Prime Palaver #5

Letters to the Librarian

Eric Flint

September 1, 2001

 

As a rule, as will be obvious to anyone who's read anything I've posted here, I fall on what you might call the "free and loose" side of the debate on electronic "piracy."  (I put the term in quotation marks because it's an absurd term to begin with.  Pirates are murderers, rapists and robbers. Online "pirates" are brats stealing chewing gum and scribbling graffiti on garage doors.)

Occasionally, however, some blithering idiot mistakes my position for his own. So I get, from time to time, letters of "congratulations" which reflect the failure of the sender to have either understood my position or much of anything else involved in the issue.

Normally, I respond to these with a polite demurral and an explanation of the error involved.  Now and then, however, the attitude of the sender pisses me off enough that I let 'em have it. At which point, invariably, they complain bitterly about my "rudeness."

Indeed, the sender of the two letters posted below who shall remain anonymous complained about my responses. He informed me sternly that I clearly lacked "people skills," and that was no doubt the reason I found volunteer labor less efficient than professional.

No doubt. I bow to his wisdom. (I did not bother to respond to that final sally.) But I remain astonished at people who think they can begin a response to a point of mine by saying (see below) Bullshit! and then get outraged when my own response is equally sharp.

I swear to God, what is wrong with some people? If you choose to play hardball with me, fine. But no complain because I sent a fastball across the plate. Wait'll you see the slider...

For whatever purpose it might serve deter cocksure jackasses, if nothing else I am posting below the exchange I had with this charming fellow. His messages are in italics, mine in regular font.

Eric Flint

To: Librarian@baen.com

Sent: Friday, August 10, 2001 12:51 PM

Subject: a huge irony

There is a HUGE irony in Larry Niven having an ebook available for download thru the wonderful Baen electronic library... You see, Larry (along with Harlan Ellison...and I forget who the 3rd person was) just last week was involved in shutting down one of the better private FTP sites that specialised in ebooks.

As a direct result, many people have sworn to NEVER AGAIN *BUY* a book by any of these authors. As far as the ebook newsgroup and FTP users were concerned, Larry et.al. had just burned the local library.

Because as is implied in the essay on the Library "Home" page, that's exactly what ebooks are (regardless of origin or distribution control): library books. Free samples for trying out authors we might otherwise never read; free use for people who can't afford to buy books in ANY form. Either way, future sales for any author who gains new readers. Take away the library, and it DISCOURAGES reading now and in the future.

Readers buy books. No readers, no sales. D'oh!!

And yes, there are a few authors who fervently wish libraries were outlawed (including at least two major SF writers I know of, one of whom said so to my face!) but we'll leave them to their dark ages.

ERIC'S RESPONSE:

I don't know the details of the case you're talking about, but I'm wondering if what was involved is that the site did not ask Niven's permission. If so, then he has my blessing. You should not misunderstand my position. My books belong to me, not to anyone who chooses to steal them. And theft does not stop being theft simply because technology makes it easy. What would you think if I advanced the proposition that we should eliminate the concept of "murder" because some poisons are undetectable? Or that rape using drugs is not "really" rape because the victim doesn't remember it?

Bah. These are the sophistries of villains, as Heinlein once put it.

My books are the product of MY labor, not yours or anyone else. If I choose, as I did with the Free Library, to donate them for free public use, that's one thing. If someone else chooses, without my permission, to make a pirate copy of them that's another thing entirely. Mind you, in practice I probably wouldn't bother to do anything about it unless the site involved was trying to make money from selling my work. But the moral issue is unequivocal. I have nothing but contempt for the "information wants to be free" bullshit. That's the prattle of ignorant juvenile delinquents (who don't, as a rule, even have the excuse of being juveniles).

Eric Flint

PS. As for Niven, he has expressed to me in emails his basic agreement with the philosophy behind the Free Library. Which is why I suspect that you're giving me a very one-sided picture of what happened in the case of this unspecified site.

SECOND EXCHANGE:

Original Message

To: Librarian@baen.com

Sent: Friday, August 10, 2001 1:06 PM

Subject: and as to out of print titles...

You say in one of the letters columns:

[NOTE from EF: what follows immediately is a quote from something I wrote.]

"I well understand the reasons that people would like to see OP titles in the Library. So would I. But you also have to understand the practical realities involved. The problem with "long lost" titles is that they are relatively expensive to put into electronic format, because they usually don't exist in that form. That means a lot of "hand labor" scanning in the old hardcopy, proofing them, etc. Or, even if they do exist in electronic format, unless it's something that Baen Books published recently (when it started doing everything "in house") the material has to be obtained from someone else, who will charge money for it."

Bullshit! Go to any of the more active ebook newsgroups and request a book, and someone who owns it in hardcopy will VOLUNTEER to scan it. And if you ask, eventually someone else will VOLUNTEER to proofread it... It may not get done this instant, but who cares, it's not like out of print books care if they're made available this instant or next month or next year, and whaddya want for free??

These people are EXPERIENCED at the task; they're hardly amateurs. So long as you won't be charging for the resulting download, they'd be happy to help. Why not take advantage of an existing labour pool that is also a reading audience and potential to expand your customer base?

Yeah, there's a lot of hand labour involved. But it doesn't have to cost Baen a single red cent. And guess what, it would garner Baen a lot of goodwill, which means more future customers, because no matter how they first encountered a given work, ultimately, readers all BUY books.

(I tellya, sometimes the corporate mindset is SOOOO blinkered...)

 

ERIC'S RESPONSE:

Well, I hadn't read this letter before I addressed the first, or my response would have been a lot less polite. Let me try to explain to you — pearls before swine, I suspect — what the moral issue involved is.

Has it ever occurred to you, in your solipsistic paradise, that such labor as proof-reading is done by real people — with bills to pay, just like you? What you propose, on one level, is that I substitute the systematic use of unpaid labor for theirs. Leaving aside the fact that doing so would be illegal (a major violation of minimum wage laws, for starters), I wouldn't do it in a million years anyway.

Leaving aside the ethical issues, because it would also be completely impractical. I can, in good conscience, use some volunteer labor for some projects which would never be done otherwise. Such as getting Niven et. al's FALLEN ANGELS into the Library. But leaving aside everything else, such volunteer labor is incredibly time-consuming and inefficient. You pronounce in your letter that such volunteers are "hardly amateurs." What a laugh! My friend, I have worked with volunteer scanners and proof-readers, when it was appropriate. The amount of extra work it loads on me is enormous. The work is NEVER done anywhere nearly as smoothly and as well as it is by professionals.

This is not a sneer at volunteers, it's simply a recognition of reality. (If you don't believe me, by the by, take a look at the "quality" of most of the stuff which is put on line by thieves.) Arrogant as people like you invariably are, you seem to think that anybody can easily do a good job of scanning and proof-reading old books. I can assure you, as someone with considerable experience at it, that the opposite is very much the case.

But let us pursue the matter further. The issue gets deeper. If I become dependent on volunteer labor to accomplish something, then I also willy-nilly make myself a hostage to the whims and opinions of my volunteers. This poses no insurmountable problem, perhaps, in certain kinds of charity work. But, dealing with publication, it would constitute a massive threat to freedom of the press. Not an immediate one, of course, but a corrosive agent does not stop being corrosive simply because it takes some time to work.

The existence of such "humdrum" folks as the professionals who do all the behind-the-scenes labor involved in publication is, I have no doubt, beneath contempt for such magnificent personages as yourself. But drive them out of existence and you have destroyed one of the prerequisites of freedom of the press as a practical proposition. To wit, that if I can put together the wherewithal to publish something, I can publish whatever I want because I can pay someone to do the work that I can't do. I don't have to cater to anyone.

Let's go further still. I didn't bother to deal with it in my letter that you cite, because I thought it was self-evident. Obviously it is not, since you are clearly oblivious to the fact (established by law, as well as morally correct) that I cannot simply at MY will choose — using whatever form of labor — to reissue whatever O/P title strikes my fancy. Except for something which is already in the public domain, those titles belong to someone else (or their estate) and I would first have to obtain their permission to do so. As a rule, that requires paying them.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, sir. You advance a proposal which presupposes that you can get what you want for "free." Well, it may be "free" to you but it certainly isn't free to anyone else. It's not free, first, for the person (or their heirs) who did the initial work of writing the book.  Or do you think that books spring full-blown from the brow of their creator, without labor, as happens in mythology? And it's certainly not free for me, because your proposal blithely assumes that I will be willing to donate many hours of my labor gratis for your entertainment.

What gives you that presumption? I know what I'm talking about, too. I spent, at a guess, three times as many hours getting Niven et. al.'s FALLEN ANGELS into the Library as I did for any other title. Why? Precisely because, in that instance, I had to use volunteer labor. Mind you, I much appreciate the effort those volunteers made. All credit to them. But only someone who lives in a virtual universe thinks that volunteer labor is anywhere close to being as efficient as professional labor. And all the various "dropped stitches" had to be fixed... by me, or by the two other PROFESSIONALS who donate some of their labor to the Library. For which neither I nor they got paid anything.

And now you insist that we do this on a full time basis? For what possible purpose, pray tell? So that you can be spared the horror and indignity of paying a few bucks for some books? And, meanwhile, we can't pay our mortgages — and I'm quite certain you aren't volunteering to pay it for us.

Get a life. Or don't, I can't say I really care. But do not presume to encroach on mine.

Eric Flint