Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creating, Communicating, and Selling

Kembrew McLeod, a communications professor at the University of Iowa and the media activist who once registered the phrase 'freedom of expression' as a trademark, describes, in his book Freedom of expression®: resistance and repression in the age of intellectual property, how a piece of Intellectual Property changes when it goes public, doing so through one of his own experiences:

I’ve had my own work, a documentary, excerpted and shown in a context that made me squirm, but I didn’t prevent it from happening. After all, I had already put it out into the world. Perhaps if someone took unpublished excerpts from my diary I would have objected, but works that have already been published are quite a different matter, both legally and ethically. (169)

Of course, the creator has complete power over an unpublished work but, once it is offered by the creator to the public (or used in a fashion affecting the public), the situation changes. McLeod lost some control over his work, clearly, but he still might have had legal recourse, should he have chosen to use it. His phrase, 'I didn't prevent it,' shows awareness of this possibility, and points to the fact that he, himself, sees 'ownership' in a greater framework of sharing, no matter the consequence to his own rights, and is not willing to see it as simply a means of protecting.

Similarly, in 1994, I offered my doctoral dissertation to a website dedicated to the work of its subject, the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. A few years later, someone in Spain emailed me, asking permission to translate one chapter and publish it in a journal (Valis #10) there, permission that was granted. Some years later, I received an email from another person in Spain asking if I knew my entire dissertation had been translated and published as a book. I did not. After some exploration, I found that my permission had been somehow expanded, and without further consultation with me. I did finally manage to track down the highly embarrassed publisher and get a couple of free copies of the book, but I never asked for recompense or that publication be halted. Like McLeod, I probably had more recourse in law but, again like McLeod, I did not choose to pursue it. After all, the incident had worked in my favor, for it had led to a certain reputation in Spain, a good story, and even an invitation to contribute to a volume by another Spanish publisher.

In addition, I had believed, since first allowing my work to be posted on the Internet, that by offering the dissertation on the Web I was relinquishing a certain sense of ownership over it anyway; whatever happened after was beyond my control, so I might as well just sit back and watch. I had never expected money from the dissertation anyway, and was pleased that it gained readers rather than languishing forgotten, the fate of most dissertations.

Eventually, recognizing that no American publisher was likely to touch the dissertation, I added the chapter I had given that other Spanish publication and subtracted one that had appeared long ago in a book on Blade Runner (the film of one of Phil Dick's books), and published the thing myself. The book had changed from the dissertation I wrote in the 1980s, and not just because of the added and deleted chapters. Its nature was now different; expectations for it could never be the same.

The work was my creation, and I could have retained it as a possession, but I wanted it read, wanted to share it with the world. Though the website where I initially posted the dissertation has changed, and no longer offers such things, I suspect the dissertation can still be found, if one searches diligently. The book? Well, I offer it for sale, but would never go after anyone who offered an online version for free.

My most popular book, The Rise of the Blogosphere, can be found online for free and downloaded. I don't mind that, either (though my publisher probably does). I've rarely written simply for money, generally wanting the conversation more than the income. Why, then, don't I self-publish all of my books? For the simple reason that my publisher specializes in producing books that libraries, particularly college libraries, will want to own. I would not find this book in some thousand libraries if I published it myself.

I got an email today from someone who took issue with my post yesterday on David Brooks. I didn't see much room for discussion, given what he wrote, so didn't engage except briefly, which annoyed my correspondent. He wrote: “You're full of fun contradictions.... My favorite is that you took the topic of free, democratized, easily published social media and are selling it in book form for $50.” He seems to feel that subject and venue should be conflated (morally, at least), but that's not what interests me. What does is his clear feeling that selling my work is somehow unethical in the new age.

In a way, he's right. But he's also wrong. One presents work in different venues at different times and for different reasons. With Praeger Publishers, my work gets exposure it could not find otherwise. Plus, it is subject to an expensive editorial process as well as good printing and binding. Praeger also puts effort into promoting the books, bringing them to the attention of acquisition librarians. Selling the books makes all that possible.

Through publication with Praeger, also, I am able to advance my own career, for Praeger is an established academic publisher of long standing. I'd like to see other venues count for as much, but the digital age is young and that has yet to come (I'm working on helping that happen).

I've another book I published myself, one based on the letters my grandfather sent home during World War I that includes military documents I found in the National Archives, articles I gleaned from local papers in his Ohio hometown, and numerous other documents I dug up here and there. As history is not my field, as I did this out of love, I published it myself—and primarily for my family. I do offer it for sale to others, but see no harm in that: it took years or work, after all. Here again, though, if someone wanted to present it for download, I would not object.

It takes work to write a book, or to create anything else known today as Intellectual Property. As a result, there's a sense of ownership as we offer what we have created to the world—as we release at least a part of it from our control and ownership. The type of control retained really should be determined by the creator, from tight copyright vigilance to complete release into the commons. No creator should be criticized for the choices they make—and I say that even though I recognize that our acts of creation themselves aren't even ours alone, but are taken from myriad acts in the past.

Why should the creator have such control? Because the creator needs to have confidence that they can retain the control that helps them through the process of creation—which is an awful lot of work. The creator is sustained by dreams, and needs to have some idea that she or he can control the avenues to their realization.

It's as simple as that--though the questions of ownership implied are, of course, extremely complex and quickly evolving as we move further into the digital future.

Personally, I want as many different possibilities for publication and for profit as I can find. And I use many. I blog (which is free). I write book chapters that gain me no more than a free copy. I write articles I get paid for and others I don't. I publish books myself that return very little in the way of money. And my professional academic publisher pays me a royalty on the works of mine it publishes.

There's a breadth to publishing in the digital age that augers wonderful things for the future--though restrictive copyright does constrain things (especially with so-called "orphan works," but that's another story). I love that I have been able to participate in some of the expanded possibilities of the past decade, and I hope that I will be able to continue to do so.

I also hope that we will, one day, develop models that don't put so much of the onus for supporting creators on end-users... but that, for the moment, is little more than a pipe dream.

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