Live from ETech: Cory Doctorow and e-books…

02/12/2004

Warning: What follows makes increasingly little sense. Day Three Proper of ETech has resulted in a certain lack of mental flexibility and a weird warm grinding feeling at the temples as my over-saturated lobes rub together…

So in a few weeks I’m presenting a piece on e-publishing and weblogs at the London Book Fair. To be honest, I’ve never understood the compound, “e-publishing”. It seems to mean different things to different people at different times. For most people it seems to bear little or no relationship to what I consider publishing online – ie. those content-rich sites like BBC News Online and TimeOut.com or weblog-style stuff or in fact anything browser-readable, but instead just that highly narrow field of e-book publishing (generally considered as some kind of proprietary text-based format glued into a PDA or piece of dedicated e-book-reading hardware / software). In a nutshell, then, I didn’t really consider it terribly interesting.

I was surprised, then, to see Cory Doctorow talking on the subject at Emerging Tech. I mean, obviously I knew that he’d released his books online under a Creative Commons license and obviously I’d known that had been quite a successful and publicity-garnering thing to have done, but – to be honest – I’d somehow never really made the connection between that and “e-books”. In my mind an e-book was little more than a species of niche electronic emphemera designed to sit within a tiny ecosystem of highly-tech-friendly but not particularly tech-savvy over-monied poseurs. So, why would that have any connection with Cory? I mean – he basically slapped the plain-text of the book onto the web. Which is – you know – useful. Where’s the connection?

Forty-five minutes later, of course, and my views are different. It’s not that Cory said that much which was alien to my sensibility or world-view – in a sense he’s preaching to the converted – but I’ve now got slightly more of an understanding of the publishing of books ‘electronically’ as a spectrum rather than as a set of rather problematic models in competition with each other. Which demonstrates, I guess, what a dumbass I was fifty minutes ago. Still… I guess it’s good that I can face up to that, right?

Anyway – I’ve stuck up my personal transcript and understanding of his piece and I recommend everyone read it.

More importantly, Cory did a really cool thing just before getting off-stage – he’s releasing even more of the rights to “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” under a Creative Commons license. Originally it was just free to distribute, but not to change or undertake any derivative works. But now – as long as it’s uncommercial – he’s freed up derivative works as well. This is more important than it might sound – it means that individuals can make t-shirts or badges on the one hand (as long as it’s non-commercial), but more significantly, they can now make and distribute reader translations of the book without trouble and they can even write fan-fiction and slash without any trouble – just as long as these translations and derivative works are distributed under the same terms. Very interesting and worthy of considerable celebration and approval. More later…