Open Branding and the TorrentBoy Experiment

By Piers Hollott
May 10, 2010

I caught up recently with MCM, the creator of a highly successful animated series, Rollbots, and proprietor of 1889 Labs, a publishing house specializing in electronic and print-on-demand fiction, to discuss one of his experiments in alternative branding, the TorrentBoy Project.

According to the TorrentBoy site, it is "the world's first open source franchise, and you can be a part of it! Whether you write stories, draw pictures, record music or just love to immerse yourself in a crazy new world, this is the place to be!" Like many cool things, the project is evolutionary, in a state of constant beta, and is described in a quirky video short.

PH: According to the introductory video, artistic products created as part of the TorrentBoy franchise are automatically licensed under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, and then subsequently under a CC commercial license if they are blessed for sale. How is this different from publication under a more conventional license?

MCM: The big difference is that normally, if someone wants to create a derivative work, they need to ask permission, go through an exhaustive approval process, and are usually denied the opportunity to participate. Conventional licensors tend to work with a select group of creators, and treat the "others" as a sea of mediocrity... which is not usually the case. What we're trying to do with TorrentBoy is create a model where the "others" can have their fanfic upgraded to full commercial status based on the merits of the individual work. Rather than apply intense filters at the start of the process, we're trying to save it for the last step.

torrentboy.jpgPH: Could you have created the TorrentBoy project without Creative Commons? Are there any problems you have encountered with CC? Any changes you would make if you could?

MCM: I could have done it without Creative Commons, but I never would have. Creative Commons gives me an easy framework to say "you can extrapolate without fear of prosecution", which is essential for this kind of project. Until you ask a lawyer to write you a similar custom license, you can't appreciate how stunningly useful CC is.

I don't have any problems with Creative Commons except for the stunning volume of emails I get from people asking me to clarify if I really mean what the license says. "Can I really give this to my friend?" is a common refrain. There's no way to stop those questions, but you can't really get cranky about it... the state of copyright in the world today makes people skittish about their rights.

If I could change one thing about Creative Commons... actually, I wouldn't change anything. I want to make some custom add-ons, like for TorrentBoy, but those will take a few years and lots of money to develop. I think there's a great case to be made for easy licensing (Cory Doctorow talked about this recently), where commercial use of a product is immediately granted, but with a set cut of revenues to be delivered back to the creator. If that could be made with an easy license-maker online, I think it could do amazing things for the business of creativity.

PH: In reviewing The Pig and the Box, Richard Stallman and Cory Doctorow both refer to the "evils of Digital Rights Management." Do you agree that DRM is essentially evil?

MCM: I think the whole premise of DRM is fundamentally evil, but maybe not in the same way. I think anyone who has spent some time in the world of computers knows that you can't really lock up content effectively, especially not when you're transmitting it in such a way that the end-user can poke it to their heart's content. But there are some developers out there that are actively peddling the fallacy of DRM to creative types who only just learned the Internet exists. "If you don't buy my super DRM, you will go bankrupt from piracy!" they yell, and then land multi-million dollar contracts to wrap movies and music in their magic chains. The DRM is ineffective and they know it, and they're draining precious dollars away from content creation, which is doing the industry more damage than piracy. Ignoring the harm done to honest consumers, I think the evil of the DRM scheme is that it's ripping off the content producers by giving them false hopes. DRM vendors are the scum of the Earth, honestly.

PH: Personally, I would read anything either of those two individuals recommended; these reviews must be incredibly satisfying on a personal level. Have you noticed this sort of publicity make a difference to the success of 1889 Books, or the individual titles reviewed?

MCM: I know every time Cory mentions my books, I get a huge burst of readers and buyers. After RMS wrote to me to say he liked the book, I believe I fainted, and wrote a few blubbery messages on Twitter. The two of them are my heroes... they're able to walk the walk, which is not always easy to do.

PH: What other writers and artists have influenced you, and more specifically, the TorrentBoy franchise?

MCM: In terms of artists, I think my biggest influence was (strangely) Star Wars. Not in terms of content or theme, but it was seeing how fanfic became such an integral part of that franchise, and wanting to improve upon it. I love the interconnectivity of the Star Wars universe, and I especially love how it's been extrapolated and refined by people around the world to become something even better. I know LucasArts is pretty open-minded when it comes to this kind of thing, so I'm hoping I can maybe do the experiment with open franchises that they can't afford to do.

I also love David Louis Edelman's Jump 225 trilogy, for thematic reasons. It is required reading for anyone with a technology background... a book written for those in the trenches. Great stuff.

PH: I've brought this up before, but I think it is a good question for anyone working in your industry: is there a "triple threat" for success in self-publishing? How useful have you found your artistic skills to be in creating a successful and recognizable brand?

MCM: You know the expression "Jack of all trades, master of none?" That's basically me. I can write a story, draw the required pictures, create a branding campaign around it, and make the website all by myself. It's not REQUIRED for success, but it definitely helps get things done faster. If I had to hire someone to make the wordmark and design for TorrentBoy, it never would have made it off the ground. The more things you can do, the better. Some of the stuff I can do can be attributed to natural talent (cough ha cough) but lots of it is just pure effort. You can format a book professionally if you take the time to research how it's done. Saying "it's good enough to do it the quick way" is like arguing for the use of layout-by-tables rather than using proper CSS.

PH: What part does technology play in the work that you do? You have worked as a web developer. Would you call this a necessary component of what you do, or a distraction?

MCM: It's a big fat distraction, let me tell you. Right now I'm supposed to be finishing the artwork to a new book, but instead I'm redesigning the 1889 Books site for the fifth time this year.

But seriously: I couldn't do any of this without the various bits of technology having evolved to where they are. I write my stories in a word processor, paste it into my online app, which converts it to clean XML for display on my site and for export to EPUB and PDF, and I have a reasonably robust subscription/purchase system integrated for longer novels. The great thing about coming from a developer background is that I can fix whatever's lacking in the current offerings, rather than trying to wedge an online book into a Wordpress template. It's nice to be able to fix my own problems sometimes.

PH: What is the "TorrentSphere"? Are you suggesting that our download culture is making us smarter?

MCM: The TorrentSphere is an invisible mesh across the whole world that shares the collective consciousness of every species on the planet. As new information is added to the TorrentSphere, the entire network becomes smarter, richer, and better. Most of the villains in TorrentBoy are trying to either steal this power, or interrupt it. Connectivity is good.

Download culture is definitely making us smarter... or at least spreading the intelligence further than it used to go. Some of the knowledge that's being spread may not be as high-brow as we'd like, but the fact that our culture is really craving to be informed is an excellent sign. Create, publish, share, repeat. It's the rest of the world starting to work on Internet time: rapid innovation that improves the whole, and makes you look back at the state of affairs five years ago and wonder how anyone ever managed to get by with such primitive technology.

The latest offerings from 1889 Labs have involved a process MCM refers to as "live-writing," a process which is part performance, part mad-lib, and completely frenetic, in which the author completes the equivalent of a National Novel Writing Month manuscript in a matter of a weekend, based largely on audience interaction. Like the TorrentBoy Project, the intent here is to leverage Creative Commons to break down the separation between writer and reader. You can follow this and other experiments at 1889 Labs.

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