installment in a successful series.

2. Selling ancillary products. Musicians do shows. Authors? Not so much. There are consultants who use books as expensive calling cards, and high-profile speakers who are able to follow this model, but there aren’t many of them. If you are among them, grand. Giving away copies of a book virally in order to add energy to another career is a great idea, but it’s not going to work for most of us.

3. Electronic ARCs or galleys. This really does work for most of us. The model is the same as the ARC on paper: give away some copies in order to build buzz for the rest. It could be that you’re giving away your current book, or it could be something from the deep backlist, but make sure that you help people understand the limits on the permitted sharing. That can be accomplished by DRM (as in the giveaways on the Kindle) or by actually asking recipients to limit their sharing, but it needs to be made overt in some way.

4. Giving up on compensation entirely. Many musicians and other artists create for the emotional rewards, knowing that they’re highly unlikely to ever make a living at it. This does work for many authors, but most of us want to make a living. And books tend to take longer to create than songs, or most other artforms.

So, what models did I miss?

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Plagiarism, Piracy and You

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Most people misunderstand the limits on their rights to use someone else’s work. I’m not talking about hardcore pirates here, but ordinary folks who wouldn’t dream of taking something belonging to someone else — and who do it unintentionally.

Copyright and plagiarism
Many people believe that if you give credit to the original author, you can use whatever you want from someone else’s book, photography or music. If you give credit, you’re not a plagiarist, but you may be violating copyright or a trademark.

You can’t use someone else’s world, characters or other major elements of their creative work without permission (which usually costs money), unless the work is no longer under copyright. Fortunately, it’s usually extremely easy to get permission, especially if the work isn’t going to be sold commercially. (It may take some time, though, so start early.)

Works published before 1923 are usually in the public domain, as are those created by people who died before 1939. (Life plus 70 years is the term in US law.)

Accidental Plagiarism
It’s actually quite easy to use someone else’s words, or the way they structured their work, without meaning to do so. For example, consider the author in the library doing research and taking notes. The cell phone rings, and our author hurries out to answer it, forgetting to jot down whether the note is a copy of someone else’s work, or their own summation of an important thought. A year later, going through those notes, the unattributed words make their way into the book, and a scandal is born.

When you’re doing research, it might be a good idea to save copies of the pages you’re quoting, and make sure that the bibliographic info is on them.

It’s on the Web
The Web may make it easy to use someone’s work without permission, but that doesn’t make it right. It is emphatically not true that everyone who puts their words on the web will be thrilled that you’re sending them to other users. Not even if you give credit for it.

Some people put their work out here, and make it freely available, because they want fame. Some do it because they want to help the world. Some are trying to show potential customers what they have to offer, and some are trying to hunt up potential clients, and get them to register in order to get the free stuff.

Whatever their motivation, the work is theirs, and the decision about whether or not you can use it belongs to them. As does the right to make the judgment about whether your use will bring them more business, or not.

Fair Use
This is a defense, should you be sued, not a term clearly defined in the law. Basically, you can use small parts of another person’s work, if it fits the fair use criteria.

There are four:
1. Why are you using it? If you will be using it in a classroom, it may be fair use (although copying worksheets, or language tapes, or what all, usually is NOT). If you’re selling it for profit, that’s usually not fair use.

If you’re altering the work substantially, that also tends to lend legitimacy to your use.

2. The type of work you’re using
If it’s just for fun, you have less latitude than if it’s designed to save lives.

3. The amount and centrality of the portion you use.
If it’s a song or a poem, a tiny snippet can be a violation — unless you’re using only the title, and you use it as a title.

If you take the most important bits, it’s not fair use. And, yes, that’s a very fuzzy line, isn’t it? It’s a whole lot cheaper to get permission than to pay a lawyer if the owner of the work thinks you’ve crossed it.

4. Impact on profitability
If your use will reduce the rightsholder’s ability to profit from the work, you’re probably in trouble. And you’re not the one who gets to make that call. The rightsholder gets to decide if they want to sue you, and the judge and/or jury get to make the final call. Oh, and if it’s a registered copyright, there are statutory minimum penalties that make suing worthwhile, even if the damage is hard to establish, or small.

What examples have all of you found of these phenomena?

Is there anything here I got wrong? I’m neither a lawyer nor a writer, so I’m not invested in my own words. Go ahead and suggest something.