Pluralistic: Middlemen without enshittification; The Bezzle excerpt (Part II) (19 Feb 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Middlemen without enshittification; The Bezzle excerpt (Part II) (19 Feb 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

Today's links

A black and white picture of Crad Kilodney - a middle-aged, gruff-looking white man in his 30s - in a toque and winter coat, wearing a sign around his neck that reads 'Shabby 'No-Name' Writer - Buy my book - $2.'

Middlemen without enshittification (permalink)

Enshittification describes how platforms go bad, which is also how the internet goes bad, because the internet is made of platforms, which is weird, because platforms are intermediaries and we were promised that the internet would disintermediate the world:

The internet did disintermediate a hell of a lot of intermediaries – that is, "middlemen" – but then it created a bunch more of these middlemen, who coalesced into a handful of gatekeepers, or as the EU calls them "VLOPs" (Very Large Online Platforms, the most EU acronym ever).

Which raises two questions: first, why did so many of us end up flocking to these intermediaries' sites, and how did those sites end up with so much power.

To answer the first question, I want you to consider one of my favorite authors: Crad Kilodney (RIP):

When I was growing up, Crad was a fixture on the streets of Toronto. All through the day and late into the evening, winter or summer, Crad would stand on the street with a sign around his neck ("Very famous Canadian author, buy my books, $2" or sometimes just "Margaret Atwood, buy my books, $2"). He wrote these deeply weird, often very funny short stories, which he edited, typeset, printed, bound and sold himself, one at a time, to people who approached him on the street.

I had a lot of conversations with Crad – as an aspiring writer, I was endlessly fascinated by him and his books. He was funny, acerbic – and sneaky. Crad wore a wire: he kept a hidden tape recorder rolling in his coat and he secretly recorded conversations with people like me, and then released a series of home-duplicated tapes of the weirdest and funniest ones:

I love Crad. He deserves more recognition. There's an on-again/off-again documentary about his life and work that I hope gets made some day:

But – and this is the crucial part – there are writers out there I want to hear from who couldn't do what Crad did. Maybe they can write books, but not edit them. Or edit them, but not typeset them. Or typeset, but not print. Or print, but not spend the rest of their lives standing on a street-corner with a "PUTRID SCUM" sign around their neck.

Which is fine. That's why we have intermediaries. I like booksellers (I was one!). I like publishers. I like distributors. I like their salesforce, who go forth and convince the booksellers of the world to stock books like mine. I have ten million things I want to do before I die, and I'm already 52, and being a sales-rep for a publisher isn't on my bucket list. I am so thankful that someone else wants to do this for me.

That's why we have intermediaries, and why disintermediation always leads to some degree of re-intermediation. There's a lot of explicit and implicit knowledge and specialized skill required to connect buyers and sellers, creators and audiences, and other sides of two-sided markets. Some producers can do some of this stuff for themselves, and a very few – like Crad – can do it all, but most of us need some help, somewhere along the way. In the excellent 2022 book Direct, Kathryn Judge lays out a clear case for all the good that middlemen can do:

So why were we all so anxious for disintermediation back in the late 1990s? Here's a hint: it wasn't because we hated intermediaries – it was because we hated powerful intermediaries.

The point of an intermediary is to serve as a conduit between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers, audiences and creators. When an intermediary gains power over the audience – say, by locking them inside a walled garden – and then uses that lock-in to screw producers and appropriate an ever larger share of the value going between them, that's when intermediaries become a problem.

The problem isn't that someone will handle ticketing for your gig. The problem is that Ticketmaster has locked down all the ticketing, and the venues, and the promotions, and it uses that power to gouge fans and rip off artists:

The problem isn't that there's a well-made website that lets you shop for goods sold by many small merchants and producers. It's that Amazon has cornered this market, takes $0.51 out of every dollar you spend there, and clones and destroys any small merchant who succeeds on the platform:

The problem isn't that there's a website where you can stream most of the music ever recorded. It's that Spotify colludes with the Big Three labels to rip off artists and sneaks crap you don't want to hear into your stream in order to collect payola:

The problem isn't that there's a website where you can buy any audiobook you want. It's that Amazon's Audible locks every book to its platform forever and steals hundreds of millions of dollars from creators:

The problem, in other words, isn't intermediation – it's power. The thing that distinguishes a useful intermediary from an enshittified bully is power. Intermediaries gain power when our governments stop enforcing competition law. This lets intermediaries buy each other up and corner markets. Once they've formed cozy cartels, they can capture their regulators and commit rampant labor, privacy and consumer violations with impunity. That capture also lets them harness governments to punish smaller players that want to free workers, creators, audiences and customers from walled gardens. It also hands them a whip-hand over their workers, so that any worker who refuses to aid in these nefarious plans can be easily fired:

A world with intermediaries is a better world. As much as I love Crad Kilodney's books, I wouldn't want to live in a world where the only books on my shelves came from people prepared to stand on a street-corner wearing a "FOUL PUS FROM DEAD DOGS" sign.

The problem isn't intermediaries – it's powerful intermediaries. That's why the world's surging antitrust movement is so exciting: by reinstating competition law, we can keep intermediaries small and comparatively weak, so that creators and audiences, drivers and riders, sellers and buyers, and other groups seeking to connect will not find themselves made subservient to middlemen.

The cover of the Tor Books edition of *The Bezzle*: a yellow background with the words 'Cory Doctorow,' 'The Bezzle,' 'New York Times Bestselling Author,' and 'A Martin Hench novel.' Between them is an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle (in blue, black and cream) that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

The Bezzle excerpt (Part II) (permalink)

Today, I'm bringing you part two of this week's serialized excerpt from The Bezzle, my new Martin Hench high-tech crime revenge thriller:

Though most of the scams that Hench – a two-fisted forensic accountant specializing in Silicon Valley skullduggery – goes after in The Bezzle have a strong tech component, this excerpt concerns a pre-digital scam: music royalty theft.

This is a subject that I got really deep into when researching and writing 2022's Chokepoint Capitalism – a manifesto for fixing creative labor markets:

My co-author on that book is Rebecca Giblin, who also happens to be one of the world's leading experts in "copyright termination" – the legal right of creative workers to claw back any rights they signed over after 35 years:

This was enshrined in the 1976 Copyright Act, and has largely languished in obscurity since then, though recent years have seen creators of all kinds getting their rights back through termination – the authors of The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High Books, Stephen King, and George Clinton, to name a few. The estates of the core team at Marvel Comics, including Stan Lee, just settled a case that might have let them take the rights to all those characters back from Disney:

Copyright termination is a powerful tonic to the bargaining disparities between creative workers. A creative worker who signs a bad contract at the start of their career can – if they choose – tear that contract up 35 years later and demand a better one.

Turning this into a plot-point in The Bezzle is the kind of thing that I love about this series – the ability to take important, obscure, technical aspects of how the world works and turn them into high-stakes technothriller storylines that bring them to the audience they deserve.

If you signed something away 35 years ago and you want to get it back, try Rights Back, an automated termination of tranfer tool co-developed by Creative Commons and Authors Alliance (whose advisory board I volunteer on):

All right, onto today's installment. Here's part one, published on Saturday:

* * *
It was on one of those drives where Stefon learned about copyright termination. It was 2011, and NPR was doing a story on the 1976 Copyright Act, passed the same year that was on the bottom of the document Chuy forged.

Under the ’76 act, artists acquired a “termination right”—­ that is, the power to cancel any copyright assignment after thirty-­five years, even if they signed a contract promising to sign away their rights forever and a day (or until the copyright ran out, which was nearly the same thing).

Listening to a smart, assured lady law professor from UC Berkeley explaining how this termination thing worked, Stefon got a wild idea. He pulled over and found a stub of a pencil and the back of a parking-­ticket envelope and wrote down the professor’s name when it was repeated at the end of the program. The next day he went to the Inglewood Public Library and got a reference librarian to teach him how to look up a UC Berkeley email address and he sent an email to the professor asking how he could terminate his copyright assignment.

He was pretty sure she wasn’t going to answer him, but she did, in less than a day. He got the email on his son’s smartphone and the boy helped him send a reply asking if he could call her. One thing led to another and two weeks later, he’d filed the paperwork with the U.S. Copyright Office, along with a check for one hundred dollars.

Time passed, and Stefon mostly forgot about his paperwork adventure with the Copyright Office, though every now and again he’d remember, think about that hundred dollars, and shake his head. Then, nearly a year later, there it was, in his mailbox: a letter saying that his copyright assignment had been canceled and his copyrights were his again. There was also a copy of a letter that had been sent to Chuy, explaining the same thing.

Stefon knew a lawyer—­well, almost a lawyer, an ex–­trumpet player who became a paralegal after one time subbing for Sly Stone’s usual guy, and then never getting another gig that good. He invited Jamal over for dinner and cooked his best pot roast and served it with good whiskey and then Jamal agreed to send a letter to Inglewood Jams, informing them that Chuy no longer controlled his copyrights and they had to deal with him direct from now on.

Stefon hand-­delivered the letter the next day, wearing his good suit for reasons he couldn’t explain. The receptionist took it without a blink. He waited.

“Thank you,” she said, pointedly, glancing at the door.

“I can wait,” he said.

“For what?” She reminded him of his boy’s girlfriend, a sophomore a year younger than him. Both women projected a fierce message that they were done with everyone’s shit, especially shit from men, especially old men. He chose his words carefully.

“I don’t know, honestly.” He smiled shyly. He was a good-­looking man, still. That smile had once beamed out of televisions all over America, from the Soul Train stage. “But ma’am, begging your pardon, that letter is about my music, which you all sell here. You sell a lot of it, and I want to talk that over with whoever is in charge of that business.”

She let down her guard by one minute increment. “You’ll want Mr. Gounder,” she said. “He’s not in today. Give me your phone number, I’ll have him call.”

He did, but Mr. Gounder didn’t call. He called back two days later, and the day after that, and the following Monday, and then he went back to the office. The receptionist who reminded him of his son’s girlfriend gave him a shocked look.

“Hello,” he said, and tried out that shy smile. “I wonder if I might see that Mr. Gounder.”

She grew visibly uncomfortable. “Mr. Gounder isn’t in today,” she lied. “I see,” he said. “Will he be in tomorrow?”

“No,” she said.

“The day after?”

“No.” Softer.

“Is that Mr. Gounder of yours ever coming in?”

She sighed. “Mr. Gounder doesn’t want to speak with you, I’m sorry.”

The smile hadn’t worked, so he switched to the look he used to give his bandmates when they wouldn’t cooperate. “Maybe someone can tell me why?”

A door behind her had been open a crack; now it swung wide and a young man came out. He looked Hispanic, with a sharp fade and flashy sneakers, but he didn’t talk like a club kid or a hood rat—­he sounded like a USC law student.

“Sir, if you have a claim you’d like Mr. Gounder to engage with, please have your attorney contact him directly.”

Stefon looked this kid up and down and up, tried and failed to catch the receptionist’s eye, and said, “Maybe I can talk this over with you. Are you someone in charge around here?”

“I’m Xavier Perez. I’m vice president for catalog development here. I don’t deal with legal claims, though. That’s strictly Mr. Gounder’s job. Please have your attorney put your query in writing and Mr. Gounder will be in touch as soon as is ­feasible.”

“I did have a lawyer write him a letter,” Stefon said. “I gave it to this young woman. Mr. Gounder hasn’t been in touch.”

Perez looked at the receptionist. “Did you receive a letter from this gentleman?”

She nodded, still not meeting Stefon’s eye. “I gave it to Mr. Gounder last week.”

Perez grinned, showing a gold tooth, and then, in his white, white voice, said, “There you have it. I’m sure Mr. Gounder will get back in touch with your counsel soon. Thank you for coming in today, Mr.—­”

“Stefon Magner.” Stefon waited a moment, then said, for the first time in many years, “I used to perform under Steve Soul, though.”

Perez nodded briskly. He’d known that. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Magner.” Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared back into his office.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Going away party this Sunday

#20yrsago Judicial pedantry saves gay marriage in San Fran

#20yrsago Verizon sez you can’t sell 867-5309, it doesn’t belong to you

#20yrsago Papers Please: right not to show ID goes to Supreme Court

#20yrsago I’m moving to England and selling off a bunch of stuff

#20yrsago List of programs disapproved for Closed Captioning

#20yrsago How to get free iTunes from Pepsi with every bottle

#20yrsago Woman sued for file-sharing brings RICO countersuit against RIAA

#20yrsago FCC Chairman’s astounding statement of Internet Rights

#20yrsago Free WiFi influences 40% of Schlotskys’s customers

#20yrsago Bnetd brief: a legal doc that sings

#20yrsago Jim Macdonald explains writing

#20yrsago Story of the TiVo remote

#15yrsago Geeks go to New Zealand Parliament to protest new copyright law

#15yrsago NYPD’s enforcement of non-existent subway photo-ban costing taxpayers a fortune in lawsuits

#15yrsago How are you coping with collapse-anxiety?

#15yrsago Apparatus for allowing your cat to agree to EULAs

#15yrsago How Obama’s sentence-structure works

#15yrsago Copywrong song — New Zealanders protest guilt-on-accusation law with music

#10yrsago Forensic reconstruction of a Crystal Head Vodka skull

#10yrsago American overseas volunteerism: what really works

#10yrsago Hungry man defeats TSA’s war on peanut butter by spreading it on crackers

#10yrsago American citizen and EFF sue Ethiopian government for installing British spyware on laptop

#10yrsago Dante for fun: kids books that retell the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso

#10yrsago Tessellated Escher cookies

#5yrsago 童絵解万国噺: a wonderfully bizarre 19th century Japanese fanfic history of America

#5yrsago Public records requests reveal the elaborate shell-company secrecy that Google uses when seeking subsidies for data-centers

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: How I Got Scammed (

Upcoming appearances:

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Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024
  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

We need to build and distribute systems that reverse the conglomeratization (AKA enshitification) of the Internet, perhaps taking a Tim Berners Lee approach, basically giving away systems that connect people in order to make the Internet work, or at least only taking enough compensation to cover costs. We need to put boots on the ground to accomplish this, not just speak in lofty prose.

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