New and Used

Recently I talked a little bit about piracy. That post caused a little more controversy among my friends than I was expecting, but my friend Maverynthia had some particularly interesting thoughts on suggestion #5 on my list, and I thought the issue deserved its own post. In fact, it’s such a complicated issue that it deserves two posts, from two totally different people. (I’m a little bit country. She’s a little bit rock and roll. Or something.) I really didn’t want to try and speak for Maverynthia on this issue, so I asked her if she’d be willing to post about her own thoughts on the matter, and then we’d activate our Wonder Twin powers and link across the Internet.

She agreed, and her piece is here.

(Yes, I did just reference both Donny & Marie and the Wonder Twins, two things which no one under the age of 25 is probably aware of. Or most people under 30. Or 35. I am not cooler than you. I am a dork.)

So here’s the thing: I have bought a ton of used books. In fact, I regularly scour the used book shelves at my favorite bookstore, searching for out of print tomes (especially Changeling: The Dreaming sourcebooks). I’ve also bought plenty of used board games, video games, even a few DVDs and albums and so forth. And I don’t like it when anything is missing. Not pages, nor game pieces, nor poster maps. True story: I once bought a copy of the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer that was missing its poster map, a small fact the seller had failed to mention. That was the one and only time I left negative feedback for an online seller.

Further, as a writer, I don’t mind the idea of people buying used copies of my books, when or if said books are ever published. I would like to make a living off of my craft, but I would also like people to read what I wrote. To appreciate it. To enjoy it. To end up with well-loved copies scarred only by the years of reading and reading, of loaning the text out to good friends and getting it back, of taking the book on plane rides and subway rides and cloned T-Rex rides. (I don’t know why you’re reading on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart.) I have faith in any fans I manage to attract. I know plenty of them will buy my books hot off the presses. And, someday, they may sell those books off to others, or give them, or lend them and end up moving away before they can reclaim them, and all of that is fine.

That said…we do not live in the United Federation of Planets. Our society is based upon the pursuit, acquisition, and trade of some kind of resource. At this moment in time, we have a bunch of fiat currencies that honestly don’t make a whole lot of sense when you really look at them (unless you’re an economist, and I don’t know why you’re an economist while you’re riding on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart), but people tend to need that money to survive regardless.

And here is the problem with used books, games, DVDs, whatever: unless you’re somehow buying them from the original producer/seller, they don’t see one red cent of the money you’ve paid.

Now. I firmly believe that, once you buy something, you own it, and you should be able to do what you will with it. That includes selling it. A lot of corporations don’t like that. That’s why they’ve pushed to move from a system of absolute ownership to a system where somehow they’re just renting you some kind of limited-use license, and thank heavens they haven’t entirely succeeded on that front. That’s why music companies have historically tried to crack down on used record stores, and thankfully lost that battle as well. And that’s why you now see things like EA’s Project Ten Dollar. That’s why you see companies including one-time codes that cannot be used again by future owners of a given game or software product, codes that open up the full functionality of the program or unlock premium content or otherwise make new copies more desirable. That’s why you see all kinds of companies selling DLC: new missions, new characters, new ‘skins’ for existing characters, and so on.

There are bad ways to go about this (anything that restricts the full functionality of a basic game – including multiplayer options – to new copies, for example) and…not so bad ways to go about this, at least in my view. I actually think EA’s current system is a damn sight better than restrictive, intrusive DRM or planned obsolescence: with Mass Effect 2, you can buy the game used, and all the basic plot points and missions and characters are there, but you can only get bonus content by paying a small fee. Because new copies of Mass Effect 2 come with a single-use code that allows you access to the Cerberus Network, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find an unused code card in a used copy.

I don’t think this is a perfect method, of course – for example, the Cerberus Network is also the only way to buy (and, even more importantly, verify) paid DLC, so you’re basically paying a fee to get a few free items and go shopping for more stuff. It’s kind of like most theme parks. Also, you can’t use any of your lovely DLC, paid or otherwise, unless you have an Internet connection, allowing the game to check in with the Cerberus Network and confirm your membership. This is annoying. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I’m on a long series of flights (as I was during my trip to New Orleans last year), or on the back of a cloned Tyrannosaurus Rex, I like to bring my laptop with me, and sometimes I like to play a game. My access to the Internet may be restricted or nonexistent during that time. So I can play the basic version of Mass Effect, but I can’t play Lair of the Shadow Broker or Overlord or Arrival. I can’t have Kasumi or Zaeed around. I don’t really get why the DLC I’ve already downloaded can’t just…play, or why the game can’t give me, say, a seven-day grace period from the last Cerberus Network check-in before it goes, whoops, no DLC for you.

But I digress. The point is, something like Project Ten Dollar – which gives new customers free access to premium content, and gives those who buy used products the ability to buy in for a small fee – is a workable solution. An annoying solution, but better than some of the alternatives.

And I definitely don’t mind paid DLC. Alan Wake‘s DLC actually extends the story to an extent, for example, offering mini-sequels to keep the fans sated while the team considered a sequel. (Which is not, sadly, American Nightmare. But I have faith that a proper Alan Wake 2 is coming.) Mass Effect 2’s DLC consists mainly of cosmetic items or storylines that don’t have much to do with the main arc, with the exception of Arrival.

But oh…let’s talk about those exceptions, shall we? Because that’s another boundary that game companies just shouldn’t cross, in my view. Arrival actually sets up the plot for Mass Effect 3. Without going into spoiler territory, it is vital to understanding the backstory of the third game. And it is paid DLC. Cerberus Network members don’t get it for free. Non-members definitely don’t. The ending of Mass Effect 2 sans DLC is acceptable, but Arrival completes the arc.

Do not freaking sell me an incomplete product.

Even if you use premium content or DLC to make a buck off of people who are buying your games used, you should still give them the complete story. Holding something that vital back wrecks the experience. It’s like the novelizations of Red Riding Hood that withheld the conclusion and directed readers to a web page that only went up after the film was out. It’s obnoxious. It’s rude.

And to an extent, yes, the Alan Wake DLC also bridges the gap between the first game and its potential sequel, but without going into spoiler territory, I don’t think those episodes are vital to understanding Alan’s journey as a whole. They’re side treks. They both kind of begin and end the same way. I enjoyed them, much as I enjoy the odd standalone episode of Buffy, but felt like I would have gotten along fine without them. Arrival is a different animal.

Look. I personally believe that creators and producers should back off, accept that some people are going to buy used products, and just try to make products compelling enough that the fans will want to buy them used. The first nine or ten Dresden Files novels on my shelf? Used. I got them all from a friend. Every last subsequent novel was bought new. Used books created a loyal customer. Used games can have the same effect.

But I also want my favorite companies to have the resources to keep making games. I don’t really think used products stand in the way of that, but I can understand the need to keep making money off those products, one way or another. I don’t like it, but it’s going to happen. And if it’s going to happen, I would rather drive those companies in the direction of non-draconian measures. Don’t lock out multiplayer or key features of the game. Don’t hold back essential elements of the story. Do offer enhancements to the user experience. Carrot, people, not stick.

Of course, there’s another option as well: digital distribution. For the most part, when a customer buys something through Steam, iTunes, or any other digital download service, they accept that they will be unable to transfer that item to any other customers. (Though, interesting, there is a company called ReDigi that claims to be dealing legitimately in the resale of music files from services like iTunes – naturally they have already been challenged by the RIAA) There is little to no legitimate aftermarket for digital downloads. I can’t sell you the copy of Portal 2 I bought on Steam. Nor can I sell you the Taylor Swift album I bought on iTunes, the Leverage or Mad Men episodes I bought on the Zune Marketplace on XBox LIVE, or any books I might have bought through my Kindle app. Is that fair? Maybe not. Maybe it would be only right to offer transferable licenses on all of these items. But the corporations involved have no motivation to do so. And since digital distribution reduces or eliminates the costs involved in publishing, packaging and shipping, I think it’s fair to say it’s the way of the future…which means we may lose the aftermarket either way.

There are two principal facts in play here: first, from a corporate perspective, money is all-important. Corporations are going to tend toward practices that make them money. While they cannot afford to alienate their customer base completely, they’re going to do anything and everything they can to earn as much profit as possible. All we can hope to do is drive them toward compromises.

From a moral perspective, I think it’s vitally important to support the things I love, and encourage the creators to go on and make more things. That doesn’t mean I never buy used products, but it does mean I try to buy new when I can. If I want to save money, that may mean waiting until it goes on sale, or comes out in a cheaper format, but either way, I want to try and make sure something gets back to the original creators. To me, used products are more like samples of a given creator’s body of work. Once I’m sure I love it, I shift to new. And that’s a practice I’d encourage all around, really. But that’s me.

I should acknowledge that, yes, Jerry Holkins over at Penny Arcade recently posted on this subject as well, and Mike Krahulik talked about it on Twitter. I’d been planning something like this before I saw that, but given the timing, and the fact that one of the pieces I’ll be citing in this post was linked from that one, it’s only fair to point that out.

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Media Mondays: Lost Girl

Despite the unpleasant news that’s been blowing up the Internet today, all hope is not lost for Canada. Among many other things, they’ve given us a damn good urban fantasy series in Lost Girl, which has just started airing in the US on (sigh) SyFy. Tonight the sci-fi, fantasy and wrestling channel aired the third episode, and I have to say, I’m impressed.

Here’s the basic premise: Bo, a vagrant and itinerant bartender, inadvertently reveals herself to a young human woman named Kenzie while rescuing Kenzie from a would-be assailant. When Bo kills the man through decidedly supernatural means, she also reveals herself to a whole world beyond her wildest imaginings. She’s soon captured, and swiftly discovers that she’s one of the Fae – specifically, a succubus, feeding off the life energy of others and gifted with the power to heal herself and influence people. Forced to choose a side, Light or Dark, Bo takes a third option: neither. She declares herself a defender of humanity, and settles in with Kenzie to forge a new life for herself.

Needless to say, revolving as it does around a succubus, the show involves plenty of sexual themes. Bo, played by the gorgeous Anna Silk, is often naked or dressed in tight, revealing clothing. Her healing powers only work when she’s able to absorb life energy through sex, and her ability to influence people is decidedly touch-based: her caresses can send just about anyone into a lust-filled haze in which they’re willing to confess all their darkest secrets. Bo’s also a very sexual person with both men and women. The show doesn’t miss a lot of opportunities to dress Kenzie in sexy Gothic-style garb, either, and plenty of other attractive regulars and guest stars are showcased in their own special ways. So there’s a lot of fanservice, geared mainly, I think, toward a straight male audience – though there is the odd slice of beefcake, too.

Some viewers may find this sexual content problematic, and I couldn’t blame them. That said, though, the show isn’t just a sexy romp through the sexy world of the Fae with sex in every other scene. Bo has some sexually charged interactions in just about every episode, but she’s also strong, brave and independent, and her friendship with Kenzie is authentic and heartwarming, free of any sexual connotations – though she has been subject to Bo’s powers in the past, Kenzie doesn’t feel any sexual connection to her and they’ve never hooked up. And – this is going to be a shock to anyone who knows me – I can’t say I want them to. Kenzie feels almost like a little sister to Bo and I’d hate to see that change. Plus there’s the fact that Bo kills most of the people she has sex with, of course, and the fact that Bo’s very touch is an irresistible aphrodisiac and I can’t see her doing that to her best friend.

Plus, honestly, I don’t think sexuality is anything to be ashamed of. Bo is a sexual character by nature – she was that way, insofar as she could be, even before she discovered she was a succubus. She’s secure and comfortable in her sexuality, and as she learns to control her powers, I expect she’ll begin exploring her romantic options in earnest. To some extent, that process has already started. While the situation may smack of fanservice, you have to expect that someone who’s had to deal with alternately repressing her sexuality or killing people since puberty would have a few itches to scratch. It’s refreshing to see a bisexual woman on television who isn’t still questioning or struggling with that part of herself, and Bo’s a hell of a woman. And Kenzie? She’s creative, enthusiastic, impulsive, snarky, courageous, and an all-around fantastic sidekick.

As I’ve said before, so far I’ve resisted the temptation to hunt down the two seasons that have already aired in Canada, so I can’t say for sure where this is going. But it’s been clear from the beginning that Bo is not some random vagrant. Though she never knew her parents and she’s only just beginning to understand the world of the Fae, the forces of destiny are already in play around her, and her ability to overcome seemingly any obstacle, through her powers, her wits, or her sheer force of will, must be more than mere coincidence. Bo is an ideal protagonist in a lot of ways: through her eyes, and Kenzie’s, we explore the rich and complicated world of the Fae, learning as she does. The show has featured scenes focusing on other characters and hinting at a wider world – not to mention deeper secrets about Bo’s past and her true nature – but these have been used sparingly, offering pieces of the puzzle without overwhelming the viewer. And, while the show is something of a monster of the week affair, a la Buffy or Supernatural, the spotlight is firmly on Bo and Kenzie. Their interactions, together with Bo’s explorations of the world around her and the slow boil of the show’s overall myth arc, give Lost Girl a solid foundation and make it more than just another monster-hunting cable series.

All in all, I would recommend Lost Girl to most adult viewers. It may smack of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series, but trust me, it’s much better written. If you enjoy Buffy, Supernatural, the Dresden Files or the Mercy Thompson series, you’ll probably like this. I know I’ll be watching.

And incidentally, folks, sorry this is late. I missed a big chunk of tonight’s episode and had to catch up with the second airing. Let’s just chalk it up to getting the kinks out of this whole blogging process – hopefully it won’t become another tradition!

Canada May Have Effectively Banned Pre-Op and Non-Op Trans People From Flying

As reported here and here. As noted on rabble.ca, the law was passed last year, and no trans passengers have reported any problems at this time, but full implementation of new laws can take a while. And while there do appear to be medical exemptions which would theoretically include transgender individuals, well, again, Mercedes Allen points out several of the problems with the medical exemptions in her rabble.ca article.

It’s worth noting that Canada as a whole has yet to pass comprehensive equal rights legislation which is inclusive of trans people. Such a bill was passed by Parliament, but failed in the Senate. Needless to say, this is very alarming, and my heart goes out to my trans brothers in sisters in Canada, as well as anyone traveling into or through the country. Traveling while trans is hard enough without this bull.

Linkspam: Flying Books, Funny Blogs & A Game That Has Something To Do With Thrones

No, this isn’t the Media Mondays post – that’ll come later. I’m planning to talk about Lost Girl, which recently started airing on (sigh) SyFy, but I’d like to watch tonight’s episode before I do that. The series has been airing in Canada since September 2010, but it’s new to American television and I’m forcing myself to watch it as it airs rather than seek out all the extant episodes. So you’ll get the thoughts of a relatively new fan, and if there are any veteran fans reading this, you may laugh or at least smile knowingly at whatever I may have to say.

No, the linkspam posts are more of a ‘whenever I feel like it’ deal. They have a unifying theme, but they’ll only come up whenever I have new and interesting links to share. I’m not going to force myself to find new content on a weekly basis. But as I’ve been watching and reading a few new things over the past couple days, I think it’s time to go ahead and share.

First, while you may have seen this already, there’s a new trailer for the second season of A Game of Thrones on HBO. I’m a big fan of the books and the series, though both can be problematic from certain perspectives (and that’s another future blog post waiting to be written, as I do have my qualms), and I am super excited for the second season. HBO has done a great job of bringing the books to life and staying faithful to the text while still making the series interesting to long-time readers and brand new fans alike, and this trailer is honestly pretty damn good.

Next, a slightly longer piece: an absolutely charming and beautiful short film called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which you may recognize from the list of Academy Award nominees. (Sadly, I was unable to embed the film here, so you’ll have to do with a link.) This comes to me by way of EPBOT, the personal-ish/crafty/geeky blog of Jen from Cake Wrecks, and as she noted, it’s “a must-see for librarians”. But as a writer – and someone who hopes to live on through her work, to touch and move and entertain people long after I shuffle off this mortal coil – I found the film spoke to me as well. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a serious bibliophile. But enough talk; watch the film, and be sure to put it in full-screen mode. It’s better that way.

Last but not least, I’ve come across a couple of very entertaining blogs recently. The first, TIME 2 TRAVEL, is a marvelous example of collaborative fiction in the form of a crowdsourced guide to various hotspots and safe houses all across space and time. It’s sort of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to time travel, and of course references to Douglas Adams abound. I don’t know how accurate the historical notes are, but that’s hardly the point. This isn’t meant to be Wikipedia. It’s just a fun little bit of fluff. The guides are entertainingly written by some very talented people, and the glimpses we get here and there of a broader society of time travelers are well-placed and intriguing.

Then we have The Avengers Shouldn’t Text, a Tumblr feed that reminds me quite a bit of Cassandra Clare’s Very Secret Diaries in that the posts offer glimpses into the Avengers’ private lives and depart quite a bit in places from the canon text. The Avengers here are most assuredly the movie versions, so we get to see characters like Darcy from Thor sticking around and raising hell. There’s also a Tony/Steve pairing that’s very endearingly done. And THOR ODINSON steals every scene he gets.

(Note to my friends: I know you may be tempted to start texting like Thor. Please do not start texting like Thor. That goes for Twitter, too. Friends don’t let friends text like Thor.)

The (Non)Problem of Piracy

Yesterday, I sent out a series of tweets tagged with #piracyinanutshell. And, frankly, it was a long series, because I had a fair bit to say on the subject, and even when I stripped my thoughts down to the basics, there was a hell of a lot left. One of my friends remarked that he couldn’t possibly retweet all that (and most people who did retweet any part of it stopped after the first three tweets), and since I’d been dithering with the idea of a blog for a while, I decided it was time to finally give it a go and give my Twitter account a little rest.

So this is my big blog post on piracy – the digital kind, mainly, though I may touch on other kinds. It’ll cover a lot of the same territory as the #piracyinanutshell tweets, but I’ll be expanding on some of the points I made there. And, I’ll be honest, this will probably tie into a lot of stuff other people have already said, and said well. But with SOPA, PROTECT IP (PIPA), ACTA and more still rearing their ugly heads, the debate is far from over, and I’ve been wanting to say my piece for a while now.

Hi, my name is Cassandra, and I am a pirate. Yarr.

Actually, the truth is that I haven’t pirated much of anything lately. That’s not because I’m afraid of SOPA or PIPA, though I think they’re terribly bad bills that should not under any circumstances be made law. It’s also not because I’m afraid of the MPAA or the RIAA, though of course I’m naturally afraid of any dangerous, irrational person armed with devastating weapons, and both organizations seem to be stocked full of such people right now. No, my piracy has died down mainly because it is far, far easier for me to access the content I want to enjoy through legitimate methods than it was even a few years ago. Does piracy still exist? Sure. And lots of people – even at the MPAA, even at the RIAA, even at the various entertainment companies that have voiced their support for stronger copyright enforcement – still engage in it. But is it still a problem? Was it ever a problem? Well…

No.

Okay, yes, there are forms of piracy that are problematic, to say the least. If someone is profiting off work they do not own, that’s wrong. Flat out. Plagiarism is wrong. Unauthorized reproduction and sale of intellectual property is wrong. What Cooks Source did was wrong. The situation described in this blog post is wrong. If someone rips off the movie you spent months or years of your life perfecting, burns it on a DVD, and sells it for half-price, they are unlawfully depriving you of income and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But what if people aren’t profiting? What if they’re just sharing a music file with others, or uploading a TV episode that other people might have missed? Well…certainly it’s not great. Certainly it’s against the law as it currently stands. Certainly people should be supporting the people behind the music, books, movies, TV shows, comic books, and other entertainment they love. And maybe it’s not the most moral thing you can do.

But I want to touch on a point I just made: most forms of piracy are already covered by the law. SOPA and PIPA didn’t exist when the RIAA and MPAA were going after pirates (and suspected pirates, and people who almost certainly were not pirates) with vicious, predatory lawsuits. Megaupload was shut down without the power of ACTA. What does this tell us?

It tells us that we are past the point where effective legislative solutions to piracy can be implemented. More than that, we are well past the point where draconian attempts at legislative solutions to piracy should be implemented. In fact, we as a society – and, most especially, those of us who create, publish and license content – should be taking a long, hard look at piracy, copyright, and copyright infringement as they currently stand. Because we can never end piracy – it will always be part of our society. But we can minimize it.

Let’s start by asking ourselves why people pirate copyrighted material rather than buying it. There are a few main reasons, and I’ll get the more vexing reasons (which, in my opinion, still represent a minority of pirates) out of the way first.

1. Some pirates aren’t interested in paying one red cent for your work. Sad but true. Some people just want a free ride. Maybe you ticked them off at one point and they’re voting with their dollars – but they still want to see what you’re up to. Maybe they’re horrible people who refuse to pay for anything they can steal. You can think what you will of them, but here’s the ugly truth: these are not lost sales. These people are not lost customers. They were never going to be your customers. And if piracy somehow ended tomorrow, they’d probably just go without.

2. Some pirates might pay for your work, but your asking price is out of their range. Maybe they can’t pay you what you’re asking. Maybe they just think it’s too much. I think a lot of software piracy comes down to this. These people might buy used copies at a reduced price, but they probably won’t pay the full ticket. These are lost sales, but unless you’re willing to lower your access price, or implement some kind of ‘pay what you will’ program, you probably can’t do much about these people either.

3. Some pirates just want to try your work out before they buy it. Okay. This has, historically, been me. I’m going to make some confessions now. I’m not proud of any of these things. My first copy of Eden Studios’s excellent Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG corebook? Scanned PDF found on the Internet. After hearing Dar Williams in concert at a college conference, I downloaded a few more of her songs to see if I really liked her, and I did not pay for them. Same with Jonathan Coulton, following my first exposure. And so on. But I went on to spend tons of money on all these things: after I’d checked out the Buffy RPG and figured out it really was for me, I not only bought the corebook, but all the supplements. And the Angel RPG. And the All Flesh Must Be Eaten corebook, and several of its supplements. And the Ghosts of Albion RPG. I became a loyal customer. Those musicians I mentioned? I’ve bought songs on iTunes, albums in stores, tickets to their concerts. And I am not alone in this. Most people don’t like to plunge headlong into something they don’t know much about. That’s why free quickstart kits for RPGs are a fantastic idea, why video game publishers should put out more playable demos, why it’s a really really good idea for musical artists to post music videos and sample songs online. Even that won’t stop piracy, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction. And the people who pirate for this reason – because they want a free sample – aren’t lost customers. They’re potential customers.

4. Some pirates really, really want to buy your work…but they can’t. Oh no! The DVD won’t be out for months! Or it’s already out, but only in specific regions! The next season of your TV show is about to start and none of the old episodes are on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon or iTunes! Your new book isn’t currently available in certain countries! What’s a poor fan to do? These are lost sales. And they’re on you. Or possibly your publisher, or distribution company, but the point is that there’s a solution: make your work available. Don’t turn your nose up at ebooks or streaming video or downloads. Use every avenue you can to get your work out there just as soon as you possibly can. (I’m going to point out that even the great Neil Gaiman is not above this form of piracy. He recently mentioned on Twitter that someone had burned the latest episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock on disc for him. When called on it, he said quite reasonably that he would buy the DVD when it came out, but he wanted to watch the show as soon as possible. And, in an age when spoilers are literally everywhere, sometimes even on t-shirts, this is a fair point.)

5. Some pirates want digital backups of items they already own. Although, often, these people are just ripping CDs or DVDs if they can. These are lost sales in the sense that people aren’t paying you twice for the same thing presented in different formats, but…really, are you entitled to that? Once someone owns something, shouldn’t they be allowed to back it up or store it as they will? If they then turn around and sell the item to someone else, but keep the digital copy, okay, that’s annoying and, yes, technically illegal. But most people aren’t thinking that far ahead. You can minimize this form of piracy by volunteering digital copies of any material you sell. At least one of my Supernatural DVD sets came with a code that allowed me to download all the episodes on iTunes. My copy of the Cortex RPG came with instructions that allowed me to obtain a free PDF. If you’re committed to service, customers will flock to you. They’ll stay loyal. Digital backups make for great service.

Oh yeah…and there’s a sixth reason.

6. Some pirates are sick and tired of the crap you’re putting them through. Why am I not allowed to skip through the anti-piracy ads on some of the DVDs I bought through completely legitimate means? Why can’t I rip the CD I bought to my iTunes account so I can play the songs on my iPod? Why do I have to put up with draconian, intrusive DRM that stands a decent chance of screwing up my computer? EA, do you really need to make me log into the Cerberus Network every time I want to play the DLC I already paid for and added to my copy of Mass Effect 2? Couldn’t you just check once in a while? What if I’m not connected to the Internet? I have been known to play games on my laptop while traveling. Yes, I do put up with DRM and other anti-piracy measures, but I don’t like it. A lot of people don’t like it. And there comes a time when you’ve pushed people too far and they don’t want to play your games anymore. I promise you that the movies, music and software you can get on, say, The Pirate Bay don’t come with any of that stuff. People don’t like to be treated like criminals, and it especially grates when they have in fact done precisely what you want them to do.

So there are the problems. What are the solutions?

1. Make your work available. I touched on this earlier, but again: push your product any way you can. If you’re only selling Region 1 DVDs of your cool new indie movie, well, maybe you should look at digital distribution to customers outside the US. And, yes, as a bibliophile, I have my problems with the Kindle, the Nook, and other such platforms – but as a content creator, I cannot afford to ignore the realities of digital publishing. A lot of people do their reading on those annoying little tablets now. Ignore them at your peril.

2. Push more free samples, and/or offer subscription services. I’m looking at the comic book companies here. Guys, I love you, and I’m really excited by some of the stuff you have to offer, but I’m poor. I can’t afford to keep up with your huge summer events, and my pull list is already pretty full, so a new series is going to have to fight pretty damn hard for my dollar (or four…or five). But you’ve taken some steps in the right direction: you try to put your best foot forward on Free Comic Book Day, and sometimes you publish sample pages or entire issues of new series in the back of your existing books. A couple of you even put your first issues online to hook readers. All good.

But…guys…have you taken a look at Netflix? Seriously, look at Netflix. $7.99 a month, and I get access to their whole streaming library. It’s a pretty good library. It’s not perfect, but you could put your second-string series on a service like that. For higher prices, maybe I get access to everything. When I go into a comic book shop, I often don’t leave without spending fifteen or twenty bucks just on books I’m going to read once and throw away. If I could spend twenty, thirty bucks a month on a service that granted access to digital copies of all of DC’s comics, or Marvel’s, or Dark Horse’s, yeah, I would probably spring for that. I would keep buying trades (because they often include special features and I like physical books) and action figures and shirts, and the collectors would keep buying those physical comics. (Comic book stores would probably take a hit. Hopefully they would be able to keep going through trade, toy and specialty item sales. I can’t say I like this, but again: I can’t ignore the realities of digital publishing.)

And this goes for a lot of businesses. What if I could read X number of novels out of, say, Tor or Del Rey’s catalog for Y dollars per month? I’d probably try more new books, and I might discover some new authors who would then get a whole lot of my money. (Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Seanan McGuire and Charlaine Harris already get more of my money than I care to admit.) Music? Hell, there are already music subscription services out there. TV? Hulu Plus already has you covered, and by the way, more networks should sign on to Hulu or similar services. Movies? What if I could pay a premium to Netflix or another service for same-day-as-theater streaming access? There would still be advantages to going to the theater (the social experience) and to buying DVDs (special features, higher resolution), but if I just wanted to check out a movie I wasn’t sure about, it’d be a hell of a lot easier.

But then there’s my next, slightly contradictory suggestion…

3. Offer more a la carte options. Now I’m looking mainly at HBO and Showtime. Look, premium channels are expensive. And here’s the hard, cold fact: I don’t want to pay for the whole package. I’m not even going to watch most of the time. HBO is A Game of Thrones and True Blood. Showtime is Dexter, House of Lies and Shameless. That’s it. And sometimes they put free episodes of new series online to get us all hooked, and that’s great, but I still don’t want to pay the full admission fee for the networks. But iTunes already has a workable concept here: the season pass. You pay one fee for the whole season, and as each episode becomes available, you download it automatically. If I could pay 25 bucks for a season pass to Dexter, True Blood, or House of Lies, I would do so in a heartbeat. I could keep up with my favorite shows, I could talk to fellow fans without fearing spoilers, and I wouldn’t be paying for a whole slew of channels I won’t even be watching 95% of the time. And, again, there would still be reason to buy the DVDs: higher resolution than streaming video or digital downloads would allow, better framerates, better sound, and all those lovely special features. (I won’t lie: the special features are half of the reason I love the True Blood DVDs. The fake commercials, the PSAs, the documentaries…they’re pretty damn awesome.)

4. Consider alternate pricing models. Remember what I said about people not meeting your asking price, or not wanting to pay for your work at all? Well…here’s a way around that. Let them pay what they want. It’s not going to work for everyone, obviously, but it’s been tried on an experimental basis: Cory Doctorow‘s done it with his novels, Radiohead did it with In Rainbows, game developers have done it with the Humble Indie Bundles, and even restaurants have gotten in on the act. If you’re an indie developer, writer, musician, filmmaker or artist, you might draw in potential customers by following their example. Will you get rich? Probably not. But I’m often pleasantly surprised by the generosity of the average person. Plenty of people have made money by putting their work out there and trusting their fans to pay what they think is fair, whether through direct purchases or later PayPal donations. It’s hard to argue with someone’s asking price when the asking price is whatever the customer is willing to pay.

5. Do not treat your customers as criminals – use carrots, not sticks. No restrictive DRM. No limitations on the customer’s ability to back up their purchase. No mandatory anti-piracy PSAs. If you want to provide an incentive to buy a certain product, try offering bonus material with the purchase: special features, sneak peeks at your next project, DLC, whatever. Hell – Mass Effect 2’s Cerberus Network is controversial for a lot of reasons, but it’s not a terrible idea. If you buy ME2 new, you get free access and some bonus DLC. If you buy it used, you don’t get access to the Cerberus Network – but you can still play, and if you want Cerberus Network access, you pay a small, one-time fee and you end up with all the perks a new user received. I don’t want to hold up EA as a sterling example of how to treat your customers nicely, but I think they were on to something with Cerberus.

Oh, yeah…don’t be a jerk about people selling used copies of your work, either. (And I realize I’m talking mainly about physical products here, though some electronic licenses are transferable.) Yes, that’s money you don’t get to see, but unless you’re willing to change your pricing model, you probably wouldn’t end up seeing that money anyway. Again, carrot, not stick: you can easily say, sure, buy my game used, but if you buy it new, or pay me a nominal fee, you can get all this shiny premium content. You can buy my album used, but there was a one-time code in there that gave you access to a special section of my site – and, hey, you can still get a fresh code with a small donation. And so on.

6. Protect your work, but don’t be a jerk. Mashups. Fan videos. Fan fiction. To some creators, they’re perfectly fine – even awesome! To others, they’re the devil’s work. But here’s the thing: your fans will remember how you’ve treated them, and yes, it may affect their purchasing decisions. You should also recognize fan work for what it is: free advertising. Now, as a writer, I know people like me can’t afford to read fan fiction based on our work – if similar elements come up in later installments, we may be accused of plagiarism; we may even inadvertently commit plagiarism. It’s a little easier for, say, musicians to watch fan-made music videos or listen to mashups of their songs. But whether or not we personally review this fan work, whether or not we give it our personal stamp of approval, we can encourage the fans to do what they like as long as they reference the original work. I discovered Jonathan Coulton through a machinima music video for Code Monkey. I’ve discovered some really interesting movies and TV shows through clips used in YouTube videos. Your attiude as a creator should be use, but attribute.

Some people may do things that irritate or offend you – but if you start telling the fans what they can and can’t do, or (God forbid) personally reviewing and approving all fan material, you lose plausible deniability if something goes wrong; and if you shut them down altogether, you may lose fans. As long as your fans are making it clear that their creations represent their interpretations of your work, and as long as they recognize your ownership, include proper attribution, and link back to you in some way, it is not your problem. It may even be a boon.

And if you are in a position to look at some kind of fan work, and you like it, make sure you say so, and in a public forum. The fans will love you for it, and you may end up discovering an exciting new talent and encouraging someone’s future career. Stranger things have happened.

(But, again, as a writer, never ever ever ever read fan fiction based on your work. At least not until you’re absolutely certain you’re never revisiting the subject.)

7. Know when to release the Kraken. That kid in Dubuque, Iowa who’s sharing a bootleg tape of your concert with all his friends is technically committing a crime – but he’s also bringing in new fans. That woman in Santa Barbara, California uploading new episodes of your television show to The Pirate Bay is technically committing a crime – but she’s also providing a service for existing fans, and possibly allowing new fans to catch up. You can pursue legal action…but maybe you should stop and think about what you’re doing. Maybe it’s time we all let piracy go…as long as there’s no profit involved.

Ah, and there’s the rub. Sometimes you have to bring the hammer down. If someone is making a profit off your work, without your permission, go talk to a lawyer and nail their sorry butts to the wall. If someone’s ripped you off without attribution and refuses to make things right – profit or no profit – it’s time to stop playing nice. But remember: with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t fight the fights you don’t have to.

Of course, the nature of copyright is such that sometimes you have to go after anyone who infringes on it, and you can’t ignore piracy once it’s brought to your attention, even if you’re perfectly okay with people sharing your stuff without your direct permission. But that’s where all your other options come in. If you make it as easy as possible to access your work, if you offer something of value for the customer’s hard-earned dollar, if you grant limited permission for not-for-profit derivative works…then you will minimize piracy. You won’t have to fight as many battles. You won’t have to look like the bad guy when you don’t want to.

The market is evolving. The Internet has had a huge impact on all our lives, and we all have to face facts. Information is free, and no matter how many lawsuits you file, how many politicians you buy, how many laws you push through your respective governments, that’s not going to change. Not easily, and not without draconian measures that would have a profound negative impact on all of us. You can still make money in this world – but only if you work to win the sales you actually have lost, and recognize the rest as sales you never had in the first place. Stop treating pirates and piracy as the problem. Start treating customers like people worthy of your respect. Change now, or watch the world change without you.

As noted in Angels in America, the world only spins forward. Try to keep up.

Some Notes On The Blog

I have something more interesting planned later today, but I thought I’d take a moment now to tell you all a few things about the blog’s structure. See, the fact is, I haven’t blogged in any concerted way in a long while, and I’ve never really blogged for an audience. So, to get myself back in the habit, I’m setting up some regular theme days designed to guarantee that I will always write at least three posts a week. All of these theme days have hokey, alliterative names because (say it with me) I am not cooler than you. I am a dork.

Yes, you can expect that to be my blog’s mantra.

So! Every week, you can expect to see the following:

Media Mondays, in which I discuss something I’ve read, watched, played, whatever. It’s my chance to make some recommendations and write some mini-reviews. Because I tend to end up with backlogs (especially when it comes to video games and books), you might see me talk about something that’s been out for a while, but I’ll try to give my own personal spin on it nonetheless.

Writing Wednesdays, in which I discuss various aspects of my writing process and the projects I’m working on (insofar as I can discuss those projects). Pretty straightforward.

And, last but not least, Fangirl Fridays. The first post in that series is already up, but again, Fangirl Fridays are my chance to gush about something I love. I’ll usually talk about why I love whatever the hell I’m talking about, but don’t expect a lot of deep analysis – I’ll tend to reserve more nuanced reviews for my other posts.

Aside from that, I’ll be posting here and there about whatever catches my fancy. But those three theme posts should be constant, week in and week out, provided I’m not on vacation or trapped in a cave surrounded by ravenous wolves or both. I’ll publicize all my new posts on Facebook and Twitter, and of course you’re always more than welcome to follow me, but come back on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and you’ll definitely see something new.

And later today, I’ll be expanding on the topic that finally got me off my butt and onto WordPress: piracy. See you then.

Fangirl Fridays: Cassie Sandsmark, Wonder Girl

By the time this actually goes up, it’ll probably be Saturday, but I don’t care. For my inaugural post on this blog, I’m going to start the first of many traditions: Fangirl Fridays.

What are Fangirl Fridays? Simply put, they’re my chance to gush about someone or something I love. It might be a fictional character (and oh yes, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Karolina Dean and Claudia Donovan are all on the docket). It might be a TV show or a movie. It might be an author or a book or a series of books. It might be a shining example of feminist or queer or minority representation. It might just be a guilty pleasure. Whatever it may be, it’ll be something that makes me go squee.

And Cassie Sandsmark is the perfect place to start, because I love, love, LOVE Wonder Girl.

Let me start by explaining a few things about myself: I have always been a nerd. I know, huge shock. But as a kid, I wasn’t the cool kind of nerd – I didn’t really get into video games until I was an adult, and I wasn’t a computer prodigy. I dressed up for special occasions, and I had some pretty cool costumes here and there, but I never really got into cosplay. I didn’t make neat little indie films or shot-for-shot remakes with my friends. My sister got most of the artistic talent; I tried my hand at drawing and sculpting, but never reached her level of mastery. Worst of all, I was, and still am, an introvert. So I was the worst of all nerds. I was a bookworm.

More than that, I was a history nerd. I wrote essays on various historical figures and periods for fun. (I was homeschooled. I didn’t even have to write the essays. They were never even graded.) I would check out a dozen books on Ancient Greece or Victorian England or Edo Japan for light reading. (Two things. One, yes, a dozen books. I was a voracious reader. Two, also yes, I liked steampunk before steampunk was cool.) I dreamed of being an archaeologist, and I don’t mean I wanted to be Indiana Jones, though part of me sort of did. As much as I loved the promise of the future, as much as I enjoyed the promise of the present, the past enthralled me.

As I grew up, all that sort of went by the wayside. I don’t mean I lost interest in history. Of course I didn’t. But I found new interests: folklore and mythology, psychology, game design, creative writing, and eventually, yes, video games. And all of these interests have, gradually, fed into one another. Lately I’ve been delving into history and mythology again as I research the background of my first novel, Fall. But history no longer dominated my life or my reading lists. I didn’t want to be an archaeologist anymore. I found new dreams and started doing new things.

Flash forward to the end of the Young Justice comic book and the beginning of the new Teen Titans. I’d started getting into comic books as a teenager, and had naturally drifted toward DC. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were already familiar characters. I started seeing references to a new Wonder Girl and I decided to check out Teen Titans as a result.

I don’t know when exactly I fell in love with Cassie Sandsmark. I know I was instantly amused and excited, in a dorky fangirlish way, that she shared the name I’d chosen for myself. I also know I didn’t fully understand her backstory at first, and while I thought her character was fantastic – strong, intelligent, beautiful, brave – I wasn’t hooked until I’d started delving into her past. But somewhere in there, I just clicked. I understood her. I empathized with her. I saw in her so much of the person I was and so very much of the person I wanted to be.

See, Cassie’s a nerd made good. And not just any nerd. A history nerd. A mythology nerd. The daughter of an archaeologist. Wonder Woman’s greatest fan. And when the world needed a new hero, she didn’t just jump at the call. She made the call happen. She grabbed the sandals of Hermes and the gauntlet of Atlas and used them to fight the forces of evil. She went up to Zeus himself and all but demanded powers of her own. And, at first, she lived and fought in Wonder Woman’s shadow. She wore Wonder Woman’s emblem and even donned a truly hideous black wig to be more like her hero. But as she grew, and changed, and gained confidence in herself as a hero and as a strong, capable young woman, she stepped out of the shadows and became something more. She lost the wig. She adopted new costumes, paying homage to her hero while establishing her own identity. She even, eventually (though not entirely by choice), gave up her secret identity and let the whole world see exactly who she was. She made mistakes, and she learned from them, but she made no apologies for herself.

When it came out that Cassie was actually Zeus’s daughter, somehow, I wasn’t surprised. When she began to come into her own powers as a demigoddess, shedding the abilities she had been granted by her father and by Ares and becoming, above all else, herself, I was thrilled. Her romance with Superboy still feels like one of the most authentic teen romances I’ve seen in a mainstream superhero comic – and while there were moments, particularly during the period when her powers were fluctuating wildly, when she had to watch her boyfriend fly off and save the day without her, they still felt like equal partners. They loved each other. They respected each other. Cassie could handle her own fights – she could even fight Conner, when she had to – and she didn’t need her boyfriend to rescue her.

Alas, all good things come to an end. In the latter days of Teen Titans, particularly as DC began steering toward the series of reboots that have (hopefully) come to an end, for now, with the New 52, her characterization changed. A lot of writers seemed to be treating her as the Titans’ annoying ‘head cheerleader,’ a disagreeable and tyrannical leader rather than the smart, strong, mature young woman I knew and loved. I slowly began to lose interest. When the New 52 hit, and it came out that DC was reinventing Cassie as a superpowered thief and rebel, I hit my wall. That was when I said goodbye to DC comics altogether. That was when I decided I didn’t need their stories anymore. I had loved Cassie’s stories before, and I would love them forever, but I had no interest in reading the new ones.

I haven’t abandoned Cassie Sandsmark. I still use her as an avatar on so many sites and forums. My personal contact cards (which I had out to new friends at cons and parties) still feature her prominently, fierce and determined and ready for battle. I still look to her and see what I want to be: a nerd made good. The awkward little geek who grew into someone strong, someone beautiful, someone confident and brave, someone unafraid of her intelligence and her power. Someone who makes no apologies for who or what she is. She is, in so many ways, the woman I wish I was, and the woman I try to be. I call myself Themiscyra, and that’s an homage to all the Amazons, both mythological and fictional, but above all else, it’s my homage to her. The superhero who shares my name. The girl who shares my past. The woman who inspires my geeky little heart to greatness.

I don’t care what DC’s done to her. Cassandra Sandsmark, daughter of Zeus, demigoddess, Wonder Girl – she’s freaking awesome. Part of me will always love her. And somewhere, in some parallel fictitious world where the colors are a whole lot brighter and everyone laughs at the laws of physics, I know she’s still out there, blazing her own trail, fighting the forces of evil, and going on some truly epic adventures.

And maybe, someday, the Cassie Sandsmark I know and love will return to the printed page. Or to the Young Justice TV show. I’ll be keeping an eye out. But don’t expect me to sit idly by. This Wonder Girl has her own adventures to see to.