Digital Content vs. Copyright (Part 1)

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Kindle

In talking to people at workshops and conventions, I’ve encountered a number of preconceptions regarding the publishing industry, digital content, copyright and the associated business models. I have a few strong opinions of my own and I’m curious about how people will react to them.

Concept 1. The publishing industry is based on the production and distribution of books.

It’s hard to argue this one since you can’t really dispute that publishers are supposed to make books. The only reason I started here is that I believe strongly, as a publisher and writer, that we need to make a subtle shift in our thinking. We do make books, but the books themselves are not the core of our business. The *content* of those books is what really matters. The real basis of the publishing industry is bringing the ideas of authors to people who want to experience them. Even more importantly, we need to bring those experiences to people in the form they are most comfortable with, rather than just maintaining the way we’ve always done it in the past.
Publishing is a service industry and the publishers whose service best matches the actual wants and needs of their customers will be the ones who come through this transitional phase the strongest.
I think the obsession with books as physical objects made out of paper is one of the factors that indicates a publisher is on its way out.

Concept 2. Erosion of copyright laws will lead to the crippling of the book industry.

Lawful enforcement of copyright is important to artists of all types. I completely agree that no one should be able to reap the benefits of someone else’s work unless authorized by the creator. My suggestion is not that we abolish or weaken copyright, but that instead we expand our concept of how we benefit from the work we have produced.
Scenario 1:
Someone downloads an electronic copy of my book and makes it available for sale on their website.
This is the scenario copyright law is intended to deal with. This person is selling something I have produced and is violating both the letter and spirit of copyright.
Scenario 2:
Someone downloads a DRM-free copy of my book. She loves it and decides to send it to a couple of friends.
Viewpoint 1: This person is stealing and should be prosecuted for denying me the potential sales I lost from her friends.
Viewpoint 2: The book should have been protected by DRM. Only the purchaser of the book has the right to read it.
Viewpoint 3: This person is advertising for me. Though it is possible that her friends may have purchased my book, it is far more likely they would never have heard of it, or if they had, they would have lacked the opportunity or motivation to purchase it. If they enjoy my book, however, they may buy some of my other work and/or come and see me at my next speaking engagement in their area.
Scenario 3:
Someone downloads an electronic copy of my book and posts it on a torrent site where anyone in the world can download it for free.
Viewpoint 1: This person is stealing from me. Millions of people can now download my book without paying for it. Any chance I had of profiting from my work has been eliminated.
Viewpoint 2: This person is paying me a compliment. Chances are very good that only a few people will actually bother to download my book and many of them would not have purchased if they had been given the chance. However, now they have heard of me and might consider purchasing my next book (or a physical copy of the one they got for free).
Scenarios 2 & 3 are currently violations of the letter of copyright law. My questions:
– Are they truly violating the spirit?
– If copyright law is intended to prevent others from benefiting from my work, can I realistically argue that the people in those scenarios are benefiting?
– Given that anyone with sufficient motivation can crack any DRM in existence, how can we realistically prevent people from engaging in these activities?
– Who are we really punishing when we shroud our products in layers of DRM?
I actually have many, many more questions, but this post is already too long so I’ll cut it here. What are your thoughts?

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2 Responses to Digital Content vs. Copyright (Part 1)

  1. Ailsa Long November 27, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    Hello Jared,

    I found your comment on publishing very interesting. The one statement in particular was the point where you stated that publishers were no longer solely a maker and seller of books but should be a distributor of information/content not restricted to one form. I.E books, ipods, computers, etc.
    Copyright is all new knowledge to me so I know almost nothing about it. My question is this.
    Are publishers reluctant to use new media to publish their “book contents” because they feel a loss of control over their content? Are they afraid of pirates?
    Which brings us to the next topic of what qualifies as stealing Copyright and what is free advertising? I am sort of inclined towards viewpoint 2 and 3 right now. If someone reads my book and then passes it on to her friends who probably would never have heard of my book anyway, I think it is to my advantage. People usually go buy authors they trust. So wouldn’t you need to build that trust/ Kind of like the free lending library. I don’t know if an author gets paid for having their book circulating in a library, but all that circulation, i think, would help an author get noticed. I don’t know anything about DRMs but I don’t have a problem with a bit of “Free Copying”. Maybe I’m inexperienced. but speaking as someone who likes to see/experience the goods before she buys them, I think I am more sympathetic towards some “Free copies”.

  2. jared November 28, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Some great points, Ailsa,

    Many publishers are definitely reluctant to embrace digital releases for exactly the reasons you mention. The majority have now accepted that they have to make their products available digitally, but they do grudgingly.
    Your comparison to a library is a good one. Borrowing books (either from a friend or library) is more frequent than purchasing them by several orders of magnitude. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an attempt to prevent people from being able to freely share the content they’ve purchased.
    Now, the counter-argument is that a physical book can only be in one place at a time, while digital copies can be reproduced infinitely. The theory seems to be that DRM-free copying will eventually result in authors being unable to make a living through their work. That’s the topic of my next post in the series.

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