Once_Upon_aTime_promo_imageWhen I was visiting relatives over the weekend, I had a fairly potent reminder of the enduring power of the public domain—and I finally succumbed to the inevitable realization, that in some cases, piracy is just too much work.

On Saturday night of our stay, it turned out we didn’t have time to watch Marvel’s The Avengers as I’d hoped we could. So my sister-in-law instead introduced me to the first episode of an engrossing ABC television series called Once Upon a Time. The premise is that Snow White’s Wicked Queen worked a curse that trapped well-known fairy tale heroes and heroines in the “real” world with no recollection of who they really are—but a young boy has realized the nature of the curse, and brought the woman destined to break it to the sleepy small town of Storybrooke, Maine, where…ah, but that would be telling.

This series is a great example of why we need the public domain. Fairy tales have entertained us for hundreds of years, and by the time we’re grown we’ve been exposed to them so constantly and repeatedly that they form a touchstone of our culture. They’re part of the commonly shared experience of almost everyone who grows up in the USA, or the western world in general. And because the original versions of them are well within the public domain, there’s nothing preventing people from putting them into new stories that show them to us, and show us to ourselves, in a new light. The miniseries The 10th Kingdom from a decade or so back is another great example of such a use.

Though in a sense, this is somewhat ironically undermined by the show itself. One of the characters is specifically referred to as Jiminy Cricket—who was largely invented for the Disney animated adaptation of Pinocchio and does not exist (at least, not by that exact name or in such an important role) in the original public-domain Adventures of Pinocchio novel. (Which technically isn’t even a “fairy tale” at all itself, in the traditional sense…though we’ve come to accept it as one for being in the same Disney-animated company as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella.)

Because ABC is owned by Disney (the same as Marvel is, come to think of it), the series could of course make free with Disney’s non-public-domain characters as well as the public-domain ones. More than a little ironic given that if Disney has its way nothing will ever enter the public domain again!

Regardless, I enjoyed the show. I’ve only seen a few episodes so far, but it does a remarkably good job creating a real-looking fairy-tale world on a TV series budget. It also has more than enough likable (and hatable) characters and sufficiently interesting writing to keep me coming back to see how the tale unfolds. So I wanted to watch more of it. However, Amazon Prime didn’t have the episodes available to watch for free—whereas Netflix did. And that’s where my realization came in.

I signed up for Amazon Prime chiefly to take advantage of the inexpensive, fast shipping, and to be able to try out the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library with my Kindle Touch (if I ever come across a book I want sufficiently to be able to check out, anyway), but I’ve also enjoyed a few of its free streaming movies. However, to my great annoyance, its selection is nowhere near as good as Netflix’s, but I disliked the idea of having to pay another $8 per month on top of all my other expenses, when I don’t even have as much time as I’d like to spend watching these shows anyway.

But on the other hand, both my iPad and my Zeepad have Netflix apps (my iPod Touch would, except the older version that was all that would run on it got wiped out in a backup, and of course there’s no way to get an older version from the Apple store). And there wasn’t only Once Upon a Time but also a couple seasons of Burn Notice I need to catch up on—which Amazon Prime also doesn’t have. And a bunch of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, too…and Doctor Who

I will admit, the ways I’ve watched these shows in the past haven’t always been as above-board as might be preferable. They tend to involve running BitTorrent clients and filling up space on my hard drives, and maybe burning stuff to DVD-ROMs to save space…DVD-ROMs which I’ll probably never end up actually watching again anyway. It’s a hassle to wait for the stuff to download, and to manage space so I don’t run out of room. My self-justification was that it wasn’t all that different from having a friend tape the stuff off the air for me, as people have done for me (and I’ve done for them) in the past.

But then, as I contemplated putting in all that extra effort, and trying to figure out whether I had enough space remaining on my hard drive, and really not looking forward to it, I had an epiphany: It’s just $8 a month. Spend the damned money and don’t worry about it.

More than ever, I think that the Netflix philosophy will be what kills piracy more than all the legislation and litigation in the world. Do you want to spend hours waiting for stuff to download, worrying about who might be spying on your download as it happens, how to manage the space on your drive, and so on? Or would you rather spend a few trifling bucks a month and get instant access to the “celestial jukebox” without having to worry about all that? Sure, Netflix has some disadvantages—it requires an always-on decently-fast network connection while you’re watching; you can’t download and view off-line. You don’t “own” the library, and even then it doesn’t always have all the titles you want. And you can’t watch on Linux yet (without jumping through a lot of technical hoops).

But on the other hand, you have nearly as good access to any movie and TV show it does have as if you did own it and it was sitting right there on your shelf—and you only pay the cost of a single bargain-bin discount Blu-ray from Wal-Mart every month for that access. So it’s not as if you’re buying a whole bunch of electronic media at full price that you think you own but the store might take away from you at any time.

And movies aren’t the only form of media experimenting with this. We’ve got a sort of “Netflix for music” in the form of Spotify. So why don’t we have a “Netflix for e-books”?

I’m not talking about the public library checkout access we currently have, or the rather laughable one-book-a-month-from-minor-and-self-publishers of the Kindle Prime library. I’m talking about some institution where we pay a monthly fee and get the same sort of “read whatever, whenever” access as Netflix gives us to movies. The fee could go to compensate the publishers and authors whose books we check out, just as our Netflix rental fees compensate the people who make movies and TV shows, which might go some way toward avoiding the reluctance the major publishers are showing toward free libraries that want to check out their books. If I could pay $8 a month to read any book I wanted at any time, even if I couldn’t “own” it, why wouldn’t I want to

do that? After all, I don’t “own” any e-book I buy anyway.

Regardless, I’m happy enough with Netflix so far. The image quality is good, and it has most of what I would want to watch. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about messing around with BitTorrent anymore (at least, not as much). And it’s going to let me watch some great shows in a convenient, hassle-free way. Shows like Once Upon a Time. I can’t wait to see what happens next!


  1. Chris, ironically David Rothman and I agreed in 2009 that Netflix/Roku was too awesome for words and sidestepped a lot of the copyright and piracy issues artfully. Of course, content owners have wised up and charged a higher market price. Lately Netflix has switched bigtime to TV shows to the detriment of movies. My strategy has been to resubscribe to the DVD service for 1-2 months every year or so.

    I think there’s not enough money in ebooks for a Netflix for Ebooks to take shape. Also, I believe netflix negotiated mainly with the big media companies and distributors, whereas for ebooks I think small presses and magazines exert more influence over society than smaller movie companies do.

    Also, with Netflix: it’s not uncommon for individuals to spend 60 hours per month watching Netflix, but it’s unclear whether the same could be said about ebooks. Also, a Netflix for ebooks would need to have an offline mode, which implies DRM, file management, syncing, etc. On the plus side though, bandwidth costs for ebooks are substantially lower.

    Also, Netflix for ebooks would have to cost approximately the same as Netflix or movies — perhaps even less. Right now, A list magazines like the New Yorker are charging $6 per month for ebooks. Which is just unbelievable (and I say this as someone who generally values the New Yorker).

  2. I’m a big fan of ONCE UPON A TIME, too. Nice writing and characters with enough cleverness to amuse me. You should try GRIMM on NBC, too, which uses fairy tales as an inspiration.

    Now that Disney has bought LucasFilms, I am waiting for Darth Vader to show up on ONCE and say, “Rumpelstiltskin, I am your son.”

    On copyright, stories/plots can’t be copyrighted! Not now, not ever. It’s the individual presentation of the story that is copyrighted.

    And, sure, Jiminy Cricket is specifically Disney so it would be a crazy person who would borrow the character, but ONCE would be perfectly fine without him. A smart author could easily create someone who would take the same role so why take the risk?

    Right now, a Netflixs for books can’t happen. I doubt it will ever happen. You only have to see what is happening with ebooks and libraries to see why. Most authors and some publishers don’t have a problem with libraries because they are public libraries but a for-profit service that offers almost no recompense for a book beyond the first sale would be the start of a legal WWIII.

    And, it would be just another way to syphon what little profit is to be made in publishing into someone else’s pocket which is what is happening with piracy.

  3. If you like ONCE UPON A TIME, you might want to check out the FABLES Graphic Novels from DC. Bill Willingham did the Fairy Tale characters first and, frankly, best. Though the series is starting to lose a bit of steam after 10 years, 120+ monthly issues, several spinoffs, and a beautifully illustrated prose Novel (PETER AND MAX) it is still a fun read.
    The basic premise there is that the fairy tale characters (and other classic favorites like OZ, Kim, the Arabian Nights, russian myth, etc) all resided in different worlds that were attacked, defeated, and annexed into a cross-dimensional empire of magic. The refugees from those worlds were forced to retreat through a hidden portal to a world with essentially no magic of its own where they could hide and plot a theoretical return to the homelands.
    300 years later, they’re still there, hidden in plain sight in a series of enclaves in NYC, upstate NY, etc. (Hint: the heroes and villains aren’t quite who you’d expect.)
    Highly recommended.

    Oh, and Netflix? Definitely worth the $8. So is HULU PLUS, which is more focused on next-day TV and current TV shows. Slightly better HD picture quality on Hulu. (At least via XBOX.)

  4. Marilynn, I don’t think you quite get how Netflix work if you think the only compensation the rights holders get is the first sale to netflix. What Christ is suggesting here is setting up a for-profit library that doesn’t simply buy a book and then lend it, but rather licenses the rights to lend the book and then compensates the rights holders based on a mutually agreed upon formula. If the rights holders are getting almost no profit for their book, then it is because they were poor negotiators, not because the system itself is inherently unworkable. Actually I think the biggest problem is negotiating the rights in the first place; some rights holders might be too greedy for this to work.

    In the interest to suggest how this might work, lets sketch out a scenario where there was a standard licensing agreement and the monthly rate was the same as netflix ($8). $4 might be taken by the library to cover their costs and to be their profit. The other $4 would go to the rights holders of the books in the library. How that $4 would be divided up could be determined by any one of a number or ways.

    Perhaps the most logical method is that authors would be compensated based on how many unique checkouts there were for a book over a given period (i.e., a single user might check a book out 3 times to finish it, but it would only count as a single checkout to keep some people from gaming the system). So if an author was very popular and the book represented 10% of all checkouts, they would get 10% of the $4 (well obviously 10% of every $4 in the pool).

    Anyway, this is hardly a zero recompense game for the authors. Sure the numbers might be relatively small compared to what the author gets if the book is sold in the bookstore, but consider the advantages. 1. People belonging to the service are probably not going to pirate the books. 2. If someone reads a book once and then comes back a year or two later to reread it, the author gets paid again. 3. No issues with first sale doctrine since clearly the book was never sold to the reader. 4. Authors could work directly with the company, self-publishing like with Amazon, and then if someone likes the book enough, they can buy it.

    In fact now that I think about it, the biggest problem with Amazon’s lending library is that it is mostly a marketing tool for Amazon, and does not itself generate revenue that can be used to compensate the authors.

  5. Maryland Bill, as of now, Amazon pays the author/publisher the same as if the book was “sold” for each rental so they lose nothing. Unfortunately, the lending library agreement has other, more harsh, terms which makes many publishers shy away from agreeing to be part of it.

    One thing you must understand is that publishing’s profit margin is small and the number of people reading doesn’t come near the number who listen to music or watch movies/TV. If deals like this suck away even more of the pittance authors make on each book “sale” as well as the number of people “buying” the book, many in the industry will make so little that they will go bankrupt or walk away from writing.

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