Thursday, December 31, 2009

Staking a Couple Claims

I work on the assumption that there really aren't any new ideas in Science Fiction. Oh, we change the names, but whether your Rambo-esque Galactic War Super Soldier is created by exoskeletal machinery, embedded cyborg stuff, genetic engineering, or nanotech, it's pretty much the same idea, just a different name. For that matter, often "Fantasy" is just another name for "SF," with "magic" replacing "technology" (example: what's the difference between a "scrying spell" and a spy satellite? Just the "genre" note on the spine of the book). So, NO NEW IDEAS. Only Old Ideas in New Combinations. The "New Stuff" in SF is in how it relates to characters, society, how we see the gadgets and people interacting.

Having said that, and having carefully perused The Last Protector to make sure every Sci-Fi gimmick in it had been used in at least a half-dozen prior works (not to mention that "everything in here is a bleepin' cliche!" is the best way to assure you'll never be accused of plagiarism), I fear I may have inadvertently slipped in Something Original. If not a completely new idea, a significant new variation on an old idea. Namely, alcohol-fueled nanotech.

It was kind of a one-shot gag, a way to signal that something weird was going on: Scrornuck, the hero of the piece, knocks back several full-strength beers without getting a buzz, the Breathalyzer(tm)-equivalent machine says his blood alcohol is 0.00%... Obviously something strange is happening, and later on, we find out just where the alcohol went.

But, having read a few nanotech-using SF books of late, I've noticed that I haven't seen anybody else suggest that nanotech might run on alcohol (in fact, nobody seems to be terribly concerned about what it does use for fuel). So I did some Google searches, and again came up dry as Moore County, Tennessee (which, though it's home of the Jack Daniel's distillery, prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages). Indeed, what I found is better represented by this request from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (click here), which is asking only for nanotech that would help determine alcohol levels and concentrations in tissues. Seems to me they're missing the bigger opportunity. Consider this scenario: It's New Year's Eve (which, in fact, it is as I write this). Before going out, you swallow a pill loaded with nanobots (or, alternatively, they're already in your bloodstream doing other useful things). They've been programmed to start consuming alcohol at 12:01 AM. You then party all night, you're pretty far into the bag by the time the ball drops in Times Square, and then... click! Schlurp (on a nano scale, of course)! And at 12:02, you're good to drive home... Think there'd be a market for this kind of nanotech? I do...

I really wish I'd explored the idea of blood-and-tissue-borne, alcohol-powered nanotech a bit further in The Last Protector. Oh, well... there's always the next book... And in the meantime, till I write that book, I'm gonna sit here on this idea and yell like a two-year-old, "MINE! MINE! MINE!"

And in the second Claim I'm Staking this morning, I found the Twitter name MyBeerTalkin wasn't taken. Given the popularity of ShitMyDadSays and similar Twits, I'm astonished. So naturally I grabbed it. Not sure what I'll do with it. Maybe best to let the beer talk...

(Later: Thought about this some more and concluded it's probably not a good idea. Better to let me talk, and let somebody else's beer do the Twitter thing. Beer is a complex subject, not well served by 140 character messages. On to things with some meat on their bones...)

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Today's numbers: 46,253; 159; 195; 51.

No, they're not the winning Lotto numbers; they're the numbers I get when I ask Google how many books are out there with titles that begin "The Last (something or other)." I got curious because I have this book out there called The Last Protector, and I found myself thinking, "I bet there are a bazillion books out there with similar titles." So I did a little checking, and here's what I came up with:
  • 46,253: the number of hits Google returns when you ask it to search for fiction books in the English language whose titles contain "The Last"
  • 159: the number of books Google displays when you start working your way through the results. Why it stops after the first 159 is a mystery to me. Are the other 46,084 all duplicates? And why isn't my book among the 159 it lists?
  • 195 is the number of hits Google returns when you ask it to search for science fiction books whose titles contain "The Last"
  • 51 is the number of books Google actually displays. Again, I have no idea why it doesn't display the other 144 it claims to have found. At least The Last Protector appears among the 51 that Google displays. So, my existence is validated. I think. In the Googleverse, at least.
I'm still puzzling over why The Last Protector doesn't come up in the hit list that Google generates when I look for fiction books whose titles contain "The Last..." The hit in the SF category demonstrates that Google knows the book exists, so I have to wonder--are books only allowed to exist in one category? Is SF not considered a subset of fiction? Does Google somehow think the book isn't in English (that's what I get for using words like "scrornuck")? Or does Google know something I don't--that all the sci-fi stuff I thought I'd made up about alternate universes and time travel and stuff is actually exactly how things work?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Unclear on the Concept (Internet Content Division)

A couple weeks ago I was watching the "Daily Show" over on (because I'm too cheap to buy even basic cable), and the video stream broke for a commercial. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Screen went blank, I got the little "spinning wheel of pain" for ten seconds or so, and then this message appeared:
Let's see if I can list all the things that are just wrong about this...
  • They're apologizing because they can't rot my brain with a commercial--in other words, they assume I'm disappointed because they couldn't shove a brain-rotting ad in my face
  • They're giving me advice about how to make sure I won't miss the next commercial--in other words, they assume I have such a desire to watch ads that I'll actually screw around with my computer's settings so the ads come in properly
  • And they think I'll email their support folks if I'm unable to receive all the mind-numbing commercials I'm entitled to
This just might be a new record in the category of Unclear On The Concept. Or, perhaps, a sign of the extent to which our society is hooked on advertising. After all, it's said that people who hate football still have Super Bowl parties--to sit and watch the ads. And a few weeks back, as part of the marketing campaign for the movie Avatar, Fox TV ran an ad on Sunday night, reminding people to tune in Monday night to see... an ad for the movie.

A society that hooked on advertising is just a little scary, folks...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Lengthy Pontification About Copyright

Been reading a lot lately about copyright issues. Y'know, "piracy" of recordings, electronic books, movies, and so forth; debates over the wisdom of digital rights management technology; strange stories like the one in which Amazon had to silently delete some books from its customers' Kindle machines because Amazon had erroneously assumed George Orwell's work was in the public domain. Or the stories of huge record companies suing little old ladies whose idea of "contemporary music" is still Al Jolson, because their grandkids had downloaded bootleg copies of Metallica's latest (I found the last one hard to believe--Metallica's fans are of my generation, old enough to have grandkids, not to be grandkids...). It's a strange situation indeed. Almost chaos.

As an author with a book out in the marketplace, I have a certain vested interest in seeing the current copyright system continue. I like those royalty checks (and I'd like 'em more if they were bigger. Click one of those links to the right, please...). But I also spent twenty-six years of my life in the telecom and software industry, where I learned a lot about the nature of digital technology. And I made the mistake of studying history. In the process, I learned a few things.

First: copyright isn't something handed down on stone tablets atop Mount Sinai. It's a human invention, a means to an end--in particular, a way for people to turn their creativity into food, shelter and maybe even a few luxuries of life. And this is to be encouraged, because since at least the days of Hammurabbi we've believed that it's good for civilization for us to encourage creative people. This is specifically mentioned in the US Constitution, which says the purpose of copyrights and patents is To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. 

Second: the definition of copyright has changed over time, in response to changes in culture and particularly changes in technology. Before the development of large-scale printing technology, "copyright" meant, literally, the right to make a copy of a document. The classic case, in seventh-century Ireland, was decided along the precedent of animal husbandry: "to every cow its calf; to every book its copy." That is, if you loaned somebody your cow, you still owned any calves that cow produced while in your neighbor's custody. In the same way, if you loaned your precious codex to your neighbor, and he made (by hand) a copy of it, the copy was rightfully yours unless you'd made some prior arrangement. For instance, perhaps you'd allow the borrower to make two copies, one of which was to be returned to you and the other of which the borrower could keep. Or maybe you'd let somebody else copy your book in return for being allowed to make a copy of something from their library. This made sense in a time when books were copied by hand, and each copy was therefore precious. 

Our current system of intellectual property (the creator owns not just the physical artifact, but the very words themselves) and per-copy royalties derives directly from properties of printing technology. In particular, the master/copy relationship created by the printing plates. The master (the plate) is expensive, but it creates an unlimited number of cheap copies. That's what gives the words themselves their value, and establishes both the concept of owning the words and the concept of per-copy royalties. In addition, because you can't make cheap copies without the master (ever try to photocopy an out-of-print book?), it's easy to prevent piracy: you just keep the plates locked up in a safe place. And, for additional security, you make unauthorized possession of plates a crime (every now and then you'll hear of someone arrested for possession of printing plates that could be used to make counterfeit money--even if the perp has not actually printed any bogus cash. Possession of the plates is sufficient to prove guilt).

This has been a pretty robust system for making money off books, and in the last century we've found it extends well to things like photographs, movies and recorded music--largely because the technologies used for these media have the critical properties of the printed book (photos and movies use a negative, which can be kept secure; vinyl records were stamped from a hard-to-produce master; CDs and DVDs are mass-produced by a photographic process). 

But the times they are a-changing, and that brings me to my next discovery.

Third: digital technology breaks the model created by the printing plate. In the digital world, any copy can be a master for making more copies. Oh, you can try to make this harder with DRM or proprietary encodings or copy-protect scrambling... but at some point, the data has to go into the clear so the customer can use it, and at that point it can be hijacked. You can pass Draconian laws against copying (or even possessing the technology to copy, as in the "Digital Millenium Copyright Act"), but they're hard to enforce when the underlying technology says, "go ahead and copy; it's easy!" And anyway, when you get to the point of prosecuting and suing the very people who should be your best customers, you kinda suspect your business model's got a problem.

So, what's going to happen? I believe that copyright as we know it is going to change, whether we like it or not. We're going to have to find a new way to transform creativity into cash. We already see some signs of this, particularly in the music field: Apple's iTunes Store model is built around the idea that you sell the stuff so cheaply that most of your customers will just buy the song rather than going to the effort of locating, downloading, and disinfecting a bootleg copy. Radiohead's experiment in "set your own price" (on the album "In Rainbows") demonstrated that people will pay for something they can get for free (thus shooting the knees out from under classic economic theory). Over in China, where just about everything is pirated, performers accept that they won't make money selling discs, so they make their money in sponsorships instead. Back in this country, Prince experimented with simply giving the disc to everybody who bought a concert ticket, turning the disc into a ticket-selling tool.

Similar things are happening in the publishing industry. Some publishers give away free downloads--often early books by an author who's got something new out in print, or perhaps the first book in a multi-volume series. Baen's got a whole library of SF (both classic and brand new) that you can download for free. Authors put them up voluntarily, in the belief that at some point you'll part with some cash because you like a particular author's work. How about books derived from movies or video games, sold for cheap (or perhaps given away entirely) and financed by sales of the DVDs or game cartridges? How about books financed through product placement? For that matter, it might be interesting to experiment with the "name your own price" scheme that Radiohead used.

There are lots of possibilities--all we need to do is go back to the basic question of "how do I turn my creativity into money?" and the constraint that once it's in digital form, it's going to be freely copied. With those things in mind, a new model of copyright (or perhaps many new models) will emerge.

I think it will be fairly easy for creators and consumers to arrive at a new model for their business relationship; I think it's already happening (again, consider "In Rainbows"). It's the middlemen--publishing companies, record companies, and so forth--who'll have to make the biggest adjustment, because the whole system of middlemen grew and evolved in a way that optimized it to the intellectual property/royalty business model. This is particuarly true of the biggest middlemen, the ones who operate on the "blockbuster" model (in which "success" is defined as "at least a million copies sold"). That model is so optimized to the IP/royalty environment that I wonder if companies built around it will still be around in twenty years.

Smaller middlemen, such as small/medium press publishers and indie record companies, will probably adjust much more easily. They still provide a valuable service of finding the good stuff (contrary to the beliefs of some in the self-publishing universe, I don't think the vast majority of readers are going to start paying for the privilege of rooting through the slush pile), and polishing it into a ready-for-prime-time form. But the future is going to be different, I suspect.

Hey, a new model of copyright is one of those things that only comes along every several centuries. It's going to be an adventure. We should be trying to enjoy it.