Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

I grew up in a hot climate, where skating rinks didn’t exist. Now I live in a cold climate and skating rinks, from my neighborhood association flooded pond to an Olympic-quality rink at the university, abound.

Several years ago, I decided to take skating lessons.

A group of us—all adults, all skating-rink-deprived as children—hobbled out onto that same university Olympic rink one Tuesday night. The instructor skated over to us, introductions went round the group, and the instructor said, “Jump.”

We all looked at him as though he were speaking some indigenous Canadian dialect to which we were not yet privy. “Jump,” he said again. “Like this.” He bent his knees and jumped flat-skated, clearing the ice by a good four inches. We politely stared at him. He jumped again. He glided around the circle while we turned our faces to follow him. “Every one of you is afraid of falling. The first lesson you need to learn is that you can not only get one skate off the ice, but both skates off the ice and nothing bad will happen to you. Now, jump.”

We jumped, but didn’t really jump, if you know what I mean. A sort of wiggly movement so that we appeared to be jumping, but I had NO intention of taking my skates off the ice. “Jump again.” “Again.” “Again.”

It began to dawn on me that the entire first lesson might be jumping, and that we weren’t going home until every one of us jumped. I tried my first real jump. My skates cleared the ice by a at least two millimeters. I landed, but I didn’t fall. Maybe I could try for three millimeters? At the end of half an hour we were all jumping, giggling, and having a wonderful time.

The instructor held out his arms in a beautiful, ballet-like pose, pushed off with one foot, and slid across the ice. “Now, glide.”

Heck, after jumping, gliding was a cinch. Stopping was another matter, but that might wait for another blog.

Those of us who are skating on the writers’ pond right now, face a situation where we are going to have to jump. I have been vaguely aware that questions—even lawsuits—about “digital rights” were out there somewhere, in a hazy future that I might get around to learning something about in, say, 2020. Then someone posted a blog link on one of the mystery lists that made me realize I had to jump now.

What I’ve written between asterisks are strongly person-opinion. Take them with the usual grains of salt.

Personal Opinion #1:
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle (collective)

Whatever way you slice it—geographically, age groups, social strata, ethically, or a category of your choice—technology is global and the global players aren’t going to play by the old rules.

Writers had a foretaste of this in the last century in dealing with Russian publication. Russian publishers would publish books from other countries, and they would sometimes pay the writers royalties, but . . . they paid in Russian currency, through a Russian bank. The money had to be collected in person from that bank, and it had to be spent inside of Russian. One of the few writers to profit from this system was the science fiction writer, Robert Heinlien, who managed a rather extensive Russian tour in 1959-1960 while spending his accumulated Russian royalties.

As writers we can’t rely on the goodness of the other guy to protect our works.

Personal Opinion #2:
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle (individually)

I don’t want to malign any country, so I’m going to set my next example in the country of Ruritania. That’s the country featured in The Prisoner of Zenda, a work now in the public domain, so it can safely be used for hypothetical examples.

Suppose one of my books is floating around in an electronic format. A person in Ruritania downloads a copy and decides to improve it. He adds profanity, hot porn scenes featuring my characters, and a completely different ending.

Can I sue?

For downloading the book, no. For altering the book, yes, but . . . I have to bring the suit in Ruritania, and have it tried according to their laws. If Ruritania doesn't recognize international copyright, I have no case. The guy would be able to do what he wants with a digital copy and he would be able to rebroadcast that digital copy as often, and in as many formats, as he wants.

So the bottom line is, once any of our works go digital, the author has lost control of that work.

Personal Opinion #3:

One bottleneck in the spread of digital rights problems is that technology is slowing the system down. That won't be true for long. The technical future is coming at an exponential rate. In the beginning, there is 1 machine that can suck, zap, rip, or whatever active verb you want to choose to put our books into a digital format.

In the 2nd generation, there are 4 machines,
plus the original 1 = 5 machines
In the 3rd generation, there are 9 machines,
plus the previous 5 = 14 machines
In the 4th generation, there are 16 machines,
plus the previous 14 = 20 machines
In the 5th generation, there are 25 machines,
plus the previous 20 = 45 machines

An important factor is the length of time between generations. For humans, a generation is reckoned to be about 25 years. Not so for electronic gizmos.

Moore’s Law (Gordon E. Moore, Intel co-founder, 1965 paper) first described the trend that transistors double in capacity roughly every two years. That trend has continued for more than fifty years and if it changes, is likely to go faster, not slower. iPod technology doubles roughly every 9 months. Electronic readers are likely to do the same.

So, if the first generation of electronic readers is happening now–did you have a Kindle in your Christmas stocking?—the second generation of digital readers could be on the market as early as September of 2008, the third June 2009, the fourth March 2010, and the fifth December 2010. That’s ten years before I thought I’d even get around to worrying about the digital rights problem.

Yes, yes, I know the drill. Your old eyes will never read an entire book on a screen. You love the feel, the smell, the weight of a real book. They will pry the printed book from your cold, dead fingers. As readers we can treat ourselves to those luxuries. As writers, we can't. If we don't start right now positioning ourselves in the digital world, by December 2010 it might be too late to save any of our books, past, present, or future.

That’s enough personal opinions. It’s not too early to do research, learn some terminology, so we can follow what’s going to happen in the digital rights universe, and so we can begin to ask our agents and publshers, "Where do you stand on digital rights?"

The two links below are lengthy. The second one, in particular, has other links to about 6-10 related articles, and they are all worth looking at. So you might want to set aside a whole day some time soon to bone up on digital rights.

Good old Wikipedia. This will give you some background terminology.

The blog listed below, and the linked articles contained in the blog, gives the most complete summary of the digital rights issues that I’ve seen in a long time.

Instead of a writers’ quote this week, let me wish you a wonderful 2008. All good things to you and yours.

See you on the flip side.

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

This sort of thing is why we have agents. I could never handle it all myself. It's also why we have writers' strikes, and why we should support those who have put their lives on hold to ensure that writers will receive fair compensation for their work in the future.