ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Creative Commons and The Money —

OK, so everyone wants to know how I’ve made out so far with my whole releasing the BBS Documentary as a Creative Commons thing. And by “made out”, they mean of course “made money”. As in “Did you make any? Or were you ravaged like a mid 1990s FTP site with a Lucasarts Game uploaded to it?”

So let’s dump some numbers on you, and then I’ll talk about them.

First of all, the BBS Documentary was profitable within the first three weeks of release. That means that when I announced at the end of May 2005 that it was now going out, it made back the pure money cost of production and duplication by the middle of June 2005.

Second of all, over two thousand copies have left the house since I started selling them at that time. Most left by mail, but a few were sold at conventions like DEFCON, TOORCON, PHREAKNIC and so on.

Roughly, very roughly, the documentary has brought in money in the six figure range. (Low six figures. Very low.)

So by most measures, I think that’s a success. I certainly believe it to be the case, and it inspired me to go forward on GET LAMP, so everyone wins.

Now, let’s address all of these points in a more realistic and accurate fashion, so that you don’t walk away with the wrong ideas.

Three Weeks!

First of all the “profitable in three weeks!” headline makes it all sound like I opened the floodgates and I was suddenly Scrooge McDuck. However, that’s missing the important fact that I sold pre-orders. In roughly September of 2004, I opened up the floor to people buying their copies of the documentary set in advance, to both support the project, and to have the opportunity to get anything they wanted to say onto the final DVD-ROM, which hundreds (hundreds!) of people jumped for. This brought in roughly $18,000 in a very short time. There were two reasons for doing this and a non-reason. One (more important to me) reason was so that people who’d been following the project could kind of “etch a mark” into it by having their words and their memories be a part of it, even if they weren’t specifically interviewed. And so on the 3rd disc, their words are there. The non-reason was that it was a vague anti-piracy move; you’re more likely to buy than copy a product if you get a chance to affect the product in some way. So there we go. The second reason, which shouldn’t entirely be discounted, was because I was getting push-back on the part of my family, towards the idea that I was about to drop almost thirty thousand dollars into the project for the duplication, effectively doubling the cost built up over the previous three years. Those are some pretty goddamned scary numbers, and so the question was raised if I wasn’t just throwing good money after “mad” money.

Hundreds of orders at that point proved that, in fact, I was not wasting money. So things were well on their way before a DVD was pressed.

By the way, I probably could have saved a bundle doing a plastic standard 3-DVD case, or even a 2-DVD case, shoving everything into a pre-formed package with a printed label on the outside. I think anyone who has purchased the DVD set and gotten the box knows why I chose packaging that cost as much as it did. (If I didn’t say before, my duplication company of choice was Bullseye Disc out of Portland. Say hi to Shelby and Curtis from Jason.)

If I had to do things again, and I sort of am with the GET LAMP project, I will likely offer the pre-order at a reduced rate from the “final” DVD set, to reward pre-orderers financially as well as personally (I’ll likely have another DVD-ROM piece.) We’re talking over a year out, so who knows, but this sort of stuff is on my mind. It was an incredible, stunning move to pay $50 into the hands of a guy just because he ran a nice textfile website and had some good photos up. I appreciate every one of those folks.

Two Thousand!

When I ordered my copies of the DVD set, I went a little overboard by most standards; a lot of first time filmmakers would order 1,000 copies, especially of a box set. 2,000 if they were getting good buzz. But no, I had to go and order five thousand copies.

So, basically, I would have sold out of my “stock” by now, roughly five months into release, if I’d been conservative. Not bad. On the other hand, I can react very quickly to any burst in sales because I have thousands of these things in my attic. (They used to be in the basement, but the basement gets moisture. Now they’re high and dry.)

It is worth noting where the “sales” have mostly come from, where people were getting the news and then acting on it. Without a doubt, it comes down to two main places and about five smaller places.

The first two are slashdot and boingboing. Slashdot is, very simply, a marketing powerhouse. If your product is on the front page, thousands, and I mean REAL thousands of people will check it out. From all over the world. Woe be to you if you don’t have your hosting and payment ducks in a row, because they don’t come back, either. It’s like this galloping herd of buffalo that just fucking run over your little storefront, yelling, screaming, and knocking everything over. But if you’re offering something people want, and make it semi-easy for them to get it, you will happily whistle and clean up all the broken chairs. I got mentioned on Slashdot about 5 times during the course of this production, and I made thousands each time.

Boingboing, similarly, has a huge drive, although it’s not specifically in a pure traffic sense. They definitely jam in the hundreds of visits, but they’re people who talk about their visit, who mention it in their own weblogs and forums and in person. They drive awareness instead of sales. So it’s a quality issue, although of course they also drove sales. Bear in mind this is all different than the Creative Commons event, which I’ll go into below.

As for the five smaller sites, they ranged from the Creative Commons weblog, to the DiVX weblog of all things, to a very nice (and un-asked-for) link from dive into mark that’s still up there, sending people my way. All of them have sent me dozens of sales, which add up quickly. All of these folks basically heard about me from Boingboing.

Most of the two thousand have gone out from these sites, but there have been other cases too:

A couple hundred have been going for free to interviewees and members of the press/review sites, as well as people who I pulled many favors from to make this series. A bunch have gone out at conventions, as I mentioned above: probably about 200. I also sell through Amazon, although I guess people don’t really understand that Amazon takes 55 percent of the cover price, so it’s not anywhere near as profitable as selling directly, although Amazon has a nice above-ground reach and they do a great job of getting my project in the face of a lot of people. So go Amazon. Sometime I’ll explain why I don’t sell through other venues/methods, but the short answer: they make 55 percent seem like a cakewalk.

Six Goddamn Figures!

This is gross income, not including considerable taxation, and other costs of doing business that my producer would be quick to point out: packaging materials, loss on some shipments (it was easier to go with a uniform global postal rate), unexpected financial hits involving returned and lost DVDs, gas and car costs for driving this stuff to the post office, and so on. So don’t think I’m wearing a gold chain that says “TFILES 4EVA” and sipping my Gin and Juice. But yes, if you look at pure total income, I have done very well.

My work is in a very confined and tension-filled space, that of niche documentary. People have been kind and pointed out that the film could probably play on a cable channel or in general release, but that’s where the hatreds come in; when a film is marketed outside its intended audience and people go “what is THIS crap?”

(Someday in the future I may re-edit a one-hour version of the documentary (which I will hate) and sell it down the river. Until then, you got the “director’s cut” first.)

But here’s how bad it’s been. I buy a lot of documentaries. A ton. Really obscure stuff, where I’ve bought them and they come in a generic plastic case with a hand-written label.

There have been cases where I have paid for a copy of a documentary, and the creator has actually e-mailed me: “Who are you and why are you buying a copy?”

By those standards, I’m friggin’ Richard Branson. With a better smile.

Going Creative Commons

So some part of this comes because of my going Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. But in point of fact, it was less about going Creative Commons than the essay I wrote explaining why I did it. Creative Commons has an issue, like any charity; they need people willing to give away stuff for little or no return in doing so. Sure, when you give $100 to your local theatre they’ll give you a little line in the program, or a few free tickets. And there’s little back and forth gifts like that in most charitable acts. But Creative Commons basically makes people give away stuff that the world tells them otherwise they could be selling. And that’s a tough sell. Cory Doctorow talks it up and backs it up by releasing his own created works this way, but Cory is also a productive powerhouse who has released multiple books and stories in a very short time; he’s able to amortize the pain across a lot of output. Not everyone can do that. It’s like when you watch someone in great shape talking about the advantages of a good diet and exercise, and you might realize with horror: this person really likes to exercise.

In my case, I have one product. Uno. And it took four years to make. I don’t know how long GET LAMP is going to take, but I won’t be 35 when it comes out. So this is it, the big jump, the huge leap, and I decided to go with Creative Commons. And so I wrote about why I made this choice.

It turns out that talking about it drove more sales than doing it (of course), because by putting my thoughts into a cohesive essay, people could link to the essay and the creative commons people could go “here’s a war cry, a guy who actually did it”. And a movement, of any sort, needs that sort of thing, where I’m not “tainted” with being, say, an organizer of Creative Commons.

So when you have a guy who’s not at the forefront of the Creative Commons “gang” who has created this massive five-hour project and then makes it available to the world via CC S-A 2.0 (as they say in the “CC biz”), well, that’s newsworthy.

I don’t know if that hat trick could be pulled again, that is, if I released GET LAMP under a similar license with similar announcement, if it would really generate the same interest and amazement on the parts of all the weblogs I know of out there. So who knows, maybe that was a one-time event. I won’t know for at least a year, because I’m definitely planning to release this one Creative Commons as well. (So strike one for the good guys.)

But I can state without hesitation: going Creative Commons earned me a lot of money. It did it via newsworthiness, but it still did it.

So the final question/point/clarification is: did it COST me anything?


First of all, you really can’t “pirate” the BBS Documentary. People have come running to me pointing to the Usenet feed that had the full ISO images up and the links on the bittorrent site and cry about the piracy, but there was no piracy. This is what the CC S-A license is about: unless they strip your name off, they aren’t doing anything wrong! They can in fact sell their copies, and they aren’t doing anything wrong, at least, in terms of violating your CC contract. I sometimes wonder if all the people who license their CC stuff know that. I didn’t use the music of some of the people who licensed their stuff CC because it was fairly obvious they did not. They’d drop limitations on the use of their work that weren’t compatible with the license, and think they were still licensing it out.

A good example of my use/abuse of the CC license is the music for Fidonet episode. I wanted acoustic guitars as the soundtrack. I didn’t want people singing with acoustic guitars as the soundtrack. So, I ripped, burned, remixed. In some cases, the “songs” playing underneath the interviews are five different guitarists blended into some sort of guitar gumbo, making a song that would probably cause all of them to cringe if they heard it.

Does that make me bad? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I’ve seen done to my documentary since I went Creative Commons:

  • It has been downloaded over 4,000 times via bittorrent.
  • It has played at a number of conventions as filler between shows.
  • It has played on a couple Internet TV stations.
  • Some public access stations have played it as well.
  • Relevant passages for specific subcultures (like Tradewars) have been cut out and put up so people can see the 2 minutes they want.
  • People have reviewed it, and mentioned things wrong like “it comes on 5 DVDs” meaning even though they got a copy for free, they want others to know about it.
  • It has been used as a teaching tool in several classes at the college and high-school level.
  • It has been used as a way to ‘get’ me.

The last one’s more a personal issue; I have folks who don’t like me, so they download it and go “bwa ha ha, I have snatched the jewel from your hands”, when obviously, they have done no such thing; I had a box out front with “free jewels, take one”.

The others are neat to me. Since the goal was to overcome the problem that there weren’t any BBS documentaries of note, the fact that more people are seeing them is more important to me than making money off everyone. Do I count those 4,000 downloads as “lost” sales? Or do I count them as “massive increase in potential audience”?

Call me entranced by Lawrence Lessig’s dreamy eyes, but I just can’t see these events as missing revenue or ruffians absconding with my work. Maybe if I’d sold none and watched it get downloaded everywhere, my opinion would be different. And if I’d not made it onto Slashdot and Boingboing, maybe I’d not have the same thoughts.

But I was honest with what I’ve been doing, and I was honest now in telling you the money I’ve made from this project. And it was good money (although I should hasten to add that I spent literally 2,000 hours putting this work together, and so my hourly wage was a tad low). So in my case, walking the path of light has brought me success, bountiful great success indeed.

So I will continue to walk that path.

In a related story, my producer reminds you to buy 10 copies.

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  1. Krisjohn says:

    Any chance you could give us pointers to those documentaries you’re buying?

  2. Jason Scott says:

    I think the question is, do you want a pointer to all the documentaries I’m getting, or just the good ones? Because when they’re bad, hoo boy. I think they owe me buckets of lifeforce on my deathbed to give me an extra 2 hours.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Tell which one had the nasty author, so we can harass him. (joking)

  4. Mungojelly says:

    I think the /. effect is awesome. (And all the other sites with the power to direct massive traffic.) It’s like we’re putting together our power structure– us, the new electronic society. We’re getting to the point where we can say, “RIAA, MPAA, you know what? No thanks. We like this guy over here; what do you think of that?!”

    I think that you’ll have just as much success or more getting out the word about your next project. Internet fame is just as unfair as RL fame; those who are already known are the most likely to be heard about.


  5. Robb Sherwin says:

    Holy cow! Congratulations, Jason! I got my sense of scale on the picture of that hatchback that you had linked, but I had no idea that this was a multiple-hatchback venture for you. (My review on JC *is* coming, however I must warn you — it gushes.)

    — Robb