Cory Doctorow: No Endorsement

My 2009 novel Makers concerned itself, partly, with the upheaval that might attend cheap, ubiquitous 3D ‘‘printing.’’ I put ‘‘printing’’ in scare quotes because calling a device that produces arbitrary, articulated three dimensional objects (including functional, assembled multipart mechanisms and solid-state devices) on demand a ‘‘printer’’ is like calling a car a ‘‘horseless carriage’’ or Skype an ‘‘Internet telephone.’’

One aspect I didn’t delve into with much depth is the way that on-demand objects change the relationships between customers and vendors, creators and audiences. Most importantly, on-demand objects share an important characteristic with digital goods, which is that they can be produced without sinking capital into production in advance of demand, and with much less supply-chain complexity.

Obviously, ODOs aren’t exactly the same as digital objects: making a copy of a digital object costs, essentially, nothing, while an ODO could cost a whole lot to make, as when you print out large piece of gold jewelry.

But ODOs have got immense advantages in relation to physical objects. Take an on-demand book: traditional books have to be printed in large lots to realize the production savings that make them economically viable. Technology has been eating away at minimum edition sizes for years, of course. When I started selling short stories in the mid-nineties, first novels were usually brought out as mass-market paperbacks with run-sizes in the tens of thousands. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published in 2003 with a hardcover edition size of 10,000. It’s gone on to be reprinted in trade paperback, and while it’s sold into six figures now, it has been reprinted in editions as small as a few thousand copies.

Editions of two thousand copies are a lot cheaper and easier to experiment with than editions of 50,000 copies. But neither can match the flexibility of print-on-demand, which enables writers or publishers to produce editions of zero copies, such that the book only springs into existence as a physical object at the instant that someone orders it. Already, the Kindle Marketplace is full of strange phenomena that arise as a consequence of this odd trait of ODOs: automatically generated books that compile public data or web-pages (sometimes without copyright permission) into ‘‘books’’ that are as infinitely varied and mutant as a motley Petri dish of single-celled organisms.

One chewy consequence of this is the way it changes what is or isn’t a commercial object. For example, Thingiverse, the online repository for printable 3D models of various useful or imaginative shapes, sports a wide range of ODOs: all the parts necessary to make a functional mechanical clock, custom tokens for the bestselling Settlers of Catan board-game, and mutant hybrid Duplo bricks that interconnect with Brio train tracks. Thingiverse users can produce Lego-compatible bricks with any arbitrary number of crosswise and lengthwise bumps, replacement parts for antiquated calculators, and much else besides.

Historically, these ODOs would have either existed as artisanal, hand-made one-offs created by obsessive fans, or as cheap, badly made knockoffs produced by injection mold in nameless factories in a Pacific Rim special economic zone and sold under the radar of trademark enforcers.

It’s highly unlikely that they would have become normal, legitimate objects of commerce. The people whittling or casting their own Settlers of Catan pieces would never have gotten a license from the game’s publisher and probably couldn’t have afforded a lawyer to help them figure out if their objects violated trademark or copyright. The legitimate companies would never have made niche products for tiny audiences – producing objects at that scale presents a nonsensical proposition to their marketing, distribution and retail procedures. Nor did it makes sense for them to license onesie-twosie production runs of fan objects – the net profits from such a deal wouldn’t begin to pay for the cost of drafting and negotiating the contracts for it.

Now, inch by inch, odd, legally ambiguous objects are starting to creep into the stream of commerce. It started with eBay, where the occasional handmade fan-oddity would turn up amid the licensed goods and the knockoffs. Then Etsy turned it into a real cottage industry, a glorious, wild marketplace of handmade curios and oddities, many straying into territory that would give any corporate lawyer the hives.

But those weren’t ODOs, and that meant that there were practical limits on how popular they could get and how much money they could earn.

The economics of the world where ODOs meet fan activity are weird as hell. For one thing, experimenting with price with ODOs is very simple – a model-creator who’s selling through one of the ODO marketplaces like Shapeways or i.Materialise can adjust her pricing from day to day, looking for the sweet spot where the largest number of customers are willing to pay up. What’s more, the marketplaces themselves offer customer-driven variable pricing based on choices of materials: you can print an object in plastic for $x, in stainless steel for $y, and in gold for $z: you choose. There’s no need to warehouse all the possible permutations of objects and materials – objects spring into existence when a customer commands them to.

This means that ODOs can be produced at approximately the rate at which they are demanded (in practice, sometimes the marketplaces’ 3D printers get busy, causing delays). This curious circumstance – objects that can be abundant when demanded, but cost nothing if no one wants them – points the way to a new model for licensing and collaboration between fans and publishers, manufacturers and creators.

One of the most radical and intriguing notions in alternative licensing to date is filmmaker/cartoonist Nina Paley’s ‘‘Creator Endorsed’’ mark: ‘‘a logo… that a distributor can use to indicate that a work is distributed in a way that its creator endorses – typically, by the distributor sharing some of the profits with the creator.’’ Paley (and her partner organization, see Creator Endorsed as a way to throw copyright to the wind, while still signalling to buyers which products have the blessing of the original creator.

I think that ODOs could turn Creator Endorsed on its head: what if there was a mark that indicated that the creator hadn’t endorsed a product, but was still splitting the take with the upstream licensor. For example, if you wanted to make your own 3D modelled action figures derived from one of my novels and offer them for sale, you wouldn’t need to get my permission – you could just add the ‘‘no endorsement’’ mark to the product and send me a fixed percentage of the gross. Ideally, this would be a high percentage without being punitive, say 25%.

Here’s how that could work: tens, hundreds or thousands of fans with interesting ideas for commercially adapting my works could create as many products as they could imagine and offer them for sale through i.Materialise or Shapeways. There’s no cost – apart from time – associated with this step. No one has to guess how many of these products the market will demand and produce and warehouse them in anticipation of demand. Each product bears the ‘‘no endorsement’’ mark, which tells you, the buyer, that I haven’t reviewed or approved of the product, and if it’s tasteless or stupid or ugly, it’s no reflection of my own ideas. This relieves me of the duty to bless or damn the enthusiastic creations of my fans.

But it also cuts me in for a piece of the action should a fan hit on a win. If your action figure hits the jackpot and generates lots of orders, I get paid, too. At any time, we have the option of renegotiating the deal: ‘‘You’re selling so many of these things, why don’t we knock my take back to ten percent and see if we can’t get more customers in the door?’’ Setting the initial royalty high creates an incentive to come to me for a better deal for really successful projects.

Thingiverse tells us that the possible permutations of ODOs beggar the imagination. Individual approval for all of these possibilities is a badly-scaling mess. A no-endorsement mark offers a scalable alternative, albeit one without any enforcement mechanism (if you care about enforcement, you’re still stuck with tracking down and threatening or suing all the people who use the mark without sharing their income, or who just rip you off and make their own stuff without using the mark at all). But if there’s one thing the file-sharing wars have taught us, it’s that there’s more profit in figuring out how to let honest people do the right thing than there is in chasing down cheapskates who don’t want to pay up – especially when the anti-cheapskate measures make life miserable for the honest cits. With the right administration, non-endorsement royalties could be collected by reputable 3D printing sites.

I first proposed a variation of this in a column for Internet Evolution in 2009, thinking that this would be most applicable for sites like Etsy. But as 3D printing marketplaces race past traditional crafting sites, it seems to me that there’s a world of potentially mass-produced objects that need some lightweight, simple way to get legit, avoid legal wrangles, and focus on making great stuff instead of enriching the legal profession.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the July 2011 issue of Locus Magazine

14 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: No Endorsement

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow’s >> Blog Archive » “No Endorsement” — aligning the interests of creators and fans

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow’s >> Blog Archive » No Endorsement

  • July 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    I love the idea, but I wonder a bit about the infrastructure. The authors and creators that want to permit the use of this scheme would probably have to provide a standardized method for fan-anything-makers to send the default royalties to them in an automate way.
    The best solution would be if all the on-demand 3D printshops would support this directly, giving the fan-anything-maker the option to specify the original author somehow (like providing the URL to the page where (s)he is providing the standardized API that tells the printshops where the royalties goes). Now that would make this scheme quite easy to use.

  • July 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Great idea. Ridiculously greedy on the percentage. I think 5-7 percent is a reasonable number.

  • July 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    It’s not greedy on the percentage. Read the third last paragraph. It’s intentionally set high to encourage people to contact the creator should they develop a hit.

  • July 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Putting Cory’s potential money where his mouth is, I’ve put this into use.

    Here’s the Not Endorsed badge I designed, which anyone is free to use.

    Here’s a model I’ve uploaded to Shapeways that anyone can order. It’s a necklace of the little plug character from the cover of his novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

  • July 3, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Your later comments about tracking down people who don’t pay make it sound like you are thinking of this in the current legal environment rather than as a copyright replacement. In which case how is it different from the original creator publishing a set of terms, open to anyone, for use of the “Creator Endorsed” mark on derivative works?

  • July 3, 2011 at 3:55 am

    People here and on BB are missing the point a bit.

    If you are sure you are not infringing IPRs to make your ODO, go ahead anyway. The percentage is zero. if you want to approach Cory through his agent, and strike a deal for whatever is you want to do at a more commercially common percentage, plus get his endorsement, then you still can do so. This mechanism allows people to create ODOs, without affecting Cory’s reputation of they are crap, but so that purchasers still have the comfort of knowing they are supporting him. And as he says, if it’s successful, you can always go and renegotiate (and get an endorsement later) if you want to.

  • July 3, 2011 at 9:52 am

    @al, I believe the percentage of 25% is probably about right, given that you don’t have to use an idea based on someone else’s work to begin with. And as mentioned later, getting together with the original author to negotiate a smaller percentage is always an option. I believe a more compelling argument would be to address both quoted percentages by saying something like: “I believe the initial percentage should be 15% _net_ and a negotiated percentage more like 5-7%”. It would open up a discussion of net versus gross (see and would begin a conversation about the relative values of ideas versus implementations.

    @Natanaen L, yes, implementation of the scheme is tough. Support would have to come from both ends. An exposed API for registering intent is very IOC, and fits the model nicely. Perhaps the use of an attribution affiliation widget that can be included on the page in the form of a banner add/button with associated java script for tracking purposes.

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  • July 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    As a maker, I think this is brilliant. Also, I think 25% is reasonable. It’s actually less than a gallery charges you if they sell your work in an exhibition (Typically 30-50%) and you’re taking advantage of a built in target market. You don’t have to cultivate a group of fans- you’ve already got a group of fans, so all you have to do is make a good product and get a few fans to see it. If your product is excellent, they’ll tell other fans, and then you sell tons. Sure, you may have to initailly put the price a little higher, but it doesn’t cost you anything in the first place.

  • July 4, 2011 at 12:29 am

    I am slightly surprised that you fail to take into account how things often draw heavily from more than one source as inspiration.
    Who should get the 25% money for a T-shirt featuring a “those are not the droids your looking for” T-shirt featuring Terminator and Robocop stills cleverly photoshoped into hugging? Or would the creator own 75%?
    My hypothetical T-shirt may arguably be seen as fair use, but I believe the question is important because implemenmting a scheme like this will probably have the side effect of actually strengthening copyright and suchlike when only a cheapskate bastard would choose not to use the Not Endorsed programme

  • July 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I don’t understand the point of a “No Endorsement” sticker, that’s like having a sticker on a container of milk that says “This is not juice.” Um, duh. It all just sounds like a waste of paper and adhesive if you ask me.

    Considering you don’t release your work in a way that makes really give artists permission to create derivatives or conduct commercial activity using your source material, Mr. Doctorow, what it seems to me that you are saying is nothing new here: basically a small ODO producer can take a risk, break the law, make a few items based on your characters/books and sell them in obscurity and you (out of either kindness, laziness, greed, or some hybrid of the three) won’t sic any lawyers on them, but if they have any success then you want your cut. This is basically how the system *already* works. *

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