On the Right to Copy

At AE, we wear our obsessions on our sleeve. Our name, AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, tells you almost all you need to know about us. Even our domain name, aescifi.ca, packs a dense reminder of these same core elements. But today I’d like to talk about something that is not so obvious at first glance but is equally important to us: the legend at the bottom of each page that declares that all content is published under a Creative Commons license.

At AE, we wear our obsessions on our sleeve. Our name, AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, tells you almost all you need to know about us. Even our domain name, aescifi.ca, packs a dense reminder of these same core elements. But today I’d like to talk about something that is not so obvious at first glance but is equally important to us: the legend at the bottom of each page that declares that all content is published under a Creative Commons license.

You’ve probably seen Creative Commons statements before on the Web: on blogs, Flickr streams and other personal sites. They’re examples of how Web can be a wonderfully open community where “share and share alike” is often taken as a fundamental principle. But if you visit almost any site with professional content and substantial traffic, you’ll find a very different story. Organizations that pay for their content tend to be less generous with their investments in the hopes of extracting as much monetary value as they can yield. And after all, AE is a professional market with responsibilities to our contributors and a budget to meet. So choosing to release our content under these terms means something very different for us than it does for a personal blog. You may well wonder: How can we presume to impose such licensing on our authors and how do we square this with the fact of being a commercial enterprise?

Well, it’s something that we believe makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, not only for our readers, but also for our authors and for us as publishers.

First, let’s get a few things out of the way about what Creative Commons does not mean, at least here at AE. It is not about giving up authorship in a grand crowdsourcing experiment à la Amazon Studios. Nor is it an invitation for anyone to remix the content published here into derivative works. (Both of these activities can be both creative and laudable — I’m listening to Girl Talk’s latest album while writing this and sometimes find it hard to imagine how we ever got by without Wikipedia — and these things are covered by other CC licenses, but they’re not part of AE’s mission.)

And it is most emphatically not about creators surrendering their rights to their work, or feeding the delusion that just because something is on the Web, it’s free to claim as your own with a simple ctrl-C, ctrl-V. We believe strongly in creators’ rights; indeed, Creative Commons, like any license (including traditional publishing contracts), depends on the concept of copyright.

The rights that our license grants are, in a nutshell, the right to copy and redistribute the stories and articles on this site without modification, with full attribution to the original author, for noncommercial uses only.

By Creative Commons standards, this is a fairly conservative stance, but it is still an unusual policy for a paying magazine to adopt, so let me explain why we chose this model for AE. It comes from something that we take to be a universal truth: that stories are made to be shared. It’s the reason we write them down or tell them around a campfire. Arguably, it’s the reason we developed language in the first place. By extension, we believe that it’s one of the primary reasons that writers seek publication.

Most publishers do a good job of helping creators find a wider audience than most individuals can do on their own, but they do this through practices that all but guarantee that they will fail to reach the widest possible audience — by excluding potential readers (and viewers and listeners) who can’t or won’t pay the price of admission. This isn’t surprising — it’s business, after all. But take the enormous volume of new content being published every day, and combine that with the cost of shelf space in stores and limited warehouse space for publishers. The upshot of this state of affairs is that new works usually have only a few weeks to establish themselves before they are displaced by the next wave of hopefuls. Ironically, it’s often the publishers themselves who end up destroying the books they worked so hard to produce in the first place: They can’t sell them (or not quickly enough), and they can’t continue to store them, not when there are more titles coming in from the printers.

Being a digital publication frees us from the tyranny of atoms and the high cost of storing them. Practically speaking though, there is nothing being published today, including print-only publications, that doesn’t exist in digital form. Too many publishers are slow to embrace the benefits of digital distribution. They’re stuck in a kind of atom-based thinking, where they control the production of each book artifact and they can ensure that if they can’t make money off of it, no one can have it. So they invest in DRM technologies that are hostile to their paying customers and ineffective against their purported enemies. It’s as if they’ve forgotten their reason for existence.

To us, it’s plain that one of the most important things we can do is not to be a barrier between our authors and their potential readers. And we mean all of our authors, not the leading edge of those we’re publishing at the moment. If someone, years from now, hears of a story we published in Issue #1, we want that story to be available. For we understand that one of the biggest challenges for authors is simply getting noticed in the sea of content that is out there and continually growing. For readers, it’s discovering the few works in that sea that really speak to you, those life-changing stories. Each time such a connection is thwarted by the words “out of print” is a tragedy. Every time we’re able to consummate that transaction, everyone wins. And as much as we would like to think that aescifi.ca and all the content on it will continue to be here generation after generation, until either the Apocalypse or the Singularity comes, we can’t guarantee that on our own that these stories will be available in perpetuity.

In Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, books are all but lost to the world due to draconian censorship by the government. But in reality we lose books and other creative works every day because there is no one with the motivation, ability and clear permission to ensure that they continue to be available. The only extant copies of works are allowed to decay either because their owners find it unprofitable to preserve them (but are unwilling to cede the right to another party) or worse, because no definitive owner can be located. These “orphan works” are left in a limbo from which they’re unlikely ever to be rescued. And the danger is no less for digital works, which can suffer from physical degradation of the media on which they’re stored, or obsolescence of storage technologies. The best defence against this is to make copies — lots of them — and to spread them far and wide. And the best way to achieve that is not to prohibit the people who love these stories from making faithful copies.

By now I hope it’s clear how our authors and readers benefit from Creative Commons, both now and in the future. It may still seem like an idealistic stand for a publisher to take, verging on the naive. It’s true that we’re willing to sacrifice a bit of profit in the name of idealism. But more than that, it’s our belief that by acting in the best interests of our contributors and our readers, we’ll develop a more sustainable business model than most traditional publishers. The ever-insightful Tim O’Reilly wrote a remarkable essay on this topic from the point of view of a publisher that is as true today as during the height of the P2P panic in 2002. It’s mainly remembered for the wise and pithy observation that “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy,” but it also offers a compelling argument that publishers who spend more time, energy and resources trying to fight illegal copying than serving their customers are the ones facing an uphill battle.

We’re still in the early stages of AE and we won’t always be a Web-only publication. We have plans to bring out print and eBook editions and other activities that are more conducive to the traditional publishing way of doing business. But we won’t give up the principles of free access and we won’t forget that when you copy and share the stories you find here, you’re only helping us to fulfill our mission.

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