A little while ago I posted a meditative review of Christopher Kelty’s book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.
Some amusing issues have arisen over who holds copyright to the review; issues that are especially amusing, nay, borderline ironic, since they reflect the very subject matter of Kelty’s book in a kind of recursive way, and recursion itself is a theme of the book too-also.
Which copyright ambiguity reminds me of something similar that happened when I put my latest novella The Pains up on the web under a Creative Commons license and came face to face with the ontological uncertainty about just what constitutes a “book” in the digital age.
Which further reminded me of my fascination with ontological uncertainty about what constitutes a self in general. This “what is a self” topic is a central theme of each of my three books; furthermore, if you consider the three books together as one work (as I do ), with three constituent parts each of which is written by a different “John Sundman” who implicitly or explicitly refutes the authenticity of other two John Sundmans, then the subject of the work as a whole (which I call “Mind over Matter”) is “What constitutes a thing-in-itself in an impermanent universe?”.
So you see? Isn’t it profound? Or as my Irish grandmother Nana would have said, “there now”.
Below the fold: observations on an unwritten book review with future-retroactive copyright power, the “is-ness” of The Pains, and the mutual plausible deniability of John F.X Sundman, John Compton Sundman, John Damien Sundman, with wry commentary on their internecine squabbling by me, one jrs.
On the copyrightability of my review
I wrote that review of Kelty’s book under a commission of sorts from the journal Science as Culture (“SaC”). The book review editor, let’s call him “Bob”, got my name from a friend. Bob wrote to ask me if I would do review the book for the journal, and I said, “sure, why not.” It really wasn’t much of a “commission”, since I was not and am not to be paid anything for writing the review, and there is no signed agreement between me and Science as Culture.
So, anyway, it took me a long while to read the book and write the review, but once I had done it I kind of liked what I had written and thought it would be nice to put it here on Wetmachine, inasmuch as it does discuss Wetmachiney topics & I don’t expect it will get too many readers at the journal, which ain’t exactly The New Yorker if you catch my drift. And furthermore I’m always whorin’ for more readers of the site, and I thought this review might snare the random guppy.
So, after I had sent the review to Bob, kind of as an afterthought, I wrote to him again and asked how he would feel about my putting the review up on Wetmachine. Since we didn’t have a contract or anything, just my email promise to do the review, I figured I could do whatever I wanted with it without Bob’s permission. I was just trying to be courteous. I wrote Bob that I was thinking of assigning the journal a non-exclusive print right. He wrote back that, no, actually Science as Culture‘s parent corporation held copyright to my review, but they wouldn’t mind if I put the review up on my site in any version other than their PDF (in whatever form it gets edited into)–so long as I mentioned Science as Culture when I posted the review on my site.
I thought that was funny. I mean, the final PDF version doesn’t even exist yet, and I haven’t yielded copyright to the draft version, so why would I need Science as Culture’s permission to post something I had written? As a matter of fact, only yesterday (that is, a few weeks after I first put the review on my site) Bob wrote to me again, this time asking for rather extensive revisions to my draft. (My wife said to me: “Remind me again what’s in this for you?”). If I do make those revisions, the final review will be a very distant thing from the review as currently posted. Are they the same thing at all? For the sake of argument, let’s say that Science as Culture holds copyright to the as-yet-unwritten, unedited final version. Does that mean that they hold copyright to this current version that they don’t even want? Does a copyright of a future version travel back through time to cover the version that exists today?
I’m also curious: Does the email between me and Bob amount to an implicit contract between us? Have I in fact yielded copyright? Beats me.
Or as Sartresky might have said to Hutch, “Can consciousness exist without being? I don’t know. Let’s roll, Hutch.”
I probably will do those revisions, by the way. For no pay (for which Harlan Ellision would castigate me, in the unlikely event that he cared about reviews of this kind of book). I’m finding the whole undertaking amusing, even if it is a bit of a time sink.
Slightly more interestingly, What constitutes a book? In particular, what is The Pains?
The foregoing episode brought to mind a post I’ve been meaning to write on Wetmachine for some time now about what constitutes a “work”; in particular, what constitutes a “book”. I’m especially interested in this topic as it pertains my three books, which I put on the web under the Creative Commons “attribution, non commercial, no derivatives” license.
My most recent book, The Pains, is an illustrated novella with 12 very cool pictures, fancy typography and a conscientuous layout. It’s printed on high quality glossy paper. I consider the PDF version of that book, that which was used to prepare the printed version of the book, to be the canonical digital “reference” version, and I don’t give it away. It’s not on the web. After all, it’s my goal to sell paper copies of the book; that’s how I make money. So I’ve put The Pains on the web in HTML format only, with watermarked illustrations. I consider the HTML version to be kind of an approximation of the book, not the book itself.
Well a short while after I had put The Pains up on the web it appeared on a “free book” website in a variety of formats, including PDF. I downloaded the PDF version, and, as you would expect, it looked pretty sucky, especially compared to the “real” version of the book. I thought it a cheap knock-off that gave the wrong impression of what my book was all about.
So I wrote to the guy who ran the free ebook website to thank him for spreading the word about me and my free books, but I also asked him to take down the PDF version, which I considered a “derivative” work and thus not allowed by the Creative Commons license. I didn’t want an “incorrect” PDF version of The Pains out there in cyberspace to confuse all 7 of my readers.
The fellow wrote back that since all versions of all books on his site were produced automatically by his tools suite, he didn’t have a way to exclude the painful PDF. It was all or nothing.
But, then, interestingly, he said that his PDF version of my book was NOT a derivative work, it was just a different format of the work, so it WAS allowed under the license. He said he would take down his PDF (along with all other formats) as a courtesy to me, but he did not acknowledge copyright violation.
Not wanting to be a dick, I wrote back, “nah, go ahead and leave it up.”
But I was intrigued by his opinion about the license, so I asked my lawyer friend Harold Feld, who blogs about issues like this, his opinion as to whether a computer-generated PDF-from-HTML was a derivative work or just a different format of the original work. Harold didn’t have an opinion, but he took a poll of his lawyer friends on a lawyerly mail list. The result? Most, but not all, of the lawyers on this list sided with the guy who had done the conversion, not with me. I thought, “hmmmmmmmm. . .”
A few months later I was at the O’Reilly Etech conference, and it so happened that the Creative Commons guys–including one of their lawyers– had a booth there. So I asked them their opinion about the duelng PDFs. I thought their answer was fascinating. They said that the question of what consituted a derivative work was a murky area that would only be decided, formally, for any given work, in a court of law–if, that is, parties ever felt strongly enough about it to take it to court. Until then the answer is in an undetermined state,like a Schrodinger’s Cat. Licenses are good for making clear who has rights to what in most situations, they said, but there will always be circumstances that are murky. In Two Bits, Kelty makes that same point over and over. Murky issues will arise, he says, and when they do those issues will be decided ad hoc on practical (for example, legal) considerations, not for theoretical or ideological ones.
Meanwhile, if you want to see what The Pains is really supposed to look like, buy a damn copy, woudjz?
And now onto everybody’s favorite topic, me,
Al Franken John Sundman
My book Acts of the Apostles was written by John F.X Sundman; Cheap Complex Devices was “edited” by John Compton Sundman, and The Pains was written by John Damien Sundman.
Between my books, especially between Acts and CCD, there is a Hofstadtertarian strange loop, or an Escher loop if you prefer, in which each John Sundman implicitly or explicitly claims the other is a fraud or a fiction.1
People sometimes ask me what’s up with the middle names. Which one is the “real” me? An answer follows below. At other points in time my answer would undoubtably be different, depending on which “I” was responding at the time.
The middle name on my birth certificate is Anthony. This is also my (Catholic) “baptismal” name. My Catholic confirmation name is Reinhold, which I chose when I was 13. That’s the middle name I use now “in real life” (although I’m no longer Catholic).
I put “F.X.” on the cover of “Acts” because I thought it looked cool & had Jesuitical overtones appropriate to the book.
“Compton” was the last name of my childhood best friend Albert, who was murdered in a liquor store holdup twenty years ago. CCD is the kind of book I thought he would have liked, so I chose “Compton” as a kind of homage.
“Damien” is in honor of my late brother Paul. Paul was given that middle name by my parents in honor of Father Damien, the leper-saint of Molokai. Readers of The Pains will see connections. There are various other Sundmans in that book, including the quite real Karl Sundman, the Finnish mathematician and astronomer.
All of my books concern the idea of what constitutes a “self”: what are the boundaries in place and time of a self-aware entity? As a case in point, what constitutes a ‘John Sundman’? In what ways are these various John Sundmans the same thing, and in which ways are they different things?
This question of what constituts a thing, in particular a person, over time is hardly an original area for investigation, but still, I think, a deep and fundamental one.
None of this “John Sundman” stuff is the main point of any of the books. They are each intended to stand alone & tell a story irrespective of their author.
1. From Wikipedia:
Hofstadter’s thesis about consciousness, first expressed in GEB but also present in several of his later books, is that it is an emergent consequence of seething lower-level activity in the brain. In GEB he draws an analogy between the social organization of a colony of ants and the mind seen as a coherent “colony” of neurons. In particular, Hofstadter claims that our sense of having (or being) an “I” comes from the abstract pattern he terms a “strange loop”, which is an abstract cousin of such concrete phenomena as audio and video feedback, and which Hofstadter has defined as “a level-crossing feedback loop”. The prototypical example of this abstract notion is the self-referential structure at the core of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Hofstadter’s 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop carries his vision of consciousness considerably further, including the idea that each human “I” is distributed over numerous brains, rather than being limited to precisely one brain.