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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dept. of Mixed Bags: MY TINY LIFE Is Free At Last!  
I am pleased to announce that my first book, the widely cited but long out-of-print MY TINY LIFE: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World (Being a True Account of the Case of the Infamous Mr. Bungle and the Author's Journey, in Consequence Thereof, to the Heart of a Half-Real World Called LambdaMOO), can now be downloaded in its entirety in a handsomely formatted PDF edition, completely free of charge. Or, if you prefer, the fine folks at Lulu will package up a perfect-bound paperback version for you at the shockingly reasonable price of only $17.48 ($5 of which goes straight to me). Either way, you get what for the last eight years or so could not be had for love or money: A brand new and fully authorized copy of MY TINY LIFE, yours to read, lend, dog-ear, shelve, and otherwise make use of in whatever way your heart desires and copyright permits.

I am pleased to announce this, yes, but I'll be honest with you: I'm not nearly as pleased as I was hoping I'd be.

I was hoping, actually, to make a rather grander announcement, one that I've been looking forward to through years of anxious and improbably complicated preparation but now, at last, should probably just hand-deliver straight to the shitcan of my broken dreams. I was going to announce today that MY TINY LIFE had been liberated -- not merely launched anew but born again under a Creative Commons "copyleft" license and thus set loose for any passing amateur to upload, remix, mashup, and otherwise repurpose in all the many fruitful ways that copyright, precisely, fails to permit.

Except it hasn't. And while the long, sad tale of how it came to this could easily be reduced to a couple sentences (and probably should), I'm going to risk a fuller telling now because, well, there's the off chance I am not the only person on the planet for whom it's news that carving out a little open space in the midst of the existing intellectual-property regime could possibly be as difficult as this.

What makes the story so especially dispiriting to me, I guess, is that I came to it supplied not only with the best intentions but with the greatest of allies. It was Lawrence Lessig -- the Creative Commons founder and rock-star legal theorist -- who got the whole thing rolling, back in mid-2003. Creative Commons, he told me at the time, was in talks with Google and the Stanford Library about some kind of joint free-the-books initiative, which was going to be announced sometime in the very near future with due fanfare and a featured list of newly CC-licensed titles. What would it take, he asked, to get MY TINY LIFE included in that list?

Not much, I told him. For one thing, even if my publisher, Henry Holt, didn't like the idea, there wasn't a whole lot they could do about it: They'd let MY TINY LIFE go out of print, which meant, contractually, that all I had to do was ask for the publishing rights back and they were mine. For another thing, even if I hadn't been completely thrilled myself about the idea, how could I have said no to a friend as solidly supportive as Larry Lessig has always been? "Dibbell's story is why I teach cyberlaw," he had written for the jacket of MY TINY LIFE's first edition -- and if ego boosts were legal tender, I could have retired on that one a long time ago.

But more to the point: I was thrilled about the idea. I'd been watching the rise of the free-culture movement for years, and rooting for it all the way, but this was something new for me. It was a chance to do more than just cheer from the sidelines. It was a chance to put my content where my mouth was, and I wasn't about to pass it up. I wanted in.

So the wheels began to turn. Larry took it upon himself to write the letter to Henry Holt requesting the reversion of my rights -- not the kind of formality one usually gets to delegate to people who have argued Supreme Court cases, but I figured, hey, that's how you roll when you're making cultural history. And with that settled, I sat back and waited for history to happen.

And waited some more. And a few months more. And couldn't help noticing, while I waited, that Google's free-the-books enthusiasms seemed to be taking on a momentum of their own. The Google Print program was announced, grabbed headlines, got renamed Google Book Search, grabbed more headlines, and many of these headlines, it so happened, focused on the Google Books Library Project, an ambitious book-scanning partnership with university libraries that sounded kind of like a scaled-up version of the project Larry had originally described to me, except for seeming not to have a lot to do with Creative Commons licenses or, by extension, me.

Larry assured me the project was still in play, but by now more than a year had passed, and I was getting antsy. So I decided to go it alone. Why not? The book could still be plugged by Creative Commons when the time came, and in the meantime I'd be demonstrating what the CC licenses were about anyway: The empowering ease with which each one of us becomes a publisher in the digitally networked age.

Well, it turned out not to be as empoweringly easy as all that. To start with, if I was going to digitally publish MY TINY LIFE I would need a proper digital copy, and all I had in electronic form was the scruffy word-processed manuscript I had submitted to Henry Holt years before. And sure, I guess I could have dedicated a workweek or so to scanning all 324 pages of the print version and proofreading the results. But why bother, when the obvious solution was so much simpler? I had already snail-mailed to Google, at my own expense, a copy of MY TINY LIFE so that they could scan it into their growing collection of searchable books, and in the process I had certified to their satisfaction that the rights to the title were mine. How could they possibly refuse me the favor of returning a single digital copy to do with as I pleased?

I still don't know the answer to that question, but refuse they did. At first they just ignored me, but Larry hooked me up with all the right contacts, and assorted Google employees assured me that my request would be given due consideration. Rumor had it, even, that the matter was bouncing all the way up to the vice-presidential level. But when it finally bounced back down to me, after several months, the answer was an unequivocal "Sorry: no." Beyond that the reply was uninformative, so I can only guess at why they'd decided to freeze me out. Maybe if I'd had the sense to negotiate terms up front -- and the leverage of a major university library -- I could have secured the copy-sharing agreements Google has in place with the University of Michigan, Harvard, and other institutions that have opened their collections to Google's scanners. But at this point, and in my humble circumstances, I was pretty sure I'd heard their final answer.

What to do? Demoralized, I let the whole thing slide for a few months, until a chance encounter with champion copyfighter and science-fiction demi-god Cory Doctorow pointed me in a new direction. After listening to me whinge about the situation for a few minutes, Cory proposed yet another obvious solution: "Forget about Google. There are Indian inputting shops online that'll get your book digitized fast and cheap. Outsource your problem and it's done."

So I outsourced: I shopped around, found a quality outfit with front offices in New York and back rooms in Bangalore, and got my book digitized for a little more than $500, paid for in full by a generous one-time grant from Creative Commons. I still had to spend a workday or so picking typos and other formatting weirdnesses out of the final copy, but at least -- and at last -- the hard part was over. Now all I had to do was get the digital copy online, slap a Creative Commons "Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike" license on it, and call it a day.

But once again I was getting ahead of myself. At the last minute it occurred to me to run a small question by Lessig that might, I figured, require some finessing: The rights that Henry Holt had returned to me were almost worldwide, but not quite. In the UK and Australia, the rights had been sold to 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Ltd., and there the book remained nominally in print and therefore out of my hands. Was there something I would have to do to the Creative Commons license, some tweak or another, to keep it from stepping on HarperCollins UK's rights?

Well, no, said Larry. There was nothing I had to do because there was nothing I could do, not by tweaking the license at any rate. "The [CC] licenses cannot be geographically limited, so the conflict is real," he wrote me. "You need a waiver from 4th Estate."

A waiver. Yeah. So there I was, at the mercy of a giant media corporation once again, and there, dear readers, I remain. I fired off an e-mail to HarperCollins UK's permissions department requesting contact from anyone who could help me sort the matter out. A few months later, having heard nothing, I left voice mail with the same department. This was in early December, and needless to say, I haven't been holding my breath for a reply. If HarperCollins feel like getting back to me one of these days, I'm not hard to find. But as for me, I'm finished waiting on the kindness of rent-seeking megabusinesses to make this happen. The dream, for now, is over.

Meanwhile, I'm looking on the bright side. OK, so I cannot legally license you to upload, remix, mashup, and otherwise repurpose MY TINY LIFE according to the exact terms of the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA agreement. But I can promise not to sue you as long as you stick to those terms (even if my promise doesn't mean much in the UK and Australia), and I do hereby so promise. What's more, as mentioned, you can still get all the free digital copies of MY TINY LIFE you want over at Lulu.

And give the freebie its due. Richard Stallman, the open-source software pioneer and advocate, is famous for insisting that software be "free as in free speech, not free beer." His point is not only that free software, as he and the open-source community define it, can still be sold for profit but, more important, that the social and political stakes involved in the free-culture struggle are much greater than the average kid downloading a pirated copy of Juno realizes. And he's right, of course. But just now, all the same, I don't mind thinking that the world would also be a finer place if there were more free beer in it.

Anyway, this round's on me.

9:49 AM

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