Really, one thing I’m super worried about with copyright on AI art is the fear that backlash from the art world might lead to greater enforcement of copyrights on training models, because I’ve seen artists I otherwise respect argue that using copyrighted art is “stealing,” anything the program uses is “laundering” for tech companies hidden interests.
Which is, like, scarily close to how I’ve seen a lot of authors talk about “piracy” as an evil stealing their money, even in the name of preservation and accessibility, or calling the Internet Archive’s Open Library “The library equivalent of the Sovereign Citizens movement.”
And it feels like a lot of the dialogue around “art theft” wrt AI art feels like it’s in the same mold that’s been used to puppeteer working artists to support expansions of copyright by treating some outgroup as an enemy.
But that ultimately always ends up benefitting the old media megacorps. So too would it in this case. Cause like, the world in which models have to abide by strict copyright laws is a world where Disney, Warner, et-al can use the sort of huge robust models we currently have, but we as independent artists can’t.
And like, I will say it, AI art is in fact an emerging artform. Stuff like @deepdreamnights and the fact that promptcraft is a long, labor-intensive Thing have convinced me that there’s more to it than just “type in word for instant masterpiece”
And it genuinely disturbs me that other artists don’t think of artists in that field as actual artists. They think of them in the same way as those many talentless hack NFT grifters. Which they’re not.
And, it genuinely disturbs me that artists who I’d think would know better are being grifted into treating both their audience (The common people who use these tools) and other artists (emerging AI artists) as enemies instead of allies in the same fucking way that keeps fucking happening that ends up expanding copyright in favor of the megacorps.
My view about AI art is that we shouldn't treat it like NFTs (as at least one artist I otherwise respect unfortunately suggested) but rather, we should treat it like we should have treated CGI effects in film during all those years ago.
IE, as an emerging artform with the potential for brilliance amongst those artists who use it, but also with some features very exploitable by capital that need to be guarded against culturally and legally for both the sake of traditional artists and the sake of AI artists.
Like, remember how Tron was disqualified from the Academy Award for special effects because its use of CGI was considered "cheating"? Years before CG devoured practical effects alive, and both CG and practical suffered as a result?
Cause, IDK quite how to articulate it, but that feels distressingly relevant right now...
Kickstarting the "Chokepoint Capitalism" audiobook
My next book is Chokepoint Capitalism, co-written with the brilliant copyright expert Rebecca Giblin: it’s an action-oriented investigation into how tech and entertainment monopolies have destroyed creators’ livelihoods, with detailed, shovel-ready plans to unrig creative labor markets and get artists paid.
Ironically, the very phenomenon this book describes — “chokepoint capitalism” — is endemic to book publishing, and in audiobook publishing, it’s in its terminal phase. There’s no way to market an audiobook to a mass audience without getting trapped in a chokepoint, which is why we’re kickstarting a direct-to-listener edition:
What is “chokepoint capitalism?” It’s when a multinational monopolist (or cartel) locks up audiences inside a system that they control, and uses that control to gouge artists, creating toll booths between creators and their audiences.
For example, take Audible: the Amazon division controls the vast majority of audiobook sales in the world — in some genres, they have a 90%+ market-share. Audible requires every seller — big publishers and self-publishers alike — to use their proprietary DRM as a condition of selling on the platform.
That’s a huge deal. DRM is useless at preventing copyright infringement (all of Audible’s titles can be downloaded for free from various shady corners of the internet), but it is wildly effective at locking in audiences and seizing power over creators. Under laws like the USA’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, giving someone a tool to remove DRM is a felony, punishable by 5 years in prison and a $500k fine.
This means that when you sell your audiobooks on Audible, you lock them to Audible’s platform…forever. If another company offers you a better deal for your creative work and you switch, your audience can’t follow you to the new company without giving up all the audiobooks they’ve bought to date. That’s a lot to ask of listeners!
Amazon knows this: as their power over creators and publishers has grown, the company has turned the screw on them, starting with the most powerless group, the independent creators who rely on Amazon’s self-serve ACX system to publish their work.
In late 2020, a group of ACX authors discovered that Amazon had been systematically stealing their wages, to the tune of an estimated $100,000,000. The resulting Audiblegate scandal has only gotten worse since, and while the affected authors are fighting back, they’re hamstrung by Amazon’s other unfair practices, like forcing creators to accept binding arbitration waivers on their way through the chokepoint:
I have always had a no-DRM policy for my ebooks and audiobooks. Amazon’s Kindle store — another wildly dominant part of the books ecosystem — has always allowed authors to choose whether or not to apply DRM, but in Audible — where Amazon had a commanding lead from the start, thanks to their anti-competitive acquisition of the formerly independent Audible company — it is mandatory.
Because Audible won’t carry my DRM-free audiobooks, audiobook publishers won’t pay for them. I don’t blame them — being locked out of the market where 90%+ of audiobooks are sold is a pretty severe limitation. For a decade now, I’ve produced my own audiobooks, using amazing narrators like @wilwheaton, Amber Benson and @neil-gaiman.
These had sold modestly-but-well, recouping my cash outlays to fairly compensate the readers, directors and engineers involved, but they were still niche products, sold at independent outlets like Libro.fm, Downpour, and my own online storefront:
But that all changed in 2020, with the publication of Attack Surface, an adult standalone novel set in the world of my bestselling YA series Little Brother. That time, I decided to use Kickstarter to pre-sell the audio- and ebooks and see if my readers would help me show other creators that we could stand up to Audible’s bullying.
Holy shit, did it ever work. The Kickstarter for the Attack Surface audiobook turned into the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign in world history, grossing over $267,000:
Which brings me to today, and our new Kickstarter for Chokepoint Capitalism. We produced an independent audiobook, tapping the incomparable Stefan Rudnicki (winner of uncountable awards, narrator of 1000+ books, including Ender’s Game) to read it.
We’re preselling the audiobook ($20), ebook ($15), hardcover ($27), and bundles mixing and matching all three (there’s also bulk discounts). There’s also the option to buy copies that we’ll donate to libraries on your behalf. We’ve got pins and stickers — and, for five lucky high-rollers, we’ve got a very special artwork called: “The Annotated Robert Bork.”
Robert Bork was the far-right extremist who convinced Ronald Reagan to dismantle antitrust protection in America, and then exported the idea to the rest of the world (Reagan tried to reward him with a Supreme Court seat, but Bork’s had been Nixon’s Solicitor General and his complicity in Nixon’s crimes cost him the confirmation).
Bork’s dangerous antitrust nonsense destroyed the world as we knew it, giving us the monopolies that have wrecked the climate, labor protections and political integrity. These monopolies have captured every sector of the economy — from beer and pro-wrestling to health insurance and finance:
“The Annotated Robert Bork” is a series of five shadow-boxes containing two-page spreads excised from Bork’s 1978 pro-monopoly manifesto
The Antitrust Paradox
, which we have mounted on stiff card and hand-annotated with our red pens. The resulting package is a marvel of museum glass and snark.
[Image ID: A prototype of ‘The Annotated Robert Bork]
Bork’s legacy is monopolistic markets in every sector of the world’s economy, including the creative industries. Chokepoint Capitalism systematically explores how tech and entertainment giants have rigged music streaming, newspapers, book publishing, the film industry, TV, video streaming, and others, steadily eroding creators’ wages even as their work generated more money for the monopolists’ shareholders.
But just as importantly, our book proposes things we can do right now to unrig creative labor markets. Drawing on both existing, successful projects and promising new experiments, we set out shovel-ready ideas for creators, artists’ groups, fans, technologists, startups, and local, regional and national governments.
Artists aren’t in this struggle alone. As we write in the book, chokepoint capitalism is the final stage of high-tech capitalism, which atomizes workers and locks in customers and then fleeces workers as a condition of reaching their audiences. It’s a form of exploitation that is practiced wherever industries concentrate, which is why creators can’t succeed by rooting for Big Tech against Big Content or vice-versa.
It’s also why creative workers should be in solidarity with all workers — squint a little at Audible’s chokepoint shakedown and you’ll recognize the silhouette of the gig economy, from Uber to Doordash to the poultry and meat-packing industries.
40 years of official pro-monopoly policy has brought the world to the brink of collapse, as monopoly profits and concentrated power allowed an ever-decreasing minority of the ultra-rich to extract ever-increasing fortunes from ever-more-precarious workers. It’s a flywheel: more monopoly creates more profits creates more power creates more monopoly.
The solutions we propose in Chokepoint Capitalism are specific to creative labor, but they’re also examples of the kinds of tactics that we can use in every industry, to brake the monopolists’ flywheel and start a new world.
I hope you’ll consider backing the Kickstarter if you can afford to — and if you can’t, I hope you’ll check out one of the copies our backers have donated to libraries around the world:
[Image ID: An image of a mobile phone playing the Chokepoint Capitalism audiobook, along with the title and subtitle of the book: 'Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back.']
[Image ID: Are you a writer, a musician, an artist? Is Big Tech eating your brain and sucking your financial blood? Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin’s new book, Chokepoint Capitalism’, tells us how the vampires crashed the party and provides protective garlic. Your brain must remain your own concern, however.’ — Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale]
[Image ID: I loved this book. It brings a clear and rigorous vision of the chokepoint controls that are breaking our spirit and an equally clear path forward. It speaks directly to creators, would-be artists, writers, and musicians, and all who want a free society alive with culture, dissent, creativity. It helps us all see the locks and chains, and the ways to chisel through them.’ — Zephyr Teachout, law professor and author of Corruption in America and Break ’Em Up]
[Image ID: Creators are being ground up by the modern culture industries, with little choice but to participate in markets that weaken their power and economic return. In this brilliant and wide-ranging work, Giblin and Doctorow show why, and offer a range of powerful strategies for fighting back.’ — Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, Harvard Law School]
[Image ID: This compellingly readable indictment shows how ‘consumer welfare’ regulatory theory has allowed Big Tech to choke creators and diminish choice. Giblin and Doctorow demonstrate that the goal to lower consumer costs means ‘you get what you pay for’: paying less for cultural goods leads to getting fewer creative outputs and enterprises. Chokepoint Capitalism couples its legal-economic critique with provocative, sometimes utopian, prescriptions for fairly remunerating authors and performers.’ — Jane C. Ginsburg, Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law, Columbia University School of Law]
[Image ID: The great myth of the American economy is that it rewards creators and producers. But Chokepoint Capitalism dares to tell the real story of how it actually rewards the all-powerful middlemen fleecing both workers and consumers. This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who senses that the predominant economic mythology is a lie, who wants to know what’s really happening in this economy — and who is ready to finally start fixing the problem.’ — David Sirota, writer of Don’t Look Up and founder of The Lever]
[Image ID: We all know something is wrong about every click, stream, and purchase we make — unfairly depriving value creators of their worth, while enriching the wealthiest and most extractive entities in human history. Instead of just complaining about the corporate stranglehold over production and exchange, Giblin and Doctorow show us why this happened, how it works, and what we can do about it. An infuriating yet inspiring call to collective action.’
— Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and Survival of the Richest]
[Image ID: Twenty years of internet copyright wars got us nowhere — creators are still getting the shaft. Giblin and Doctorow persuasively argue that copyright can’t unrig a rigged market — for that you need worker power, antitrust, and solidarity.’ — Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia]
[Image ID: Capitalism doesn’t work without competition. Giblin and Doctorow impressively show the extent to which that’s been lost throughout the creative industries, and how this pattern threatens every other worker. There’s still time to do something about it, but the time to act is now.’ — Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist]
[Image ID: Chokepoint Capitalism really is a tome for the times. It’s comforting to feel validated and terrifying to realize I was right all along! And now, to action! The revolution will not be spotified!’ — Christopher Coe, artist and cofounder of Awesome Soundwave]
[Image ID: If you have ever wondered why the web feels increasingly stale, Chokepoint Capitalism outlines in great detail how it is being denied fresh air. Over the past two decades, we have seen an immense consolidation of power, depriving us of fresh visions for what the web could be and contorting art and culture to flatter the objectives of a few platforms. This book does a remarkable job of identifying the blockages and surfacing ideas on the margins that could reroute us. I’m grateful it exists!’ — Mat Dryhurst, artist and researcher, NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music]
[Image ID: Chokepoint Capitalism is more than a clarion call for a new, necessary form of trustbusting. It’s a grand unified theory of a decades-long, corporate-led hollowing out of creative culture. It will make you angry, and it should.’ — Andy Greenberg, writer for WIRED and author of Sandworm and Tracers in the Dark]
[Image ID: If you’re halfway through this book and aren’t boiling mad over the way contemporary capitalism has deformed and crippled culture, get your head checked. Chokepoint Capitalism is a Why We Fight for a long-overdue uprising. Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow lay out their case in plain and powerful prose, offering a grand tour of the blighted cultural landscape and how our arts and artists have been chickenized, choked, and cheated. But it’s more than just a call to arms; it also provides a plan of battle with inspired strategy and actual tactics — ways that we can all channel that anger and make real change.’ — Kaiser Kuo, host and cofounder of The Sinica Podcast]
[Image ID: The story of how a few giant corporations are strangling the life out of our media ecosystem is one of the most important of the decade, and Giblin and Doctorow tell it better than anyone. Searing, essential, and incredibly readable.’ — Adam Conover, comedian and host of The G-Word]
[Image ID: Chokepoint Capitalism is not just a fascinating tour of the hidden mechanics of the platform era, from Spotify playlists to Prince’s name change, but a compelling agenda to break Big Tech’s hold. It presents a clear new way to think about corporate power — and a path to taking that power back for cultural creators and all of us.’ — Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and cofounder of Avaaz]
[Image ID: Chokepoint Capitalism is a masterwork. Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow lay out in chilling detail how the deck is stacked against artists, the relentless corporate drives to control production and distribution through technology and deregulation, and how oligopolies deprive gifted artists of fair compensation by eliminating true competition. But they don’t stop there: this is also a useful handbook to take on that power structure. Giblin and Doctorow remind us that when individuals understand the value of their work, they can create the necessary leverage to challenge the status quo and retake what is rightfully theirs. Both frightening and uplifting, it’s a necessary read for any artist in the entertainment industry.’ — David A. Goodman, writer, executive producer of The Orville, and former president of the WGA Wes]
[Image ID: Anyone who cares about culture can see that something is deeply amiss in the ‘creator economy’ that today’s artists are obligated to participate in. Rather than simply lamenting the problem or falling back on clichés about starving artists, what Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow do in Chokepoint Capitalism is to make clear the overall pattern that drives the exploitation of artists, from music to gaming to film to books. And they lay out a credible, actionable vision for a better, more collaborative future where artists get their fair due. Every creator will find inspiration here.’ — Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch]