Will you go the f*** to a bookstore?

CNET has a neat interview with author Adam Mansbach, who wrote the now-viral release valve for frustrated parents, Go the F*** to Sleep.  Between YouTube videos of the leaked galley copy and an audiobook version read by professional badass Samuel L. Jackson, the book has been shared, forwarded, posted on Facbook walls and – ultimately – bought.

The leaked galley copy made its way around the web awfully quick:

Mansbach, a novelist, never intended the world to be able to see his book, for free, online, and before the print version was available. “To show how Web-savvy we were, ” he says self-deprecatingly, “We were trying to do cease and desist orders at first.”… And clearly, there’s more to the success of “Go the F*** to Sleep” than its accidental marketing campaign. Mansbach realizes that it’s the product itself, which touches a deep nerve with parents, that’s at least as important to its success. As the full PDF version of the book circulated, he says, “People were able to see that we delivered on the promise of the premise. That it wasn’t a one-note joke. It was beautiful, an art object.”

Mansbach notes that while he doesn’t support piracy in general, it worked in this campaign.  Like a new band that got discovered giving away downloaded songs on MySpace five years ago (or Napster ten years ago), there was a value in giving away content.  Since most purchases of the book will probably be gag gifts for parents of infants or young children, having the book out there doesn’t hurt sales.  No one is going to skip out on buying the book because Samuel L. Jackson spoiled the ending.

Piracy is wrong, because a writer should have control over his or her own work.  That said, the accidental marketing ploy represents something that every political or product campaign sees as the Holy Grail: people genuinely liking what the campaign is trying to sell and telling their friends.  That only works when the content is good – and when the content is good, letting it speak for itself may be the best marketing there is.

The “digital age” made me do it

The New York Times ran an interesting story this weekend under the headline, “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age.”   The gist is that that the prevalence of content on the internet has actually devalued the concept of original work – and given a generation of schoolgoers the impression that ideas can be plucked out of the air and included in their term papers:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

The article cites students who copy whole passages from Wikipedia or unabashedly swipe from articles without attribution or citation.

Blaming the internet for changing behavior is one thing, but it doesn’t change human nature.

The concept of cheating a plagiarizing has been around since one cavekid copied another cavekid’s cave wall drawings to get a better cave-grade.  (You can bet your saber-tooth tiger pelt that Thag would have based his drawing on cave-Wikipedia if such a thing had existed.)  To see an even clearer example, look at music piracy: recording mixes on cassettes and sharing songs with friends was a common practice, file sharing services just made it easier and digital.

Take the computers and internet connections away from every dorm room and class room, and some students will still cheat.  So, you can look at the advent of the so-called digital age in two ways.  Sure, it’s easier than ever for some students to take the easy way out and try to get by without putting in the work.

On the other hand, has it ever been easier to catch them doing it?

Viacom, YouTube, and what it means for innovation

YouTube’s victory in Viacom’s piracy lawsuit will be, in the long term, a good thing for online innovation.

Almost a decade ago, Napster was dismantled because its users shared songs.  The technology it was based on was neutral – and could have been used to share legal sound files just as easily as illegal files.  But the technology became the target of content creators – musicians – concerned about people using the technology for piracy.

Blaming Napster because people used it to do something illegal is like blaming a hotel because someone turned a room into a meth lab.  The same analogy can be used for YouTube’s situation: they built the rails for video sharing.  People could use that to share a bootleg copy of Shrek 8, thus cheating Mike Myers out of his cut of the domestic gross or DVD sales.  They could also use it to share a video of a cat falling off the bed, or to create a video blog, or to jump start a comedy career, or to reveal a Congressman roughing up a college kid, or a Senator uttering something that sounds like a racial slur and changing the course of the 2008 Presidential election.

To be clear, YouTube should be held accountable for helping police piracy when concerns are brought to their attention, just as a hotel owner should cooperate with warrant-bearing law enforcement officials investigating meth distribution that seems to be coming from their hotel.  The people dealing meth should be punished.  If the hotel stonewalls and knowingly protects said meth dealers, they should be punished.  But otherwise, the hotel owner is just someone providing a product for private use, and can’t be held liable for its mis-use.

There are, of course, legitimate questions about how important Google feels it is to do right by the people it makes money off of – and the dicey question of how much knowledge a site can have of the activity before it makes a move.  But the result of the Google/Viacom case has less to do with a clash of the corporate titans than with shielding future start ups from liability (and excessive damages) for honest efforts to build online social networks.  If start up sites are held liable for their members’ illegal activities, it could crush innovation and entrepreneurship.  Under the Napster rules, some poor schmuck who isn’t as big as Google could lose his shirt for building a website in his basement because of the actions of the users.  The YouTube rules are simply more fair.

This week’s buzz about Google

I joined Google Buzz this week.  It was easy – I didn’t have to do anything except log in to GMail.  Google had transformed my private email – including my contact list (which it automatically populates based on my email traffic) into a social networking experience, a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter.  After several privacy complaints, Google made opting out of certain features a bit easier.  It’s still a little creepy.

Tellingly, Buzz allows you to integrate your Twitter feed but not for Facebook profile – another sign of the coming Armageddon between Google and Facebook, which Google will likely get to right after their fight with Apple and possibly after their fight with Microsoft.

How big is Google?  There were three separate stories about Google which made headlines this week.  That’s not three articles – but three separate issues which made news independent of each other.  First was the aforementioned Google Buzz; second was Google’s plan to become an internet service provider; and now comes news that Google is butting heads with the Department of Justice over intellectual property rights of authors as part of their ongoing effort  to become a latter-day, digital Library of Alexandria.

That these are all separate issues leads to them becoming one issue.  Google is seeking to define how you get to the internet, how you communicate with others, and what information/content you receive.  If this scenario continues on the same logical course, Google would become to the internet what AT&T was to the telephone networks before it was broken up by a federal antitrust suit in 1984.

Is Google at risk of an anti-trust lawsuit?  Possibly, but they have certainly done their best to make inroads with the government that would prevent that from happening.  The relationship between Google and the current administration is well-documented.

And if you believe the balance of power in Washington will tip back to Republicans in 2010 or 2012, Google is ready for that to – they are sponsoring TechRepublican’s Digital Boot Camp at CPAC this year.

Google: booking it out of China?

The big technology news today is that Google is threatening to leave China, leading to a wave of speculation on what that may mean for both the gatekeeper of internet information and the Chinese economy.

On the surface, Google has said this is about human rights and cyber attacks – which are likely, at least, factors in their decision. But this isn’t the first time Google’s China operation has been in the news in the last few weeks.  Recall that Google’s efforts to make all books available online has run afoul of copyright holders in China (as it has here in the States) and even spawned a lawsuit.  Negotiations on what Google would pay the authors of the works it scanned and made available to search users were subsequently put on hold.

While Google’s exit strategy is a good way to draw attention to human rights, in the end it may be a way to beat the Library Cops.

(Disclosure: I have worked in a minor role on projects involving Google’s book settlement in the past, although I do not now.)

Settling up campaign debts

The AP is suing Shepherd Fairey for illegally using one of their images for his now-famous “Hope” illustration of Barack Obama. As my favorite journalism professor at UMass used to say, you can’t spell “cheap” without AP. The Associated Press wants compensation for the use of their photo.

The compensation claim is difficult. Fairey has clearly benefited from the exposure gained through his portrait, but received little if any compensation from the image itself – since Fairey’s goal was to elect Barack Obama, he allowed the image to be used freely. The biggest benefactor of the image was Barack Obama.

If there’s any cash left in his $750 million campaign coffers, it might be nice to use some to help Fairey out – especially since the image was the basis for the official inauguration poster and buttons designed by the Obama transition team.

Of course, they might wonder – as I do – why the AP is bringing up the controversy now when the image saw its heaviest use months and months ago during the campaign.

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Imagine no possessions

As I alluded to previously, YouTube is cracking down on videos that use copyrighted tracks. This has led to some backlash. Rick Hodgin at TGDaily posed the question, “What if intellectual property laws were rolled back – so there were no copyrights, patents, or digital rights management (DRM) software?”

In discussing the upside of this ideal, Hodgin paints the same picture as John Lennon’s “Imagine“: “Imagine all the people / sharing all the world.” The problem is that taking away the financial incentive for creativity will, because of human nature, reduce the number of people who attempt to be creative. And where financial interests are concerned, a no-intellectual-property policy favors those with money. Hodgin illustrates this with a flawed example:

“Suppose you’re into model airplanes and would like to build and sell those craft for a living, but don’t know as much as you should about design? Why not take someone else’s design, copy it and sell it? They have just as much opportunity to sell it as you do.”

In this scenario, the “Big Corporation” is more likely to be the party that takes someone else’s design, copies it, and sells it. An independent engineer may come up with a good design, but may could not finance mass production as easily as Boeing or some Lockheed-Martin.

There are reasons that companies who own the rights to music should want their music to appear – even unlicensed – on YouTube. And there are many creative ways that music is used.

You can’t force someone to give up his or her property for others to use, even if it’s in the owner’s best interest. (Well, sometimes you can, but you shouldn’t be able to.) The good news, though, is that an owner’s best interest is usually a good enough selling point. It’s happening in the music world, where companies like Amazon and eMusic have become extraordinarily successful selling DRM-free music. Even Apple’s iTunes – for years a symbol of limiting the use of downloaded music – has relaxed its DRM policies.

So it’s that financial incentive for creativity which will spur more creativity for distribution – which, in the digital world, will eventually mean more materials available for wider use.

Imagine that. I wonder if you can.

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