Saturday, November 29, 2008

Making the Case for Free Digital Distribution

I posted earlier about James Boyle's new book The Public Domain. Here I've excerpted parts of an article Boyle wrote last year for the Financial Times - the whole article is worth reading: - Text is free, we make our money on volume(s)
The internet makes copying cheap. Businesses that see their livelihood as dependent on the restriction of copying – concentrated in the recording, film, publishing and software industries – are understandably upset. Their goal is to have the same ability to control their content as they had in an analog world but to keep all the benefits of pervasiveness, cost saving, and viral marketing that a global digital network brings. To that end, they have moved aggressively to change laws worldwide, to introduce stiffer penalties, expand rights, mandate technological locks, forbid reverse engineering, and increase enforcement. It is not so much a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it, as to have their cake and make your cake illegal.

Yet there are hints in each of these industries of a different business model, one that aims to encourage, rather than to forbid copying. At the moment, the hints are only that – a scattering of anecdotes suggesting alternative ways of supporting creativity. It is not clear if they will thrive or even survive, still less whether they can “scale” to a broader audience. Still, if the alternative plan is to make the internet illegal or sue grandmothers for downloading, it might be worth taking a look at them. In my next few columns, that is what I will do – study “copy-friendly” businesses, beginning today with publishing.


Why might free digital availability make sense for parts of the publishing industry? First, most people hate reading a book on a screen, but like finding out if it is worth buying. I am sure I have lost some sales, but my guess is that I have gained more new readers who otherwise would be unaware of my work, and who treat the digital version as a “sampler,” to which they then introduce others. This is a leap of faith but not an unreasonable one. Second, even professional authors make money in multiple ways other than by royalties - ranging from options on film production to commissions for magazine articles to consulting, teaching and speaker fees. Most are aided by wider exposure. As Doctorow says, “my biggest fear as an author isn’t illicit copying, it is obscurity.” Third, digital distribution is almost free. The “cost” is the gamble over lost sales, not remaindered books with their covers torn off. Some publishers are willing to take the risk to build current and future demand.

Who is least likely to try free digital distribution? The blockbuster author. Do not expect to see Harry Potter released this way. JK Rowling does not have to struggle against obscurity, and, given market saturation, it is unlikely that her publisher would see the method working for her. But the next Rowling? That is another story. And perhaps a free one.

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