The huge success of the Internet mainly comes from the instant sharing of data and information, but also from the sharing of works that technology allows us to digitize: books, and particularly ebooks, music (MP3 format), movies (DivX format) video games, and even online encyclopedias like Wikipedia. Some Internet theorists go so far as to say that digital goods (data that is summarized with 0 and 1 in various forms, encompassing books, music and video) "want" to be free, which is summarized in this sentence: "information wants to be free". The most "activist" ones, anarchists from the cyberpunk movement, think that all digital goods should be free.
One could say that the universal sharing allowed by the Internet is the only form of communism that has succeeded in reality, a utopian dream at work. And a utopian dream that works, apparently.
This constant sharing is making society evolve, and has helped revolutions to happen by speeding them up, like the Arab Spring.
That sharing allows a huge number of individuals to access culture, in a better way than libraries and multimedia libraries. We can only welcome that fact.
The English term "free", with its dual meaning of "free of charge" and "open" can be misleading. You have to distinguish between software, websites or applications that are part of a sharing philosophy like Wikipedia or Open Office and, for example, free works that are constantly promoted (permafree).
The permanent information is combined in all its forms: both the simple exchange of facts and the authentic reality show of everyday life, which everyone can broadcast and orchestrate via Facebook, among others. At the same time authors, actors and directors of our respective slices of life. For better or for worse.
With digital technology, no more barriers: most of the paid works, in any case, the popular works, are available on illegal websites.
Except, of course, for the guilty feeling when one downloads illegally.
That little guilty twinge? According to theorists of the Internet whose thinking belongs to some of the cyberpunk currents, this is no more than an out of place thing from the past: from the moment that a digital item can be duplicated in an unlimited way by anybody without spending any resources, that item loses all its economic value.
That's the very argument the thriller author Joe Konrath has produced when debating with me in the comments section of his blog.
This argument may seem irrefutable as economically speaking, it perfectly answers the law of supply and demand: when you are able to freely duplicate digital works in as great a number as there are grains of sand in the desert, to use an analogy, each of these works is worth nothing more than a grain of sand in the desert.
And indeed, the resources needed to copy digital goods, once you have paid off the cost of the digital device, amounts only to the electricity you use, and may seem insignificant.
However, if you push the argument further, as soon as your attorney sends you your property file by email, it's because all his work has been digitized. So, this file is no longer worth anything, because it's digitized. Great, you don't have to pay your attorney anymore!
But let's go a step further into absurdity. Your deed of property is digitized. The same deed that makes you a happy owner. But wait... Not so happy, in fact, because the act of property is digitized, and is no longer worth anything! Your house no longer has any value, it belongs to everybody. Gulp.
No, no, the cyberpunks will answer, your house belongs to you, because if someone tries to take it from you, you can call the cops, and they will give it back to you. If the digital goods have no value, it's because it's impossible to protect them adequately, and because they can be hacked as often as needed.
Do you see my point? When you scratch the surface, the point of the supporters of the theory aiming at stretching the expression "information wants to be free" to digital goods as a whole is nothing but the mechanical expression of the right of the strongest. Since it's possible to hack digital goods, since everybody can benefit from that at one point, it's because those goods, economically, have no value. The fact that the book industry weighs billions of dollars is a kind of economic aberration, a relic of the past.
My interpretation of the anarchist cyberpunk line of thinking is: "since I cannot attack classic property, I'm attacking intellectual property."
The paradox is, if you follow the line of thinking of those theorists, you have to get a bullet-proof shield in order to give back value to these goods. Goods that would then become more awkward to use, and therefore, less valuable.
When speaking about ebooks, that is what the publishers try to do: enhance the protection, but to no avail, because the hackers always find the flaw within the protection systems.
I am sure that many authors fear piracy. Some would certainly prefer for ebooks not to exist, and those are the same who see their publisher as the ultimate shield, able to protect their intellectual belongings.
The same publishers who overprice the ebooks, making them primary targets for both the hackers and the readers.
The same publishers who exploit authors, making the act of writing an ancillary activity demanding a day job to be supported.
The same publishers who masterfully play the scarcity model, windowing the release of books to increase the readers' frustration, which leads to more income for them.
On the contrary, as far as I am concerned, ebooks are a blessing. I broadcast free ebooks consistently (permafree ebooks) in order to get discovered and to sell my novels.
Nowadays, one often finds something like fifteen novels bundled priced at $0.99. According to Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, authors who use permafree for the first novel of their series are selling better than the others.
Such prestigious authors as Kristine Kathryn Rusch have occasionally, with their peers, put one of their novels in a bundle priced (for a limited time) for almost nothing. Sometimes authors put whole series at $0.99, or for free.
Better still, Joe Konrath has for his part invited everybody to steal his ebook as early as 2010, hacking it or downloading it. Doing this, he followed Cory Doctorow's example, who has proved that it's possible to sell ebooks while making them easy to hack, or putting them for free on his website.
That could seem counter-intuitive: why do people buy ebooks when they could download them for free? The answer in one word is gratefulness. They enjoyed the book, and want to prove their gratefulness by buying the book or its sequel, or by recommending it.
It must be acknowledged: that's a wonderful thing. But it will only stay that way if people are taught digital technology. They buy, because they are able to feel that guilty twinge when they download illegally. They feel guilty because they know efforts, time and the author's work were needed for the ebook to exist, and because they know the ebook is part of the economic system.
Bottom line: if people begin to think digital technology is a given, we can forget any hope to make a living with digital goods. As I demonstrated, the huge discoverability issue weighs on all authors, encouraging them to give free stuff away.
We also saw come hurtling offers like Kindle Unlimited, very seductive offers for hardcore readers, but prejudicial to such concepts like Fair Reading. Let's say it, prejudicial for the authors' income.
Remember that debate I alluded to with Joe Konrath? The subject was Ebooks Are Forever, an online service that will allow librarians, in the future, to benefit from unlimited uses of ebooks bought once on the EAF website.
Which means that all ebooks bought under unlimited uses will become available for unlimited lending for the readers. A kind of Kindle Unlimited, but a free one this time - no longer priced at $9.99 a month.
How can we manage to teach our children about the value of the ebooks if they become legally permanently free on the libraries' websites? Even if the project of EAF plans the ebooks to be lent only for a two week period of time, the reader would just have to switch libraries' websites to get her free ebook.
Above all, how could we provide a better defense to people who download illegally? "In any case, it's free on the libraries' websites, it's just more convenient for me to avoid the two weeks lending period."
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for libraries. I just want the uses to be limited, keeping the formula: one ebook sold, unlimited lending through time, but just one person at a time.
I was speaking about frustration a bit earlier. I think that the publishers place the frustration slider too high. They also price too high. Amazon got it and launched Kindle Unlimited. As for us, self-published authors, we place the slider too low, so low that it becomes difficult to see the slider. Individually, we may place it at some level, but collectively, seeing all the free ebooks, one may infer that we don't seek to make a living with our works.
However, that slider is still there. I won't put the blame on an author who sets her 24 novels permanently free, provided she is able to prove me that she can make a living with the 25th novel.
Going back to work in the fields or building our house with our own hands could be a blueprint for society, if you deem that all the intellectual activities are just ancillary. I think I can say, though, that intellectual work, and the income that follows, is a great progress of the human being, provided he is able to make a decent living out of it.
Then yes, this blog post is provided freely to you, without any ad in order for me to make a return on investment. Doing that, I benefit from the fantastic freedom of the Internet. I can offer you an article, if I decided to do so.
There is no longer any economy if all becomes free. There is no economy without a frustration, from time to time. Let's learn to place the slider back at the proper place. Or else, give me a new blueprint for society with everything free, a consistent and successful one preferably.