The Real Cost Of Free

Cory Doctorow, photographed by Jonathan Worth (CC)

Cory Doctorow, photographed by Jonathan Worth (CC)

Cory Doctorow delivers a fierce rant defending his beliefs and practices regarding the price of his creative works and his time, at Paid Content (love the irony of the site’s name!):

Last week, my fellow Guardian columnist Helienne Lindvall published a piece headlined The cost of free, in which she called it “ironic” that “advocates of free online content” (including me) “charge hefty fees to speak at events”.

Lindvall says she spoke to someone who approached an agency I once worked with to hire me for a lecture and was quoted $10,000-$20,000 (£6,300-£12,700) to speak at a college and $25,000 to speak at a conference. Lindvall goes on to talk about the fees commanded by other speakers, including Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of a book called “Free” (which I reviewed here in July 2009), Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde and marketing expert Seth Godin. In Lindvall’s view, all of us are part of a united ideology that exhorts artists to give their work away for free, but we don’t practice what we preach because we charge so much for our time.

It’s unfortunate that Lindvall didn’t bother to check her facts. I haven’t been represented by the agency she referenced for several years, and in any event, no one has ever paid me $25,000 to appear at any event. Indeed, the vast majority of lectures I give are free (see here for the past six months’ talks and their associated fees – out of approximately 95 talks I’ve given in the past six months, only 11 were paid, and the highest paid of those was £300). Furthermore, I don’t use an agency for the majority of my bookings (mostly I book myself – I’ve only had one agency booking in the past two years). I’m not sure who the unfortunate conference organiser Lindvall spoke to was – Lindvall has not identified her source – but I’m astonished that this person managed to dig up the old agency, since it’s not in the first 400 Google results for “Cory Doctorow”.

It’s true that my stock response to for-profit conferences and corporate events is to ask for $15,000 on the grounds that almost no one will pay that much so I get to stay home with my family and my work; but if anyone will, I’d be crazy to turn it down. Even so, I find myself travelling more than I’d like to, and usually I’m doing so at a loss.

Why do I do this? Well, that’s the bit that Lindvall really got wrong.

You see, the real mistake Lindvall made was in saying that I tell artists to give their work away for free. I do no such thing.

The topic I leave my family and my desk to talk to people all over the world about is the risks to freedom arising from the failure of copyright giants to adapt to a world where it’s impossible to prevent copying. Because it is impossible. Despite 15 long years of the copyright wars, despite draconian laws and savage penalties, despite secret treaties and widespread censorship, despite millions spent on ill-advised copy-prevention tools, more copying takes place today than ever before.

As I’ve written here before, copying isn’t going to get harder, ever. Hard drives won’t magically get bulkier but hold fewer bits and cost more.

Networks won’t be harder to use. PCs won’t be slower. People won’t stop learning to type “Toy Story 3 bittorrent” into Google. Anyone who claims otherwise is selling something – generally some kind of unworkable magic anti-copying beans that they swear, this time, will really work.

So, assuming that copyright holders will never be able to stop or even slow down copying, what is to be done?

For me, the answer is simple: if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times bestseller list for the past two years.

What should other artists do? Well, I’m not really bothered…

[continues at Paid Content]

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  • http://www.theamericanbookofthedead.com Henry Baum

    I give my books away for free following his model, but this is kind of bullshit:

    For me, the answer is simple: if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) bestseller list for the past two years.

    1. He’s published by Tor, so his books are everywhere. 2. He’s one of the most recognizable brand name writers, so he’s going to sell a lot of book regardless if he gives it away.

    It’s a different world than when he first started giving away books. Now many people have an ereader, meaning if you get the book for free, there’s no reason at all to buy a hardcopy. This is what I’ve seen – I get 100 downloads a day, but my print sales are meager. I don’t mind that, I want to be read, but the Doctorow model probably works best for Cory Doctorow.

  • http://www.theamericanbookofthedead.com Henry Baum

    I give my books away for free following his model, but this is kind of bullshit:

    For me, the answer is simple: if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) bestseller list for the past two years.

    1. He’s published by Tor, so his books are everywhere. 2. He’s one of the most recognizable brand name writers, so he’s going to sell a lot of book regardless if he gives it away.

    It’s a different world than when he first started giving away books. Now many people have an ereader, meaning if you get the book for free, there’s no reason at all to buy a hardcopy. This is what I’ve seen – I get 100 downloads a day, but my print sales are meager. I don’t mind that, I want to be read, but the Doctorow model probably works best for Cory Doctorow.

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