The court battles being fought this year over .MP3 files are just the beginning. The pace of change in the entertainment industry will only accelerate, and within ten years the entrenched powers may well throw up their hands and go sliding down their mountains of mud into an angry ocean. The capitalist system faces its first genuine threat since communism—a shift in the means of production so unexpected that even Marx may be sitting up in his grave and raising his bushy eyebrows. In ten years we will know whether legislation will be strong enough to preserve the capitalist business model, or whether the means of production itself will ultimately impose its own phenotype on our institutions.
A complete transformation of civilization is surely decades away and probably more. In Demiurge, global democracy and capitalism are thriving in 2996, exactly 1000 years after I finished writing the book. Our economic system may very well last that long—and may, in truth, be the most efficient and universally beneficial way to organize ourselves—but its apparatus, evolved during the Industrial Revolution to accommodate the manufacture and distribution of physical products, will increasingly rely upon legislation to preserve structures that would otherwise not survive in the "New Economy." The copyright battles over .MP3's are the examples of the day. A second copy of a song file is "free" in an economic sense because it takes no work to create it. Financial compensation for the artist is possible only if the community accepts an external set of rules that allow the definition of a "price" as a second-hand representation of the work that went into recording the song.
The preceding characterization may seem overwrought. After all, the author's copyright has been with us at least since the Statute of Anne in 1710, and law enforcement has been effective—at least in Western countries—at preventing illegal copies from circulating and therefore at preserving fair prices for entertainment products. The difference in the New Economy is that the risk of making and distributing illegal copies is approaching zero, as is the cost. A hundred and fifty years ago, if you wanted to pirate a Dickens novel, you had to set up a printing press, hire workers, do a print run, and physically transport a copy to each buyer. You needed capital. Making illegal copies involved financial risk and the centralized mass-production of literature made it quite probable that the authorities would discover a pirating operation and shut it down. A would-be criminal faced the double risk of losing money and going to jail.
Today, with decentralized systems like Napster and Gnutella, the individual crook does not need to make a capital investment, nor does he need to make the large number of copies that would attract lawsuits or police. He can operate with relatively low risk, downloading a few '80's punk tunes every few days and nothing more. If millions of people behave the same way, we suddenly have a law enforcement nightmare. Copyright—as wise and beneficial as it may be, and as much as this author, in publishing an eBook, would like to see his own work protected—may in fact be an institution too expensive to maintain in the digital age. And where does that leave the producers of entertainment, who need food and lodging just like the rest of us?
In Demiurge, I complicate the question by making a somewhat "soft" SF extrapolation to a time when everything can be copied like an .MP3 file, including physical objects and people. I look at the stresses that would be placed on a capitalist system—founded upon copyright—that had survived into a wholly digital age. In 1994, I set out to write a straightforward adventure story, but I found that I had to do quite a bit of prediction and social engineering before I could even begin. Perhaps other writers and fans of science fiction will recognize that as just part of the process, but it came as an unexpected challenge to me. Even the most basic aspects of a character's life—such as the character's job or aspirations—had to be justified in the framework of a radically different economic order. That I was able to sketch out a detective story at all depended heavily on the laws and software of the fictional world government, which made sure every person had at least one foot in real life and real time. As the New Economy moves forward, I think we, too, will rely increasingly on legislation and software to keep us at least partly in familiar surroundings. The open question is whether any government or software company has a chance of succeeding.
I don't know if the book has an answer. As I said, my intention was just to put down an entertaining adventure story, which was a difficult enough challenge as it turned out—and only time will tell if I succeeded in doing even that much. Perhaps the fate of Demiurge, the eBook, will have more to say about the future of copyright than Demiurge, the novel. If the book is still an eProperty in a few years, with a price and readers who actually pay money to read it, then maybe some of the old conventions will have found a way to survive.
I do think that a technology that allows individual artists to securely distribute their work without the interference of media conglomerates will be a great benefit to society. The real enemies here—if we must pick sides—are the lackluster middle-aged bureaucrats who serve as the gatekeepers of taste for everyone on the planet. Or, rather, the stockpiles of capital that allow mediocre businesspeople to cram lousy movies like Armageddon down our throats. The key word is "capital." Capital won't go away, nor will the promotional advantage it affords artists, but it will no longer be necessary for commerce. Artists will have options other than assimilation by AOL-Time-Warner. They won't have to suck down that ten percent commission; they will be able to keep one hundred percent of gross, if they choose. Why would a writer give away ninety percent of the revenue of a book to pay loggers, paper mills, printing presses, truckers, managers, and the pimple-faced kid behind the counter at the local bookstore when he no longer has to? To be sure, there will always be advantages to signing up with the Big Boys, but the very idea of bigness will face direct competition from microscale enterprises, some, like Pacotti Publishing, consisting entirely of a single shmo who claims to be an entertainer of some kind.
So, dear readers, dear potential customers, help make microcapitalism a genuine alternative for artists and consumers alike. Help eliminate meddling businesspeople from the transaction between creator and consumer. Pay for this book! Refrain from copying it or—heaven forbid!—looking for editions that may have already been copied. Think of the meager price of this novel as a few bucks in the tip-jar of your favorite local musician, or the tip-jar at the sandwich shop, or the one at the bar on the corner. Accept the small transaction as a convention from a bygone era, for in the end we may need to rely more on our heritage and common understanding of fairness than on any technical or economic apparatus.
Readers of the world, UNITE! Buy electronic!
Sheldon J. Pacotti
Austin, Texas: June 15, 2000