More on the Doctorow Principle

MCMThursday, May 14, 2009

(I'm calling it the Doctorow Principle so it's easier for me to look up in the archives six years from now)

I've been giving this question of comments from Slashdot that mirror what I'm thinking, and will brainstorm here to figure out where to go. But first, a quick note: since my post last night, all but two of the TorrentBoy contributors I've had contact with have written to say they're not opposed to this kind of idea. Luckily, our early adopters are as crazy as I am!

Here's how the system works: I write a book, put it on the web as a PDF. You can take that book and print it and sell it, as long as you remit 20% of gross to me. You're taking all the risk in producing and distributing it, but at least you get to save a licensing fee up front. If you earn nothing back, you pay nothing. You don't need to ask permission to do this. It's all automatic.

There's an issue with auditing, I think, because you can never be sure that someone isn't reporting minimal sales to dodge paying you. Enforcement would end up being scattershot at best... the only people likely to be questioned on sales will be those with visible success. So you could theoretically sell 20 copies of Zombie World! and not remit anything because you're such a small shop. It depends on honesty, this system of ours.

But the biggest issue is that of composite works. Someone mentioned calendars, so we'll look at that idea to start.

Let's say you're using all the TorrentBoy artwork in the system and making a calendar. 12 works x 20% gross each = 240% remitted for each calendar sold. In other words, you'll never make profit on your product, no matter how high you set the price. This obviously doesn't work. Big logical flaw.

So let's assume that the combination of the 12 pieces actually constitutes a new work, and not just a commercialization of the 12 parts individually. Under the purest reading of the Doctorow Principle, that derivative work wouldn't require any licensing fees to exist at all. I could take 100 TorrentBoy pics, assemble them into a PDF, and not pay a thing to anything. I could then turn around and sell that PDF as a book, and only remit 20% back to... what, the project? Or the artists?

There's the trick. One way, you're making too big a payment for the license. The other way, you're not making any. The system is flawed, and it's hard to wrap one's mind around a solution. The usefulness of the entire concept is diluted if you try to put a definition on what constitutes a "new" work (what % derivative? how do you define "original content"?) You can't say "these pictures assembled into a book are fully derivative, but if I write a caption for each page, I'm creating my own work and this owe the individual creators nothing." Splitting hairs that way leads to licensing insanity, which is counter-productive.

So. Let's assume a 20% fee on every product sold, regardless of who does it. We'll follow three examples below:

You write a TorrentBoy book entirely on your own. You create all the content yourself, with no derivatives. You sell the book and remit 20%, but the entire amount makes it way back to you.

You make a photo book of TorrentBoy artwork. You haven't done anything but assemble the photos together and make a PDF. You sell the book and remit 20% to the Project, which is split between all the artists. If there are 100 photos in the book, each artist gets 0.2% of the cover price. It's not a lot, but it's something.

**You make a book of poetry and use TorrentBoy artwork on every other page. **You've created the words, other artists have created the imagery. You sell the book and give 20% back to the Project. That 20% is split between all the contributors, including you (as the writer of the poems). The question is: how do you decide how much each contributor has invested? Are the poems 50% of the book, or less? Whatever the formula, it needs to be impartial and bloody-minded, and easy to follow. Do you trust the creator of the work to value things properly? What happens if they say "this book is 99% me with some support from some artists"? How do you quantify someone's contribution? It ends up feeling a lot like the splitting of hairs again.

Moreover, all of these systems assume that the act of actually making the book is costless, which it's not. Even the person that assembles the photo book is making an effort, but they're not getting anything out of it. It's not a big deal if they're selling their own product, but in this system, ANYONE can take their PDF and sell it. If that happens, they've done the curating and assembling for free. So maybe the formula requires a "production" share delivered to the person that makes the product itself. Split the 20% between all artists, plus another locked share for the "maker". Diminishes the artists' take, but recognizes the efforts of all participants.

The other issue is that this is an accounting nightmare. Nobody is going to want to do all this money-filtering. So do we create (as I'm trying to do) a catalogue of all TorrentBoy works, with all these intricacies included? You draw a picture and register it with the catalogue, including your name and PayPal address. You mark down any derivative works you've referenced (actual works, not ideas). If someone likes your picture and puts it on a t-shirt, they pay their 20% to the Project with your artwork's Catalogue ID as a reference. Every month, the system looks at all the remittances, sorts through the derivative works (by ID) and distributes money to all the participants. You drew a picture of an apple that gets used in a picture that gets used in another picture that gets turned into a poster... you get a fraction of the poster's gross (since you're buried so deep in the tree), but you still get paid. And the poster-maker doesn't see any of it at all. They just remit their 20%.

Obviously, the Project is going to need some funds to manage all this (automated or not). How do we calculate that? Take it off the top, so 15% to the contributors, and 5% to the Project? I'm afraid any other way would potentially cost the Project more in transaction fees than it would bring in. Or do we make the total cost to the product-seller 25%, with 20% to contributors and 5% to the Project? Is that going to poison the idea? Not sure.

All very complicated questions. I hoped to have this catalogue system operational long before now, but I'm bogged down with other things. Still, this is an interesting concept. Take the controls completely off TorrentBoy, and leave it with an impartial framework... see how it goes. If I could figure out the details, this could be the most fun I've ever had!

Email or comment thoughts. I'm open to anything right now!

(Photo of Thinker courtesy of Brian Hillegas on Flickr, under a CC license)

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