For today’s guest post, I’m thrilled to welcome SL Huang, author of SF novel Zero Sum Game, which I really should get around to reviewing one of these days. (For now, just trust me and read it – it’s great!)
Also, the most excellent Book Smugglers blog recently published SL Huang’s story “Hunting Monsters” as the very first story in their brand new Book Smugglers Publishing venture. (And while you’re there, check out their great review of Zero Sum Game.)
About SL Huang:
SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. She is unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com and on Twitter as @sl_huang. Her first novel, Zero Sum Game, was released under a Creative Commons license. The sequel, Half Life, will also be CC-licensed and is scheduled for release in January 2015.
I first learned about Creative Commons from one of its founders, while standing on the Great Wall of China.
(Not to be grandiose or anything.)
As an undergraduate at MIT, I was lucky enough to be at a conference in Beijing with some other students and faculty. When we headed out on a tourist jaunt along the Great Wall at Badaling, I took to chatting with Professor Hal Abelson about freedom of information and copyright. I started in with my ongoing frustrations, and then, as though I’d set him up with a punchline, Professor Abelson said: “Well, there’s this thing a few of us have started recently. It’s called Creative Commons.”
I still remember that moment — the sudden certainty that I had just learned about something that made profound sense. Something that gathered up the clutter of everything my idealistic soul wanted and straightened it all out and said, Here you go.
I’ll back up for a second.
In my opinion, copyright law in the United States is broken. Initially intended to both protect creators and to encourage a rich public domain, copyright was originally only available for a maximum of 28 years. After a long and complicated history that most notably includes Disney’s furious bid to keep Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain, the law has now extended copy protection to be the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. In addition to stymying future creativity that might stand on the shoulders of older pieces, the extreme length has led to many works disappearing that might otherwise be preserved; copyrights can easily pass down to uncaring heirs or become orphaned when it’s unclear who the rights holder may be.
Not only that, but the consequences for violating copyright and related statutes have escalated into the bizarre and extreme. Courts have ruled that bankrupting someone is an equitable consequence for downloading songs, and stripping the DRM from a book you’ve purchased for your own use or pirating just seven movies during college can get you a felony conviction. In one recent (and ultimately tragic) instance, a brilliant young man faced 13 felony counts and decades in prison for downloading academic papers, even after the rights holder declined to pursue the case.
In an age in which lobbyist groups have succeeded in panicking studios and publishers about piracy, a lot of media distributors are clinging more tightly to their rights than ever. But I think they’re missing something.
I believe that things like piracy and derivative works can be hugely beneficial to the rights holders. That people who download or write fanfic or create fan art can be leveraged as free word-of-mouth advertising. That a successful business plan can rely on the idea that, rather than smacking ever-higher penalties on consumers who don’t pay, the more lucrative choice might be to get as many consumers interested as humanly possible — paid or not.
As a creator, my greatest enemy is obscurity. After all, there’s so much good media out there to enjoy, already more than anyone could watch or read in a lifetime. If I can get more people to read my books — to talk about my books — I firmly believe I’ll actually end up earning more money off them. (And I like money!)
Not everyone believes that, of course, and that’s okay. But the real problem was, prior to a decade or so ago, there was no easy way for creators who were unhappy with current law to license their work less stringently and still feel assured they had legal protection. There was no choice.
That’s where Creative Commons comes in: a slate of licenses that give you the option to release specific rights to your work while still maintaining the limitations you want to keep. Creative Commons licenses allow you to let your consumers share or even remix your creative endeavors (depending on what license you pick) and give you the option as to whether to allow them to do that for profit. They offer creators choice.
The existence of the Creative Commons licenses is both culturally important and nontrivial to copyright holders. Most people don’t have the money to hire a crack legal team to create a fancy new license just for them. Even if they did, a unique license would be useless in a world that widely depends on having a common legal framework available for enabling business partnerships or contracts. And this is why I feel Creative Commons must gain greater saturation in the creative world: so that it can become a known third option, on equal footing with standard copyright and the public domain. So that business partners and media distributors will recognize that third choice as a viable way of doing business.
It’s probably obvious how passionate I am about this issue. Freer information, freer culture, a freer society when it comes to data — I consider all those to be exceptionally valuable goals. I don’t want to live in a world where a Buffy/Twilight critical mashup gets slapped with takedowns or where a company tries to claim ownership over the term “space marine.” I don’t want to move toward a place where sprawling corporations with fancy legal teams and disingenuous lobbyists dictate the stories we tell.
And stories, art, creative media, freedom of speech and of the press — this stuff is important. We brush fiction off sometimes; we say, “It’s just a book. It’s just a movie. It doesn’t matter.” But words have power. Art has power. Stories shape us culturally, influence how our society treats its citizens. The written word alone has started political movements and overthrown governments. Artistic endeavors of all types touch us, wrench us, make us think. Popular media interacts with us in a thousand small ways every day.
So when I say the existence of Creative Commons is important and nontrivial, I mean that. Creative Commons gives us the choice to be part of a cultural shift toward openness and creative dialogue, to contribute to a richer cross-pollination of ideas. That summer in China, I decided that this was exactly what I wanted my world — my work — to be. Creative Commons would allow me to put my own contributions in between what I viewed as the overly dictatorial snarl of current copyright law and a public domain that would offer me no protection. It was perfect.
Perfect, of course, except for the fact that Creative Commons is not yet ubiquitous. Once I started looking toward publishing a book, my research suggested to me (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) that most mainstream fiction publishers would probably feel uncomfortable with a CC-licensed novel. Among the major SFF imprints, to my knowledge only Tor, Angry Robot, and Baen even publish without DRM, with Tor the only one (that I know of) that has released any CC-licensed books — and those only by authors who are already big names. Given that I don’t exactly have Cory Doctorow’s platform, it felt far too rude to query agents with the intention of giving them a condition they might view as untenable for selling my novel.
Lucky for me, the rise of self-publishing as a viable option was happening simultaneously. Self-publishing appealed to me for other reasons as well, but as I also have great respect for everything agents and publishers do to distribute and support books, whether to query the trade way might have been a much more difficult decision if not for my determination to say what readers can and can’t do with my work.
It’s a bit scary, of course. As much as I believe that allowing people to spread my work for free might earn me more in the long run, I can’t say for sure whether it will. And who’s to say there isn’t some unpleasant ramification down the line I haven’t thought of? It’s all an experiment. Plus, Amazon’s self-publishing TOS prevent me from offering my books for free myself, hobbling one way I might be able to use Creative Commons to spread my work right out of the gate.
In fact, it turns out that the scariest part of licensing this way is how my decision to license CC got tangled up with my decision to self-publish. Should I at least have queried? Would I have been better off establishing myself and then trying to switch to CC licensing? Will my idealistic insistence on self-publishing in order to license this way only result in my books dropping into obscurity?
What I do know is that I had to do it, even on the tiniest off chance that I could help open up these choices to like-minded writers, or encourage other creators to think, “hey, cool, maybe I’ll try that, too!” If I am the luckiest nerd in the world and my series does take off, I want it to be pointed at as an example of commercially-successful CC-licensed media, to be used as an case study when an author next talks to a publisher about the possibility of releasing some rights. That chance is worth it to me.
It’s a ridiculous burden to put on my little series, of course. Okay, my wee booksies! Now, you’d better sell well so that you can serve as a shining example that Creative Commons-licensed books can sell well! (Oh, and to show that books with a female protagonist of color can sell well, and that books without a romance can sell well, and that books with math in them can sell well, and . . . I’m not putting too much pressure on you, am I, my wee booksies? Why no, I’m not trying to change the entire culture all at once, why would you ask that? Ha!)
Obviously, whether or not my books succeed is not going to be down to the licensing. But in my daydreams of being a decently-selling and well-regarded author, the fantasy always comes with a satisfied sense of pride that I’d be helping elevate the profile of Creative Commons licenses at the same time — and choosing, with my own work, to make our vast and multilayered culture just that tiniest bit more open.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The parts of this essay that discuss the law are accurate up to my understanding as a layman.
Thanks to SL Huang for this wonderful guest post! Please make sure to check out her debut novel Zero Sum Game.