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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Death of copyright?

30 June 2011

According to this story running on the Stuff website today, it's time to challenge the whole concept of copyright in an era when anyone can copy and redistribute anything with no technological impediment.

So, in the wake of comments made by "IT professionals", is it time to kick copyright into touch and just resign ourselves to the fact that in a digital, connected world, we can copy whatever we want with very little chance of being punished for our crimes?

Well I (as a former "IT professional") don't think so.

These days, I make my meagre living by leveraging my intellectual property under the protection of copyright laws so I'm obviously not in favour of dismantling the protection they provide to people like myself.

However...

The business models which rely so heavily on the protection of copyright law to operate do need changing.

Copyright used to work because the cost of copying a book usually exceeded the cover price. Copyright used to work because a taped copy of an album was never as good as the original vinyl or CD from which it was created.

In today's digital world, none of these natural barriers to widespread copying apply.

Books can be scanned and redistributed in PDF or other formats very quickly and cheaply.

Music can be copied in bit-perfect fashion then distributed to thousands or millions of people all around the world by way of the internet.

Previously, only "professional" pirates could afford to create salable copies of books and music but today, anyone with a computer can do this. Copyright infringement has changed from a business to a pastime.

No amount of legislation will stop people from burning CDs for friends and illegally downloading music, video or movies from the Net. Those who think otherwise are simply out of touch with reality.

The only way to address "the pastime of copying" is to offer people a good reason to purchase rather than pilfer -- and that's not something our legislators can do, it has to come from the businesses that wish to sell intellectual property to the public.

I was talking to someone the other day whose partner is in a band. They've rapidly come to the realisation that their music is a sales tool and the real money is in merchandising and live performances. With this kind of attitude, I think they will do really well because their expectations are very much aligned with the expectations of the consumer.

From where I stand, the future of music and literature is not in the sale of individual copies of a person's work -- it is in the creation of content libraries where people can download whatever they want, for a fixed monthly or annual fee.

Content creators lodge their works with the library, consumers buy a membership to the library on a subscription basis and then they can download "all they can eat".

At the end of each month, the total subscription revenues for the month are added up, overheads are removed and the remainder is distributed to the content producers on the basis of the number of downloads they've had.

The library member gets great value, the content producer is paid according to the popularity of their work and, so long as the pricing is set properly, the cost is so low (per item) that there's no real incentive to "pirate" the works.

There are already a number of music subscription services appearing that operate on this model and I expect it to become "the future" of music and literature in the 21st century.

Of course there will be hold-outs who will cling steadfast to the old (pre-digital) business models and the hope that legislation will protect their profits -- just as I'm sure there are still people trying to sell stocks of carbon-paper in the age of the word-processor.

Remember the word "aardvarkrox" when you go to sign up for the new forums (yeah, I know I haven't customised it yet but bear with me ;-)

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