Content Creator of the Month is a new project from Copia. Each month, we’ll profile a new content creator who is doing interesting and compelling things, often using the internet in innovative and powerful ways.
This month, the focus is on Ross Pruden, who we’ve written about a few times before, for his Kickstarter project Dimeword, where he planned to write 100 stories of 100 words each and put them all in the public domain. Right as the campaign was succeeding, Pruden wrote a piece for Techdirt looking at what factors made the campaign successful, and it’s been interesting to follow the project since then.
Even in this era when more and more content creators are willing to experiment with alternative licenses (usually Creative Commons style licenses), it’s still quite rare to find someone going with public domain dedications. So I’d been curious to see what made Pruden go in that direction and how he felt about the choice. Pruden told me that while he toyed with other license options, he wanted to see what would happen if he freed the work entirely, believing that it would help spread the work further:
Was it my ultimate goal to spend time and legal resources (and perpetual anguish) squeezing every last royalty penny out of every iteration of my art? Or did I just want my stories to go far and wide around the world to bolster my own reputation as a writer… and add untold value to printed book versions of those same stories? And what of the added value to all my future works of art? The choice seemed clear.
Pruden also cited the fact that Tim Berners-Lee made sure that CERN relinquished any intellectual property interests in the World Wide Web… and look at how that turned out?
Pruden has worked in various jobs within the TV and film industry for years, so he also had some background in how that industry functions, and notes that he first really truly started thinking about issues related to intellectual property when he was trying to start up his own film company. He started thinking about how piracy might impact his business plan, and decided that exploring new and unique business models was a better approach — noting that he was inspired by the way Valve set up Steam.
The other thing I wanted to discuss with Pruden was that, after the crowdfunding campaign was successful, he actually ran into some issues with completing the stories (he did eventually, but it took much longer than expected). Even though he completed the stories and sent them to those of us who backed the project, he still hasn’t completed edits on the stories for public release or released them in book format (though he’s planning to soon). I was curious as to why or how that happened. It’s fairly typical with Kickstarter projects for them to be delivered late, and with hardware projects it’s often about logistical issues. However, with a writing project, I was curious if there were other reasons. Pruden noted that there were a few different reasons, including that it turns out to be crazy difficult to write stories that are all 100 words — and he struggled with whether or not to “break” that part of his project. And then there were some additional logistical issues as well — and some “performance anxiety” in that there were lots of people waiting for these stories and that creates a different kind of pressure.
I think that’s one aspect where there’s still lots of room for improvement in the various services that are helping content creators. I’ve seen a few smaller crowdfunding providers try to add more features to help with the “follow through” part of the projects, but it’s not clear if any of them have truly caught on. However, it does appear to be a big opportunity area.
Either way, my full interview with Ross is below. Go ahead and celebrate his decision to create more works and release them into the public domain!
Can you provide a little background about your career in the film/TV industry?
I worked as a model for commercial print work in Manhattan from the age of 9, which meant fashion modeling and magazine ads. That led into commercial video work (insanely fun for a kid my age) yet as I grew older, going on auditions grew tiresome and I soon decided a career in acting was simply too brutal for my teenage self-esteem. Though that wasn’t the end of it of my interest in film. My dad had taken a 9-week intensive film course at NYU and, one summer between college semesters, I took that same course and fell in love with making movies.
Being on a film set is something akin to a magical point in time. You’re earning a dollar just like everyone else in a featureless cubicle, but you never know exactly where you’ll be working, and it’s never in the same place again. New relationships are forged quickly. You meet celebrities. You get to tell stories. In 1994, I thirsted for film work, but I was newly married and living in the London suburbs where no films were being made. Instead, I focused all my attention on screenwriting, on honing my craft.
When my feet landed in Sacramento in 2003, I found lots of film work. I even worked as an assistant director on a feature film where the director quit due to creative differences with the producer… and I ended up directing the rest of the film! The project never got released (thank the Fates) so you’ll never see that one on IMDb.
I did story consultations for shorts and feature films (still do) but my day job in the film biz was as a Script Supervisor. That was a killer job. I got to watch every frame being shot, keep track of everything to make sure no continuity errors were made, and talk with the director in-between takes. I did some feature films and shorts, but the bulk of my “scripty” work was in commercials for big corporate clients from San Francisco like Kashi, Kawasaki, etc. Sadly, when my first kid was born in 2007, I had to give up working on film sets. I went back to writing and put things in motion to start my own film company; if I couldn’t be on a film set, at least I could manage film productions from home, right?
A few years back, you became very interested in how to embrace the internet for content creation, even hosting a regular online conversation about the topic. Can you discuss your interest in the internet?
It dawned on me around 2000 that something really crazy was happening for artists concerning the internet. Of course I had been in awe of the internet’s power since the early 90s, but in 2000, I had one of those a-ha moments. I was working in a San Francisco ad agency and this designer — in between the crazy rush of putting out comps and mechanicals — was idly dabbling in downloading music illegally. Remember, this was the age of Napster, just before iTunes had launched. I remember this designer leaning close to his screen, poring over a long list of songs… basically the list was anything you could possibly want to listen to. He turned to me with this look of awe, obviously amazed at how much music he could access for ‘free’ and said, “This cannot last.” That’s when I knew the internet would profoundly change any creative industry whose work could be translated into digital data.
In 2007, as I was writing up my film company’s business plan, I came face-to-face with the “problem” of piracy. As I saw it, I had a responsibility — to my family’s financial well-being, to my business partners, to my company investors, and frankly to my own sanity — to completely understand the landscape of film production and distribution before I haphazardly started producing my own million-dollar feature films. If piracy was “killing the movie industry,” as I had so often heard, then I deserved to take a closer look and think long and hard about my own approach to piracy. If I didn’t have a feasible plan, then I felt I’d be walking straight into a crossfire without any armor. I needed to understand piracy inside and out. Why did people pirate movies and music and software? Could piracy ever be realistically stopped? Had other company or artists found workarounds? Instead of fighting piracy with legislative regulation (which never seemed to stop piracy anyway), wouldn’t it be more effective if you could beat it with a better business model?
At that point in time, Valve’s online game management platform Steam was only 4 years old and I knew in my heart they had the winning business model. They were competing in markets with rife piracy and doing very well. Could my own film company ever emulate that approach? I chose not to start a film company until I could offer a business model of equal caliber. Making art in the digital age requires a whole new set of tools and I was just starting to get a grip on what they might be.
What’s your impression of how the film/TV industry has reacted to the internet (in both good and bad ways)? Who do you think is doing some of the most exciting work?
Short answer: Those who are doing it well: Amanda Palmer and Steam. I constantly look to those two creators because they really understand how to connect with their fans, they understand what they sell, and they know how to sell it. I put my dollars into their wallets frequently. Those who fail: DVDs listed at $20-$35 when the youth generation can watch it for free on Popcorn Time or The Pirate Bay. Puh-lease.
Long answer: I’m a cord cutter, so I’m sworn off all cable TV, though not for lack of trying: my wife and I had paid cable TV three separate times in our married life and each time we were dissatisfied by a swath of channels we couldn’t opt out of, and how we felt obliged to watch TV more frequently because we paid so much for it. That sucked. So we vowed to never get cable again. We have Netflix and Amazon Prime via our Apple TV. Sometimes we rent or buy movies with the flick of a button. I’m eager to check out HBO Go now since they’ve finally cut their service loose from a cable TV requirement. I could easily go back and rewatch every episode of The Wire.
In 2012 you launched a Kickstarter project for Dimeword — a set of 100 short stories that you planned to release in the public domain. What made you decide to offer those works in the public domain? What do you think the public domain means to you?
At first, I confess I was bearish about putting the Dimeword stories into the public domain. I toyed with publishing them under a CC-BY-NC license, but any kind of legal restriction nukes the shelf life of a work of art. The more you remove legal restrictions on a piece of art, the more you increase the chances of that art spreading freely throughout the world. Was it my ultimate goal to spend time and legal resources (and perpetual anguish) squeezing every last royalty penny out of every iteration of my art? Or did I just want my stories to go far and wide around the world to bolster my own reputation as a writer… and add untold value to printed book versions of those same stories? And what of the added value to all my future works of art? The choice seemed clear.
On April 30, 1993, Tim Berners-Lee had convinced his bosses at CERN to publish a memo that relinquished all intellectual property rights to the code we know as the world wide web. No royalties. Forever. And we know how that turned out. Open source is the ultimate tool. Dimeword, with its super short stories spread across separate genres, seemed a perfect fit for a similar approach.
What made you decide to use Kickstarter?
All my filmmaker friends had their projects on there, and I really liked the all-or-nothing aspect to fundraising. If I’m really being honest, I liked Kickstarter’s cleaner web design over Indiegogo’s. :)
What was your overall impression of the Kickstarter process? What lessons did you take from it? Would you use it again or would you consider other platforms like Patreon or something else entirely?
I love how easy Kickstarter makes running the campaign, e.g., suggesting your offers be scarcities, letting you contact donors easily, and keeping track of whose information you’ve gathered. What I’d love to see more of is pledge fulfillment tracking. It was a huge headache after the campaign to manage who got what and where I was at with all of pledges. I think there may be some third parties that fill that role but if Kickstarter doesn’t offer it now, they’re missing out on a huge value add.
As for Patreon and other platforms, I absolutely would consider using them, but I’m a hard sell for new things. Once I’m sold on a service, I’m monogamous, but I must be convinced they’re mainstream enough to be seen as legitimate. Patreon has popped onto my radar enough that I’d consider it. But my heart remains with Kickstarter.
It appears that after the campaign completed, you struggled a bit with actually getting the stories done. Would love to get your thoughts on what happened? (to some extent I wonder how much more pressure a completed campaign puts on content creators).
First off, mea culpa. I made a campaign promise to write 100 stories only 100 words long, which I realized early on was going to be way more challenging than I thought, but for reasons I had not anticipated: the stories weren’t too long, they were too short. So it took me some time to wrestle with the idea of breaking my pledge promises to make something of far greater value than what I had originally promised. Once I made peace with that, I struggled with how the whole project was going to look once complete. Compounding all the logistical questions I was facing, I was forging a new path into public domain literature so I had some unanswered questions on how the finished book would be sold, distributed, and marketed. For example, should I incorporate? LLC vs. S Corp vs. Sole Proprietor? Should I bother with an ISBN? So I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some performance anxiety.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a screenplay now that I’d like to direct as a low budget feature film in the next 2 years. It’s about an astrophysicist who wakes up in her own house but suspects something is seriously wrong and spends the rest of the story questioning her own perception of the world. It’s essentially an excuse to talk about brainy topics like Planck length, Dyson Spheres, and quantum entanglement. Because it’s such a talky “two-hander,” the budget would likely have to be small… which makes it a good fit for a public domain feature film… with a crowdfunding campaign similar to Dimeword.