The Case for CopyLEFT for Origami



(June 22, 2010) After a week thinking about all of this, I'm just plain hopping mad about origami copyrights, and wrote a long diatribe below.  But first, I'd like to preface this by giving a little background to other origami folders, in particular, origami model "composers," so I don't come across as an enemy. :)

I'm a casual intermediate folder. I'm not a "composer" by any means. I love folding my tips, and folding for crying babies on the bus. Since I fold for the fun of it, not for the end result, I pretty much give all my folds away. I've tossed around the idea of selling those folds for a few dollars each, but never did it.

On a whim, I photo-diagrammed my favorite dollar bill fold of all time: Fred Rohm's dollar stag, which I renamed the "buck" for obvious reasons. :) Over the years, I've gotten a tiny handful of nice email asking for help or asking me to finally diagram the sleigh to go with it (which I still haven't gotten around to!) It was nice to be loved, and it was clear that likely many others used the site but never contacted me. It made me very happy. I really love that model.

Fast forward to today.

I got an email from someone who has a small store, asking for permission to use my instructions. I thought about it for a minute or two, but realized there was no reason I could think of not to say yes. I replied but pointed out that it's not my model and she still has other permissions to get first. I contacted Origami USA to find Fred Rohm and am waiting for their research and reply (they are all volunteer) -- to make sure I was ok, and to pass that permission along to her.

But then, as I thought about it, I started getting pretty steamed about it all. What a pain for her to have to track everyone down, then hope and pray that they give her permission, not to mention the pain in the butt of paying royalty to each one if they demanded that. I mean, how much money was she making after all? This might just kill her little store!  What if that was me?

I started looking more into copyright. At the same time, reading a chance posting on Boing Boing from an author who makes a very good case to allow free downloading -- I love how he says that trying to prevent your art from being copied was, well, antiquated.

>Now, onto the artistic case [for why I allow free downloading of my
>book.] It's the twenty-first century. Copying
>stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today (or if
>it does, it'll be because civilization has collapsed, at which point
>we'll have other problems). Hard drives aren't going to get bulkier,
>more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won't get slower or harder
>to access. If you're not making art with the intention of having it
>copied, you're not really making art for the twenty-first century.
>There's something charming about making work you don't want to be
>copied, in the same way that it's nice to go to a Pioneer Village and
>see the olde-timey blacksmith shoeing a horse at his traditional
>forge. But it's hardly, you know, contemporary. I'm a science fiction
>writer. It's my job to write about the future (on a good day) or at
>least the present. Art that's not supposed to be copied is from the past.

He really got me riled up, because what he spoke of was the TRUTH. Finally someone summed up the whole problem with the clash of the old fashioned ways of doing things, and the new digital ways of doing things.  The people who feel digital artworks should never be copied without pay don't fully understand that the genie is out of the bottle -- and that we simply must find new ways of doing business, and, more importantly, that this is not a bad thing.

If you don't see why this is good, you aren't getting it, you're off the bus, you're missing out.  I hope my diatribe explains why we do want folders to sell (with attribution) but without explicit permission.

The bottom line is that origami would benefit greatly from giving up copyright, and embracing copyLEFT -- the difference between the two directly impacts the difference between origami and other art mediums like writing or music (but which also benefit from free copying -- if they do, origami does ten-fold.)  I propose too that, for origami, adding the express release of rights to folders to fold for profit. There are great benefits to doing so, and conversely great harm in not doing so.

I hope I make my arguments convincing. Here's my story:

I was contacted by Tinkokeshi (her blog) for permission to fold and sell a model based on my modifications of the $ Buck.  On my site and to Tinkokeshi, I made it clear that it was not created by me but by Fred Rohm, originally diagrammed by Alice Gray, and published in the Origami USA annual collection for 1992 (which is still for sale for a mere $15 for ~200 pages of underground origami models!)

I had heard long ago that diagrams were copyrightable, but if you memorized the instructions, then redrew them, you were free and clear. I'm finding out that this is NOT true. According to the Origami-USA's lawyers, the model itself is also copyrighted, and if you remake the model, even by your own means, even after just looking at it, if it is similar enough to the original, you are in violation of the copyright.

Coincidentally, I also saw Summer Hacking School on Boing Boing and went to download Little Brother in text on my phone. In the intro to this science fiction novel, Cory Doctorow lays out all the arguments for Copylefting his book, and makes a clear case for sharing for free.

It's worth reading his intro, and I strongly recommend it.  It's a breath of fresh air in a stale room.

I'll highlight some points he makes and some specifics for origami itself:

"For me -- for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity (thanks to Tim O'Reilly for this great aphorism)."

1000 times more so for origami.


>People who study the habits of music-buyers have discovered something
>curious: the biggest pirates are also the biggest spenders. If you
>pirate music all night long, chances are you're one of the few people
>left who also goes to the record store (remember those?) during the
>day. You probably go to concerts on the weekend, and you probably
>check music out of the library too.

No one seems to discuss this.

In short, Doctorow feels that it's more important to expand your readership than it is to make sure every reader has paid, because frankly most people become die hard, money-spending fans from getting a book for free than they do buying it blindly on their own. I'm a fan and I loan and borrow books all the time. I also spend just as he describes.

My take on this is it's a half-glass problem of perspective: some people worry that out of 10 people who read a book only 1 person bought it, whereas I look at it as if it takes 10 people to download for free to get 1 die hard fan to buy it, then the best policy is to get as many people to download it as possible. "The more milk, the more cream."

Think about it: did print books die with the Xerox machine?  Movies die with the VCR?  Music die with MP3s?  No, there are still huge markets for all of these.  I remember this mock headline: "RIAA Loses -$1.4M Because of Napster!"  That's negative $1.4M (I think it was), meaning a net gain in sales when music suddenly became easy to share widely.

Another point he alludes to but doesn't make specifically is that free downloading is essentially promotion and this is why promoters, not musicians, are typically the ones who are so upset -- free downloading is competition (and it's hard to compete with free.)  Face it, haven't you joked about "getting a commission" for mega-sharing your favorite book or item? You know your role.

I also want to make a specific point about the difference between Copyright and Copyleft.  Here is his copyleft (and thus I satisfy it by this derivative work.)   And at first it looks pretty much the same as a copyright that allows sharing:

>This book is distributed under a Creative Commons
>Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means:
>You are free:
>   * to Share to copy, distribute and transmit the work
>   * to Remix to adapt the work
>Under the following conditions:
>   * Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner
>specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests
>that they endorse you or your use of the work).
>   * Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
>       * Share Alike. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you
>may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar
>license to this one.
>   * For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the
>license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link
>   * Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get my permission
>More info here:

The things here that I think are most relevant are 1) you are free to use it for personal use, but not for commercial use without permission, 2) the copyleft is viral, which means you can make derivative works, but under the condition that your works carry the same copyleft ("viral" meaning that copyleft replicates itself and passes itself along on host works. It's a good "disease" to get.)

On its face, the two seem pretty much the same. But there's a subtle yet profound difference between the two beyond protection of economic rights. Unlike copyright, copyleft openly acknowledges the general community and its needs for sharing and deriving new works -- by simultaneously granting rights to that community.  It grows community, makes humanity better.  And because its viral, it forces those derivative works to grow the community too.  This is very important, esp when you realize copyright no longer requires attribution, but copyleft does (so you can easily contact the holder for permission.)

It's as if copyright secretly protects the author who might spring out at any moment, but it just doesn't make it easy to get permission.

(Here's a fun wikipedia article on the philosophy of copyright.)

Copyright is inherently selfish, but copyleft is inherently about community.

Consider that I have no intention, no reason whatsoever to infringe upon the revenues of either Origami USA or Fred Rohm. On the contrary, I'd love to support them (and I hope I've promoted both here.) Unfortunately, the way copyright works, it's actually very difficult for me to do so.

(This brings me back to the early 90's of sharing anime for free. All of us lamented that we wish we could see our dearly loved shows and movies for sale to the general public. Were we pretending moral high ground? Nope. Now that that has come to pass, I and many other former underground fans have, indeed, replaced all of our fansubs with commercial versions -- and bought many copies for friends. We're the diehard fans spending money Doctorow describes.)

Origami has some particular differences that make copyleft even more desirable over copyright:

The Origami USA legal document compares origami to music, but let me explain why this is an insufficient analogy. Those who make up new folds, new origami models, are compared to "composers" of music. I agree. But I say that folders (like me) who have no talent for composing are more akin to "performers" of music. The "listening" audience -- those who would simply appreciate models -- is actually severely limited by exposure, unlike the music industry.

So the difference between the casual reader and die-hard paying customer Doctorow describes is far more strictly divergent in origami -- pretty much everyone at an origami convention is a folder who owns a ton of books, and is a fire hazard of origami paper. Folders, not "listeners," are the biggest money-making market.

Origami has certainly benefited from the internet. Published books on origami are severely restricted to models that are very clearly diagrammed, and are simple to intermediate to fold. As the difficulty in the models increases, the audience diminishes. I remember my first origami convention, folding with Jospeh Wu, meeting John Montroll and Robert Lang (= free promotion! :) ) -- it was multiple trips to Kinkos to make nth generation copies of hand-drawn diagrams of really amazing, really hard models. The internet cracked that open -- poorly drawn, difficult models didn't need a critical mass to be published. (And I hope more composers photo-diagram their models like I did for the $Buck. Difficulty in diagramming is also a major contributor to obscurity.)

Origami is obscure. But this isn't just due to the lack of the same universal interest music or other forms of art has. It's even deeper: Origami models cannot be mass produced. Each one must be folded by hand by a human. All you need to do is do the petal fold that makes the wings of the traditional crane to know that robot folding is nearly impossible. Much less a pleat-sink fold, or "slip some paper out here."

In short, money in the music/print/software industries is made by slaving over one work, then mass producing it. Origami doesn't (and can't) function that way. I don't know of an origami composer who slaves over creating a model then folds 100s of them for profit (or even hires a sweatshop company to fold them.)

Doctorow argues that the music/print/software industry actually benefits from free sharing (because of promotion) -- if so, then origami has that in spades. There is no other real money-making promoter, no agent or publisher, of folded origami models for "listeners" than folders. It's all we got, really.

Origami will always be obscure. Exposure suffers from the inability to mass produce (beyond photos.) And so it should be a no-brainer that small origami stores, like Tinkokeshi's should not only be allowed, but strongly encouraged and promoted by the origami community at large.

Therefore, I propose that origami models should always be copylefted, with an extra provision to always allow folders to sell models for a profit. Particularly because copyleft forces attribution -- if the goal is exposure, then attribution is critical so the "listener" audience has a key to get backstage to become a folder. (Note that anything published in any way is copyrighted automatically and it doesn't even require attribution.)

Copyright doesn't even make sense in origami.  Copyright means the "right" to "copy."  My guess is that it comes directly from the printing press and the ability to mass market.  There is no good reason to copyright something that is difficult to copy.

And there is argument to prevent the converse.

Copyrighting, and enforcing such a copyright on small businesses like Tinkokeshi's, harms the origami community.

Such a company as hers cannot realistically exist if it must track down, one at a time, every model it offers to gain permission to sell it. Copyright stifles such a beneficial market -- she is the promoter of origami works, and it's a hell of a lot of labor.

Not only does it prevent Tinkokeshi from selling her works, but it chills the environment of sharing that is critical for expanding the origami audience. I'm scared now that I might be sued, and am waiting to hear if I need to take down my website.

I would love to hear how there is really any harm -- in particular, loss of income -- if a folder folds a model from a book without permission and sells it for profit. I would really love that to be explained to me. It better be more loss than Tinkokeshi makes in a year for her folds.  "Origami Composer Loses -$5 in Profit!!!"

A quick followup to this particular case. After spending a few days searching the web -- note that I have no legal counsel in this research -- it looks to me that I'm likely clear on the publishing of the $Buck, and the risk to Tinkokeshi in making it for profit is likely negligible:

From wikipedia

>They note that the 1976 Copyright Act establishment that unpublished works created before 1978 will enter the public domain by 2003
>remained unaffected by the 1998 extension.[12]

Some other web pages that were useful:

Why register your copyright?
>Although copyright attaches upon fixation, you cannot actually sue
>someone for infringing your copyright until you have registered your
>work with the Copyright Office. And if you register your work within
>three months from the date of first publication, or at least prior to
>the date of infringement, you can collect statutory damages from the
>infringer. Otherwise, you are stuck with actual damages, which
>depending upon the situation, may be only nominal.

I searched on the government copyright office website for both Fred Rohm and for Origami USA and found nothing registered. (Searching prior to 1978 cannot be done online.)  Fred Rohm's copyright has expired, as has Alice Gray's, and Origami USA didn't register their copyright for the 1992 collection, so the best they can do is sue me or Tinkokeshi for actual damages (which I don't think has much weight in court.)

My intention is definitely not to infringe upon the revenues of either Origami USA or Fred Rohm's heirs. On the contrary, I'd love to support/promote both if possible. And I wish copyright didn't make it so darn difficult to do so.

I would hope that if Origami USA sees this and worries that their collections have not been registered, I would strongly suggest they consider a copyleft instead, as I describe it above -- and please add provisions for small businesses to sell folded models at a profit, and counsel the contributors on the advantages of that. The same for other composers.

Lets have more origami stores out there, that attribute the composer, so kids and adults can hold real models in their hands, and dream of making one themselves.