Thursday, September 07, 2006

A few words about Copyright and Memes-- and Free Online Books


The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by David Glenn about my book, Cultural Software, and Yale University Press's decision to offer it for free online under a creative commons license. (Perhaps ironically, the entire article is available only to subscribers of the Chronicle of Higher Education, but here is a selection:)
The idea, says the author, is that a small portion of the readers who sample Cultural Software online will decide to buy a printed copy of the book, producing a net increase in revenue for the press. . . .

"If this experiment succeeds," Mr. Balkin says, "it may change the way that university presses make money off their backlists. ... What we are doing with Cultural Software may be a new and inexpensive way to create interest in the 'long tail' of scholarly works that sell only a few copies a year and would otherwise be a drag on profits."

The director of the press, John E. Donatich, says Mr. Balkin's experiment is one of several new explorations of electronic publishing there. Yale is among the six presses participating in the Caravan Project, a new program financed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that will allow publishers to release books simultaneously in print-on-demand cloth, paperback, digital, and audio formats. (The first Caravan titles are scheduled to appear in early 2007.)
. . .

"The real question," Mr. Balkin says, "is what the vocation of academic publishing is. Academic publishers saw themselves as trying to spread knowledge-- high-quality knowledge--— as far and wide as they could ... not just as a service that they provide to the universities that they're associated with. Well, now they can promote that vocation even better than they could before. And they may even be able to make money off of it, which would be all to the good."

If you read the full article, you will see that Glenn is entirely too nice to me in describing what my book did. As most people know, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" and advanced the hypothesis that Darwinian forces of selection acted on culture as well as genes. Many other scholars, including Daniel Dennett, further developed the idea. Cultural Software showed how we could use memetic models to explain what social theorists had called "ideology," and how a memetic approach to culture offered a better account of ideology than traditional Marxist models and their successors, as well as showing how memetics intersected with questions of justice.

Giving away free online copies of Cultural Software is an apt way of symbolizing both how memes spread and the relationship between copyright and memetics. The goal of copyright, as our Constitution explains, is "[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts." The original 18th century meaning of "progress" included the notion of "diffusion," so one purpose of copyright is to promote the spread of ideas. That is, in hindsight, a very memetic notion. We create intellectual property for instrumental reasons-- to foster and promote the spread of ideas from mind to mind.

Intellectual property laws that prohibit copying give incentives for people to create and to market their expressions widely. On the other hand, they quite literally discourage copying and inhibit the spread of expressions, and hence, at the margins, they can inhibit the spread of ideas. The question is ultimately one of balance.

Distributing free online copies of Cultural Software has two effects, a substitution effect-- people download the chapters instead of buying the book-- and a publicity effect-- every download is an advertisement for the book. The question is whether the publicity effect dominates the substitution effect. Our experiment is betting that this is the case. More free advertising and viral distribution of samples will ultimately produce more sales than it will lose from the substitution effect. And, in the meantime, we will make the book's argument available to a host of students and researchers who could benefit from it. That, in turn, will creative further incentives for authors like me to create even more works.

It's important to understand that this is *not* a claim that we should abandon copyright. It is an argument about how to use copyright to serve larger goals. After all, the Creative Commons license under which we are distributing online copies for free is based on copyright. The lesson, rather, is that we must always keep in mind copyright's memetic purposes-- the spread of knowledge and information-- and use intellectual property to serve those ends. Yale University Press is to be commended for its farsightedness and its understanding of how important it is for university presses to play a key role in the diffusion of scholarly ideas.

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