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Download for our troops! (?)

This Magazine Staff

image courtesy wikipedia
There’s a fantastic event coming up in Toronto at the end of the month. CopyCamp, billed as an unconference for artists about the Internet and the challenge to copyright, looks to bring together working artists and creators from both sides of the current copyright/copyleft debate for open discussions and maybe a bit of a “where are we now?” moment before the Canadian government embarks on the next round of copyright law reform. I’ll be there for part of the conference, asking my usual “and how will the artist be paid?” sort of question, and I anticipate hearing a lot of interesting answers.
Browsing the CopyCamp site, I came across this fascinating post by sci-fi star and Boing Boing editor, Cory Doctorow, in which he relates how American troops stationed on a ship in the Mediterranean have been downloading his books and passing them around below decks. Doctorow provides all of his writing as Creative Commons licensed free downloads on his website, advertises them heavily on Boing Boing, and actually sells a startling number of dead-tree books as a result of this loss leader and viral marketing approach to book selling.
Doctorow insists he sells more books with the free downloading option available to his fans than he would without it, and I believe him, but the jury is still out on whether that success would transfer to other areas of bookselling outside sci-fi (whose natural market dwells on the Internet–somemight even say they are the Internet). Nevertheless, Doctorow’s entrepreneurial model should be intriguing to anyone working in writing and publishing today. I talked my own progressive publisher, Nightwood Editions, into free downloads of portions of my novel, The Uninvited Guest (sample the book for free here). To me, there is no question the benefit of viral Internet marketing on book sales is huge. Discussion on a full-text download of my book continues.
I love the image of American sailors passing loose pages of Doctorow’s stories back and forth, sharing the single copy downloads one of their fellows was smart enough to gather into binders. It reminds me of the banned samizdat texts passed around through networks of friends in the old Soviet bloc (ahem, sort of like what happens in The Uninvited Guest). It fairly reeks of freedom of expression and thought; and I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised the American military does not engage in active download censorship. Especially gratifying because Doctorow writes some pretty subversive fictions.
But something in the economics of this story is not working for me, and I’d like to unpack it a bit and get some other views. As the sailor relates in a letter to Doctorow, “On a ship underway, there’s no room to keep books — unless they’re the ancient, creaking John Grisham paperbacks in the ship’s library – and no time to get some anyway if you’re scrambling around for the couple days of warning you have…”
Okay, if there’s no room on board for a single copy book of Doctorow’s writing, how is there room for a binder filled with loose sheets of paper, which would be larger than a book? Granted, with the binder approach, more sailors can read Doctorow’s book at the same time by passing loose sheets back and forth, but the same effect could be had by buying a single copy, ripping out the pages and passing them around, as was done often with samizdat texts, many of which were necessarily destroyed in the very act of being read.
As well, if the ship has a library, and the military obviously does not mind its troops reading Doctorow (since they are able to download him using military computers), why don’t the troops simply insist their employers stock Doctorow in the shipboard library, instead of the Grisham they seem to despise?
Whose paper is being used to print the downloads? One would presume it is the American military’s paper. Whose binders? And who has paid for the computer and the (presumably very expensive) high-speed Internet infrastructure that allows Doctorow’s loss leader texts to make it into sailors’ hands. This is all American military spending, is it not? Environmentalists might ask whether or not the sailors are printing their downloads double-sided. The arrangement is fraught with difficult questions not normally addressed in the copyright debate.
As an unrepentant social democrat, liberal and lover of peace, I think I would far prefer the American military buy a large stock of Doctorow’s books and provide them free of charge to their troops (one per ship or camp if space is an issue — liberal lending and borrowing allowed). That way an admittedly miniscule portion of the US military budget would go to something that does not blow up yet has the power to change hearts and minds. Doctorow and his publisher would then also be paid, money would flow through the cultural economy and free downloading could continue unabated on the home front.

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