Jan 262015
 

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

Despite the fact digital and new media have been around for over a decade, in the grand scheme of things they’re still a very new frontier and as a result, copyright mistakes happen frequently and often. Most of them stem from a misunderstanding (or a flat out lack of education) about how copyright affects digital media. But it’s thanks to digital media that so many of us are getting an education in how copyright really works at all.

Why is digital media such a thorn in copyright’s side? Remember that copyright is assigned at the moment an artifact becomes tangible. Digital artifacts never really become “tangible”. We can hold printed versions of online material. We can hold artifacts that house this material. But we cannot actually hold the material itself. Digital media never achieves a tangible form. In 1976, the copyright law was modified to accommodate other non-tangible artifacts, namely broadcast media, movies, and music, by adding the condition “fixed”. So, for the last almost forty years, the moment something is fixed, or set into a given medium, it gains copyright protection. The precedent was there to extend the same rights to digital media, but it took longer for non-technical governing bodies to wrap their mind around the idea that fixing something in bytes wasn’t much different than fixing it in celluloid. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998, when the highly abused, highly controversial DMCA was signed into law, that digital artifacts gained the same status as broadcast media, movies, and music and were guaranteed copyright protection.

Ideally, that should have been that. The five rights granted to non-digital creators were extended to digital creators. Done.

Not so done. While the law exists to protect digital media, none of us is born with that knowledge and for some reason we’re reluctant to teach it beyond a “Don’t plagiarize Wikipedia” lecture in English and history classes. Outside the classroom, copyright education seems to come when someone gets caught violating someone else’s copyright, and even then we don’t turn it into the learning moment it needs to be. That’s not entirely helpful. I will never forget working with a high school student one day, who told me she had copied information from the internet because it’s public information. I had to explain to her the difference between public domain (an aspect of copyright we’ll get into later on in this series) and publicly accessible. It was difficult for her to wrap her mind around, and she was an intelligent kid, because she had never been exposed to that before.

Even in the public domain narration work I’m doing, there are adults who don’t understand that difference and find themselves challenged when they try to perform something that is protected by someone else’s copyright. Pinterest users also get friendly little reminders periodically when they pin something a copyright holder would prefer not be shared through any site they cannot personally control. Pinterest is pretty good about honoring the copyright holder’s request and gently reminding users who have the pin to respect copyright.

What’s important here is to remember that digital artifacts are considered “fixed” and therefore have copyright protection, even if the copyright symbol is not visible. That means you cannot legally distribute, perform, copy, or create derivative works from a digital artifact digitally or otherwise without the copyright holder’s permission. It also means that you cannot legally take a non-digital artifact and recreate and distribute it digitally. If it’s not yours, keep your life simple and don’t copy or share without permission.

Jan 192015
 

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

While many creators are grateful to have the protection offered by copyright, some creators aware of this remix culture that’s been developing over the last couple of decades find them too restricting. You can either enjoy the full protection of copyright, or you can release your creation to the public domain. It’s just not a practical situation for creators, remixers, or consumers.

Fortunately, in 2001 Creative Commons was established. (This site is an excellent resource for questions about copyright, public domain, and all levels of protection in between.) The goal of Creative Commons is to offer creators the ability to tailor a creation’s copyright to best suit the copyright holder’s intentions, and they make a point of keeping up with remix culture trends to help navigate those rights. Under Creative Commons, a creator can choose to retain all of their rights, or to share a set of rights. Anyone wanting to use a work protected by a Creative Commons license can only use it under the conditions set by that license. For example, if the license is by-sa, then another person can use your work only if they attribute it to you and share their work under the same Creative Commons license. (Notice that all Creative Commons licenses require that users keep the source attribution with the work.)

It’s nice because it opens up an artifact to become part of the creative conversation legally. Even nicer, some creative repository sites (like YouTubedeviantArt, and Flickr) support Creative Commons and have the licensing baked in, meaning when you post to one of these repositories, you can choose to release your work under the license appropriate to your needs.

Sadly, although Creative Commons has been in existence for nearly fifteen years, there are still a lot of misconceptions about how it works. Not surprising, given the confusion people generally have regarding copyright. So, if you aren’t sure, either just abide by the full copyright laws, or contact the copyright holder and ask.

Jan 122015
 

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

I admittedly don’t have practical experience with licenses beyond Creative Commons, so anything from here is derived from research. Fair warning.

If the previous posts have got you down about using copyrighted materials in your own work, never fear. There are ways to use a copyrighted artifact legally. First, if the artifact is released under a Creative Commons license, you can use the artifact if you abide by the license. Second, you can contact the copyright holder and ask to license the artifact. Like the Creative Commons license, a license secured directly from the copyright holder will tell you what you are and are not legally allowed to do with the artifact. Licenses will often also tell you where and how long you may use the artifact. If you use it in any other way, you have violated the license, and the copyright holder might not react favorably.

Licensing an artifact can give it a new life, which can be helpful when the artifact is passed from cultural memory. But no matter how much the licensee alters and brings more to the artifact, the copyright holder can revoke the license (revisions included) at any time. Licensing can be a treacherous road, but it can also be worth it. Tread cautiously.

I realize that was really a glossover. If you would like to read more, here are some great links on licensing and transferring rights.

Jan 072015
 

I don’t know what’s going on in these “Social Media Best Practices For (insert your creative field here)” webinars and courses I see listed, but I’m somewhat confident that they don’t actually teach best practices for hanging out on social media. But that’s just based on the clumps of people I run into on social media who all seem to use the same moves. The problem seems to stem from not understanding the difference between marketing and networking, and being generally uncomfortable using social media for some reason other than sharing with friends and family . (At least, I’m hoping this isn’t how they use social media with friends and family.)

Let’s start with marketing, since I see a lot of this on a daily basis as fellow creatives follow me on social media spaces. I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t just follow back people who follow her (and I don’t expect to be followed back when I follow). I take the time to go look at the person’s profile, read their posts, and see who we have in common. But if the person’s stream is nothing but various takes on “Buy my work”, clearly posted by some automated service, or punctuated by replies that thank people for following/sharing, then no number of people in common will encourage me to follow back. And if the other person thought about it, they’d probably realize that they don’t follow people who do that (or do, and resent that person for filling up their stream with all of their marketing posts with no other posts whatsoever).

The other type of marketer that confuses me no end is the creative who posts “Buy my work” links to industry groups. It’s great that you’ve completed something and released it into the world, and fellow creatives who aren’t battling self-esteem issues will be happy for you. But unless your new release is something that would benefit the development of their own work and career (and you’re posting to a space that allows for that kind of promotion), they aren’t your target audience. And you’ve just told them you aren’t even competition because you don’t know how to accurately identify a target audience.

There’s a difference between, “This is my new project. Go buy it and tell all your fans, family, and friends to buy it,” and , “So, I just did this. It was really (adjective) because (opaque process talk).” One you say to your fans; the other you say to fellow creatives. If you can’t sort out which is marketing and which is networking, read other people’s posts and don’t say anything until you figure it out. Because you know when you are being marketed to, and you know you don’t necessarily enjoy it. It works both ways. Keep that in mind.

And while we’re on the topic of knowing whom to market to, don’t be this guy. Earlier this year, I auditioned for an audiobook because it was the right genre, age group, and performance requirements for me, and offered an acceptable compensation. I continued auditioning and working, and eventually received a generic rejection note for this project. Such is the life of an audiobook narrator. Some months later, the author sent me a message that effectively read: I don’t know if I sent you a personal rejection letter, but you’re clearly a fan of my work because you auditioned for this project. My narrator is awesome and we just released this awesome audiobook, and you should buy it and tell all your fans to buy it. (Parts of that are sadly not paraphrased.)

There aren’t words for how many things are wrong with this marketing approach, but it’s an excellent illustration of misunderstanding your audience. Unless someone who has expressed an interest in working with you has explicitly expressed an interest in the actual project itself beyond just working on it because the Help Wanted ad sounded interesting, don’t assume they’re some mega-fan and don’t market the product you rejected them from to them. That’s just tacky.

All right. One last point, and then I’ll stop. I want to talk about the act of serial adding and dropping. You’ve seen these people on nearly every social media platform. You might even be one of them. These are the people who go through tools, “friend of a friend” lists, and topic lists add everyone in sight, and then drop anyone who doesn’t add them back within a given (usually short) period. There are a few reasons people do this. They want to build their numbers by snagging anyone who autofollows or manually follows back everyone who follows them, or by snagging bots. There is no connection. And more often than not, the serial add/dropper suffers from some of the behavior I described above. It’s annoying to watch it happen on your own list, and I’ve recently noticed Twitter has started identifying people who engage in that behavior as trolls and suspending or terminating their account. (Sadly, I noticed it because two serial add/droppers who have been dogging my digital footsteps for the better part of a year have both started adding and dropping me from whole new Twitter handles.)

The thing about social media is that it’s really about building relationships. Having the most bots follow you, or annoying people you’d rather have as allies, isn’t how you “win” at social media. If you’re ever unsure about that, find someone you feel gets the results from social media you wish you were getting, and quietly watch their moves. You’ll learn a lot, and alienate fewer people.

Jan 052015
 

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

Between narrating public domain audiobooks, reading fan fiction, and just creating and publishing work on internationally available platforms, I have some experience dealing with copyright. Experience I find myself sharing regularly. So, I thought I’d make my life easier, and just create a series of blog posts sharing what I know (or am aware of, in some cases) about different aspects of copyright. But it turns out there are a lot more facets to copyright than I thought when I first sat down to work on this series, so…this is going to take a while. If it helps people better understand copyright, and what their rights are as creator, remixer, or consumer, then it’ll be worth it.

Since we’re at the beginning, though, why don’t we start with the basic question: What is copyright?

Copyright is essentially a legal protection extended to creations that lays out a specific set of rights for creators. Copyright is conferred on a creation when it is fixed in a tangible form, and remains for a period laid out by copyright law at the time the creation came into existence. (This is the single most challenging aspect of copyright, because the laws have changed quite a bit over the last century. At the time that I’m writing this, copyright lasts for the duration of the creator’s lifetime, plus ninety years.) A creation’s copyright exists, regardless of whether or not the copyright symbol is visible.

Under current copyright law, a creator (or copyright owner, if it isn’t the creator) has the exclusive right to make copies of the work, to make derivative copies, to distribute the work (original, copy, or derivative), and to perform or display the work. If you are not the copyright holder and you do anything on that list, you have violated the copyright and may or may not be in for a world of legal hurt. Some creators take copyright violation very seriously.

Over the next several posts, we’ll get more into various aspects of copyright, including ways to work legally with a copyrighted work, how copyright affects digital media, and how copyright affects international distribution of material.

Dec 162014
 

Several years ago, I started working on what started out as a cyberpunk story world. I wanted some futuristic place of my own that would allow me to play with ideas I want to explore in the course of my stories and projects. I even wrote a short story set in that world to get the ball rolling. (I was still writing novel manuscripts at the time, so writing a short story was a pretty big deal for me.)

And then the storyworld became a notebook section where I would jot down random story ideas and worldbuilding notes. One would argue that allowing an idea this big to percolate is wise, but ultimately it wasn’t getting me anywhere. It certainly wasn’t getting me closer to having my own storyworld to play in. So, at the beginning of the year, I decided to start working on the various story ideas I’d been jotting down for years. Many of them combined nicely into what is slowly becoming short story collections.

There has been a problem, though. My world notes have historically been scattered across physical and virtual notebooks, many of them incomplete or not really thought out yet. That’s been a stumbling block because I tend to run into that problem while I’m in “OMG! Must write all the things!” mode, and stopping to take the time to resolve the scattered notes I need for a particular story has often been enough to stop all forward motion on the story itself. Not exactly productive.

It occurred to me a couple of months ago that I could organize as I go, that I could focus my worldbuilding efforts on what the current story needs versus what already exists for the world and handle it in these little bite-sized moments. When the story draft is finished, it’s much easier to go back through the current gathered notes and shake them out to match what has become the reality of the world. So with each story, the world becomes that much more solid, with a clear example of the world in action. It also allows me to test out world ideas and see how they would play out in a practical setting before making them a confirmed piece of the world.

If anything, it’s added another layer of experimenting and playing with my world, and really letting me get into how things work and how they got the way they are. The hardest part now…is keeping the timeline straight and keeping story groups in the right distance timewise from other stories.

Dec 012014
 

It’s always a good idea to shake up your practice, and so that’s what I’ve been doing recently. In my free time, I’ve been looking at what I’m doing, how it’s helping, if I even still need to be learning a skill, and then finding ways to change things up. In some case, I’ve been changing the activities I do for practice. In others, I’ve been switching around the blogs and podcasts I follow.

The activities part hasn’t been too bad. For both writing and voiceover, there are plenty of experienced practitioners willing to share what they know, what works for them. Wading through all of that knowledge to find things you don’t know or haven’t heard before, or to find practice ideas you never would have thought of in a million years, can be a lot of fun. There are some crazy, generous, wonderful professionals out there.

There are also some crazy, generous, self-conscious people out there. They tend to fall into two camps: those who are stalled out because they feel like they’ve learned enough and are fine with where they are (or sometimes a bit bitter they aren’t farther along), and those who just don’t have faith in their skills.

The first group is mostly harmless. They’re passing on information that was probably valid once upon a time, but has since fallen out of style for whatever reason. As you move on from reading or listening to their advice, you quickly find that the industry has moved on from that advice…and they probably did so ten years ago. So members of this group are stuck peddling out-of-date information, simply because they didn’t get the memo the industry moved on. Not the most helpful learning resource, but they’re often who you first encounter when you’re getting into a new industry. When you encounter them later on, you usually know enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge and politely pass them by.

The second group is harmful, and it’s not unusual for its members to be unaware that they’re being harmful. It’s also not unusual for its members to be completely aware they are being harmful. In this group, the problem lies with the character of the person. They often suffer from low self-esteem or little faith in what they can do, no matter how well they’ve proven to themselves and others that they have the skills at a level they want or need. So, they start sabotaging others by giving them bad information. The more aware ones become discerning, identifying those who are good enough to “threaten” their career  and focusing their sabotaging efforts on them. The less aware ones usually lose credibility and then spiral into out-and-out crazy. It’s occasionally fun to watch. (Just when you thought this behavior was reserved for villains of bad YA stories, right?)

What makes that second group especially problematic is that you really can’t know you’ve fallen in with one of them unless someone experienced with that person warns you or you fall victim to their misery.

I guess what I’m really wanting you to take away as you’re working on building your training path is to be mindful and diligent about who you’re adding to your collection of resources. Don’t be afraid to sample a wide variety of learning resources. Don’t be afraid to listen to other people’s tales of their experience, good or bad, with a learning resource. And don’t be afraid to cut ties gracefully when it’s time to move on from that learning resource.

Nov 172014
 

We’ve become a learning-phobic society. No, that’s not true. We’ve become a very literal society. School teaches us to find a missing number in a proportion; we fail to see how that transfers to our scaling anything. School teaches us how economic depressions begin; we slept through that class and as a result get to try that little experiment all over again.

Yes, that’s unfair. On both counts. But it points out one of the biggest problems with our current education system – We generally struggle to extrapolate, to recognize patterns, and then to recognize that we have a whole collection of internalized skills that would help us if we’d just stop and let them. (That’s kind of the point of school…strangely enough.) We just never learn how to transfer those transferable skills.

One area where this is abundantly clear is in what are now called the STEM classes – science, technology, engineering, and math. A whole set of disciplines dedicated to modeling, to observing, to playing with and experimenting with, to solving problems in fun and creative ways…and we so often shun their benefits. I’ve gone on ad nauseum about math’s role in enabling us with modeling and analysis skills. This time, I thought I’d tackle coding, which overlaps with math in many respects when certain math skills are taught as algorithms.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years over whether or not coding should be included in a standard school curriculum. On the one hand, not everyone will go into a profession that requires coding skills. On the other, you don’t want to encourage hackers. (Actually, you do. It’s the Black Hats you don’t want to encourage.) On the third, learning to code helps to build and reinforce algorithmic skills and the development of systems thinking. It can even open entertaining doors for an ambitious English class.

As technology integrates into more areas of our lives, it helps for us to gain as thorough an understanding as we can of what we’re dealing with. Understanding code as a pattern or recipe that software must follow can help us better interact with technology in our lives. It can also helps us better understand, create, and execute patterns and recipes in our own lives. Coding is about prototyping and iterating, teaching practitioners to draft, test, and edit in a more interactive manner than learning to edit any other type of writing does. This ability to interpret and act on patterns or recipes follows into a wide variety of real world activities. Plus, it’s really fun to tell a computer what to do with itself.

If you’re interested in learning to code, but are beyond your school years and uncomfortable with returning to a classroom setting, why not check out this coffee shop coding program? Then, see how many ways you can use those skills in their intended context and beyond.

Nov 132014
 

If I had a nickel for every writer (nearly every single one of them self-published or amateur hoping to be picked up by a traditional publisher) I’ve heard claim they don’t need to know grammar, I’d be a very rich woman. A writer, professional or working toward professional, who doesn’t have a strong command of grammar is like a carpenter who doesn’t know the various types of joins. Actually, s/he is more like a doctor who thinks s/he doesn’t have to learn all the muscle groups in the body.

You wouldn’t trust a doctor who couldn’t tell a tendon from a deltoid. Why should anyone trust a writer who can’t structure a sentence or paragraph? It sounds like a strange and downright ludicrous comparison, but it’s really not. When you decide to pursue a profession, then you need to actually learn that trade. That includes vocabulary, tools, and techniques common to that trade’s work. Otherwise, you’re simply playing at the trade.

For a writer, punctuation marks are not much different from a carpenter’s joins or fastening devices. Crafting sentence structure isn’t much different than correctly rebuilding tendon connections. When we don’t know what we’re doing, it shows it in the lack of clarity of what we’re writing. And that lack of clarity can completely torpedo our writing.

So, if you’re a writer staring at a grammar lesson (be it punctuation, parts of speech, sentence constructions, etc.) and you’re rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, I don’t need to learn this. That’s what editors are for., it is time for you to choose a different career path. You can’t be unwilling to learn the tools of the trade and expect anyone to take you seriously.

 

(It’s been one of those weeks. Does it show?)

Nov 112014
 

When I was in middle school, the average readability level for most newspapers and magazines was right around an eighth-grade level. By the time I started grad school, State of the Union addresses were clocking in at a sixth-grade level. This has been used as proof that we as a culture are “dumbing down”, but I think that stems from a lack of understanding, both of what it means to be read at a specific grade level and what we as writers are being told to write.

What does that mean? Let’s start with that first one: readability. There are a variety of tools for determining a written piece’s readability, most of them employing a complex formula that takes into consideration how many sentences are in the piece, how many words are in the piece, and how the words are distributed among the sentences. Some tools have their own scale that you just have to know how to read. Some base off school grades, which tends to be easier for us to understand. If a piece scores at an eighth-grade reading level, we expect the average eighth grader and anyone who has completed that level of education to be able to read and comprehend the piece. The idea (theoretically) is that as you continue through school, you should be able to successfully read and comprehend more complex pieces It’s pretty straightforward, and a bit expected.

For writers, readability is a great tool because it can help us analyze our writing and make sure what we’re writing is appropriate to our intended audience, and provides clues on how to adjust our writing if it’s too far off. Or it used to be (although I do know a fair number of writers who prefer to keep writing to a readability level). Somehow, we got stuck in this cycle of simplifying our writing. Writers are coached to select a handful of smaller words over a single longer word with the same number of syllables, to create simpler sentence structures. Supposedly, it’s to create reading that could be easily skimmed and digested in an increasingly impatient, on-the-go culture. And we might be.

But we’re creating another problem. Readability scores depend in large part on the complexity of the sentences in the measured piece. When we choose simpler language, when we choose simpler sentence structures, we lower our own readability. So, it’s not necessarily that we as a culture are dumbing down. It’s that we as a culture don’t necessarily have the time to engage with reading more appropriate to our education level.

The appropriateness of the content contained within those structures? That’s a different conversation altogether.

 

For those curious, this post clocks in at about a tenth-grade level. So does yesterday’s post. Saturday’s contribution to #SaturdayScenes, a YA story, clocks in at about a fifth-grade level. Guess I’ll be doing some heavy revisions.

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