Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Lengthy Pontification About Copyright

Been reading a lot lately about copyright issues. Y'know, "piracy" of recordings, electronic books, movies, and so forth; debates over the wisdom of digital rights management technology; strange stories like the one in which Amazon had to silently delete some books from its customers' Kindle machines because Amazon had erroneously assumed George Orwell's work was in the public domain. Or the stories of huge record companies suing little old ladies whose idea of "contemporary music" is still Al Jolson, because their grandkids had downloaded bootleg copies of Metallica's latest (I found the last one hard to believe--Metallica's fans are of my generation, old enough to have grandkids, not to be grandkids...). It's a strange situation indeed. Almost chaos.

As an author with a book out in the marketplace, I have a certain vested interest in seeing the current copyright system continue. I like those royalty checks (and I'd like 'em more if they were bigger. Click one of those links to the right, please...). But I also spent twenty-six years of my life in the telecom and software industry, where I learned a lot about the nature of digital technology. And I made the mistake of studying history. In the process, I learned a few things.

First: copyright isn't something handed down on stone tablets atop Mount Sinai. It's a human invention, a means to an end--in particular, a way for people to turn their creativity into food, shelter and maybe even a few luxuries of life. And this is to be encouraged, because since at least the days of Hammurabbi we've believed that it's good for civilization for us to encourage creative people. This is specifically mentioned in the US Constitution, which says the purpose of copyrights and patents is To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. 

Second: the definition of copyright has changed over time, in response to changes in culture and particularly changes in technology. Before the development of large-scale printing technology, "copyright" meant, literally, the right to make a copy of a document. The classic case, in seventh-century Ireland, was decided along the precedent of animal husbandry: "to every cow its calf; to every book its copy." That is, if you loaned somebody your cow, you still owned any calves that cow produced while in your neighbor's custody. In the same way, if you loaned your precious codex to your neighbor, and he made (by hand) a copy of it, the copy was rightfully yours unless you'd made some prior arrangement. For instance, perhaps you'd allow the borrower to make two copies, one of which was to be returned to you and the other of which the borrower could keep. Or maybe you'd let somebody else copy your book in return for being allowed to make a copy of something from their library. This made sense in a time when books were copied by hand, and each copy was therefore precious. 

Our current system of intellectual property (the creator owns not just the physical artifact, but the very words themselves) and per-copy royalties derives directly from properties of printing technology. In particular, the master/copy relationship created by the printing plates. The master (the plate) is expensive, but it creates an unlimited number of cheap copies. That's what gives the words themselves their value, and establishes both the concept of owning the words and the concept of per-copy royalties. In addition, because you can't make cheap copies without the master (ever try to photocopy an out-of-print book?), it's easy to prevent piracy: you just keep the plates locked up in a safe place. And, for additional security, you make unauthorized possession of plates a crime (every now and then you'll hear of someone arrested for possession of printing plates that could be used to make counterfeit money--even if the perp has not actually printed any bogus cash. Possession of the plates is sufficient to prove guilt).

This has been a pretty robust system for making money off books, and in the last century we've found it extends well to things like photographs, movies and recorded music--largely because the technologies used for these media have the critical properties of the printed book (photos and movies use a negative, which can be kept secure; vinyl records were stamped from a hard-to-produce master; CDs and DVDs are mass-produced by a photographic process). 

But the times they are a-changing, and that brings me to my next discovery.

Third: digital technology breaks the model created by the printing plate. In the digital world, any copy can be a master for making more copies. Oh, you can try to make this harder with DRM or proprietary encodings or copy-protect scrambling... but at some point, the data has to go into the clear so the customer can use it, and at that point it can be hijacked. You can pass Draconian laws against copying (or even possessing the technology to copy, as in the "Digital Millenium Copyright Act"), but they're hard to enforce when the underlying technology says, "go ahead and copy; it's easy!" And anyway, when you get to the point of prosecuting and suing the very people who should be your best customers, you kinda suspect your business model's got a problem.

So, what's going to happen? I believe that copyright as we know it is going to change, whether we like it or not. We're going to have to find a new way to transform creativity into cash. We already see some signs of this, particularly in the music field: Apple's iTunes Store model is built around the idea that you sell the stuff so cheaply that most of your customers will just buy the song rather than going to the effort of locating, downloading, and disinfecting a bootleg copy. Radiohead's experiment in "set your own price" (on the album "In Rainbows") demonstrated that people will pay for something they can get for free (thus shooting the knees out from under classic economic theory). Over in China, where just about everything is pirated, performers accept that they won't make money selling discs, so they make their money in sponsorships instead. Back in this country, Prince experimented with simply giving the disc to everybody who bought a concert ticket, turning the disc into a ticket-selling tool.

Similar things are happening in the publishing industry. Some publishers give away free downloads--often early books by an author who's got something new out in print, or perhaps the first book in a multi-volume series. Baen's got a whole library of SF (both classic and brand new) that you can download for free. Authors put them up voluntarily, in the belief that at some point you'll part with some cash because you like a particular author's work. How about books derived from movies or video games, sold for cheap (or perhaps given away entirely) and financed by sales of the DVDs or game cartridges? How about books financed through product placement? For that matter, it might be interesting to experiment with the "name your own price" scheme that Radiohead used.

There are lots of possibilities--all we need to do is go back to the basic question of "how do I turn my creativity into money?" and the constraint that once it's in digital form, it's going to be freely copied. With those things in mind, a new model of copyright (or perhaps many new models) will emerge.

I think it will be fairly easy for creators and consumers to arrive at a new model for their business relationship; I think it's already happening (again, consider "In Rainbows"). It's the middlemen--publishing companies, record companies, and so forth--who'll have to make the biggest adjustment, because the whole system of middlemen grew and evolved in a way that optimized it to the intellectual property/royalty business model. This is particuarly true of the biggest middlemen, the ones who operate on the "blockbuster" model (in which "success" is defined as "at least a million copies sold"). That model is so optimized to the IP/royalty environment that I wonder if companies built around it will still be around in twenty years.

Smaller middlemen, such as small/medium press publishers and indie record companies, will probably adjust much more easily. They still provide a valuable service of finding the good stuff (contrary to the beliefs of some in the self-publishing universe, I don't think the vast majority of readers are going to start paying for the privilege of rooting through the slush pile), and polishing it into a ready-for-prime-time form. But the future is going to be different, I suspect.

Hey, a new model of copyright is one of those things that only comes along every several centuries. It's going to be an adventure. We should be trying to enjoy it.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Nice pontification . BTW I'm Jim from the Pibgorn comments section . Iwas interested in what you had to say about copyright going into the future .