Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

January 2001

Photocopy this article!

I was at a conference recently where a speaker was describing his company's product plans, which included digital music, and how much money and effort his company was expending on copyright protection to make it hard to copy copyrighted material, and to enable tracking down the culprits when they did.

This is stupid. It is stupid for two reasons: firstly because all money spent on policing (and that is usually not a small sum) is wasted profit, and secondly because they should want to have as many people possible copying their works: it should be as easy as possible. Napster is an incredible opportunity for them. What they don't want is to lose the money that they should earn when someone does make a copy, and that is the crux of the matter.

Despite what anyone might be implying, music copying is not new. The cassette tape has been with us for more than thirty years, and has been the Napster of the pre-Napster age for all of that time. The cassette tape shows us two things: it didn't kill the music industry (and there is as yet no proof that Napster is either: CD sales are currently increasing, not decreasing) and that people are willing to pay for music copying, because those tapes do cost money. It is just that that music-copying money is going to the cassette manufacturers instead of the music industry.

Take another example: academic journals. The prices of these have been rising sharply the last few years. So what happens when a publisher increases journal prices by 10%? Well, my library cuts its journal holdings by 10%. Does this mean that I now can't read the articles in those journals? No, because when I need one, my library uses the Napster of the library world: the inter-library loan. Some other library makes a photocopy of the article and sends it to my library. How is this possible? Because copying costs come from another budget than journal acquisition. The extra cost though doesn't go to the publishers, but to the copier and supplies manufacturers.

So clearly, what the publishing industry should be doing is not protecting their works, but working out how to claw back that extra money that people are obviously willing to pay to those third parties. They should be developing low-hurdle micro-payments so that people will willingly continue to copy their works on the current scale, or even better, on a massively larger scale, even though it costs them some sum of money. Then the publishers will have a large inflow of money, plus a large reduction in the costs of copyright policing.

First published in ACM/Interactions, January 2001

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