Pluralistic: 07 Sep 2022 We published an Audible Exclusive about the monopolistic abuses of Audible

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The cover for 'Chokepoint Capitalism' surmounted by a black bar with white text reading, 'Chapter 13: Transparency Rights/An Audible Exclusive!'

How Audible steals from creators (an Audible exclusive) (permalink)

If you listen to audiobooks, chances are you get them on Audible, Amazon's monopoly platform with a 90+% market-share in many genres. But my books aren't for sale there, even though that means foregoing the majority of the market. I explain why in a chapter of "Chokepoint Capitalism," my forthcoming book, co-authored with Rebecca Giblin.

Audible is a classic "chokepoint capitalism" story – that is, it's a story about a company that has corralled an audience inside some kind of walled garden, and used its control over the audience to demand greater and greater concessions from the creators who want to reach them, eventually abandoning all pretense of fairness and literally stealing from creators.

In Audible's case, the walls are made from DRM, or "Digital Rights Management" – this is the "copy protection" system that Audible requires of all creators and publishers who sell on its platform. The company claims that DRM prevents listeners from stealing from creators by making it impossible to share the books they buy.

In reality, though, removing Audible's DRM is not hard; if you're a dishonest person who wants to share an Audible title widely, you can figure out how with a couple of quick searches. But while removing DRM is easy, it's also very, very illegal: under Section 1201 of the DMCA (a 1998 US copyright law), selling someone a DRM-bypass tool is a felony carrying a 5-year sentence and a $500k fine.

That means that DRM never prevents copyright infringement (because infringers don't care if they break the law), but it always prevents competition. If you're a rival of Audible, hoping to unseat it, you have to convince potential customers to give up their Audible titles or maintain two separate libraries. You can't just give them a tool to convert Audible files to MP3s or even another DRM format.

Audible doesn't give creators a choice about DRM. Whether you're Penguin Random House Audio (the audio division of the largest publisher in the world) or an independent producer, Audible requires you to use its DRM. This is so transparently abusive that I actually coined "Doctorow's First Law" to describe it: "Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and won't give you the key, that lock is not for your benefit."

Every time a publisher or creator allowed Audible to sell their work on its platform, they put another brick in the wall that surrounds audiobook listeners, making it more expensive and cumbersome for those listeners to defect from Audible to a rival platform.

The higher the walls got, the harder it was for listeners to leave.

The harder it was for listeners to leave, the worse Audible could treat creators.

This reached its apotheosis with the slow-moving crisis dubbed Audiblegate, in which the independent creators using Audible's self-serve ACX discovered that the company had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from them, an act of wage-theft to rival any media baron's most brazen crimes:

Audiblegate was discovered by Susan May, who publishes on ACX, and worked with Colleen Cross, a forensic accountant who also publishes on ACX. Now, a growing cohort of Audible authors are banding together, trying to recover their stolen wages from a trillion-dollar behemoth that was careful to subject them to binding arbitration waivers that take away their right to file a class-action lawsuit.

We interviewed Cross for Chokepoint Capitalism, as the centerpiece of Chapter 13, "Transparency Rights," which explains how if state legislatures in just three states (NY, CA and WA) passed laws requiring certain accounting disclosures, we could shift millions of dollars from monopolists' balance-sheets to creators all over the world.

"Transparency Rights" appears in the second half of our book, which is entirely given over to shovel-ready, realistic ideas for providing immediate, material returns to creators of all kinds – proposals for local, state and national governments, but also creators, artists' groups, tinkerers and entrepreneurs, and fans.

This solutions-based approach was really the reason we wrote this book. For 40 years, the only lever creators thought they could yank on to improve their situations was labeled "MOAR COPYRIGHT" and despite the ballooning of copyright term and scope, creators' share of artistic revenues has contracted, even as entertainment industry profits soared.

That's why we called it "Chokepoint Capitalism." The tech and entertainment monopolies have created hourglass-shaped markets with creators on one side and audiences on the other, and they sit at the pinch between them, demanding all that creators have to give as a condition of entry.

Giving creators more copyright under these circumstances is like giving your bullied kid more lunch-money. No matter how much lunch-money your kid brings to school, the bullies at the gate will take it from them. Indeed, the bullies will lobby for you to give your kid more lunch money – the more you give your kid, the more they can take from the hungry little beggar:

"Chokepoint Capitalism" is built on the idea that we make creators richer by restructuring the arts market by neutralizing monopolies – not by giving creators more easily expropriated rights for monopolists to take off them and use to increase their power.

After all, giving creators more copyright – the power to prevent DRM-removing tools, even when used for legitimate purposes – didn't make us richer. Instead, it made it possible for Audible to lock up our audiences and then steal hundreds of millions of dollars from us.

'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

The book is getting amazing advance notices. Margaret Atwood loved it and Publishers Weekly named it one of the most anticipated books of the fall. You'll be able to buy it anywhere as of September 27.

Well…almost anywhere. We won't be selling the audiobook on Audible, for reasons that I hope are obvious by this point. Instead, we're running a Kickstarter campaign for an independent audio edition, and we've raised nearly $100k that way! Better still, our backers have added on 377 hardcover library donations and our publisher has pledged 200 more donations!

Now, I say that the book won't be available on Audible, but that's not quite true. As from today, you can buy an "Audible Exclusive" edition of Chapter 13, "Transparency Rights," which explains in eye-watering detail how Audible locks in its listeners and uses that control to steal from the creators they love:

This is the only part of the book that's available on Audible. Instead of audiobook listeners who hear about our book and search for it on Audible getting no results, they'll get this "exclusive" book, which is 35 minutes of Stefan Rudnicki's outstanding narration of our detailed indictment of Audible's business practices.

The price of this "Audible Exclusive" is different for every listener, because Audible won't let its creators set their own price. It shows up as $3.95 for me. But rather than buying this short excerpt, I hope you'll back the Kickstarter and help us blow the doors open on Amazon's rampant wage-theft and abusive monopolism.

We're about to head out on the road with the book, with several tour stops that are still being finalized. The first one we're ready to unveil is coming up in NYC on Sept 23, sponsored by NYU's Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy:

We hope you'll come, and bring the creators in your life. We're giving space to several grassroots groups that are organizing resistance by creative laborers and other workers, and we want this to be as much about sharing tactics as it is about presenting the book.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Aug 24's progress: 523 words (36401 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Aug 24's progress: 572 words (32745 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: What is Chokepoint Capitalism?

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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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