Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Stealing it and giving it away

Book2book today draws attention to an article in the Independent about copyright theft.

Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has announced that the UK Government will launch a national strategy to combat the theft of intellectual property.

The figures quoted by Hewitt are quite impressive. The 'creative' industries -- which in this context apparently include music, film, design, publishing, computer games and architecture -- are big revenue earners. They employ 2 million people in the UK, account for about 8% of output, and contribute £11.4bn to the balance of trade. And, of course, although Ms Hewitt doesn't actually mention it, they provide lots of tax revenue for the Government, which they can then spend on really useful things like the war in Iraq.

Trouble is, of course, lots of this intellectual property and hence revenue is being pinched, which means that the Government isn't getting its fair share, so obviously that can't be allowed. Hence the initiative to wipe out piracy. Ms Hewitt estimates that 7% of the world's trade is accounted for by counterfeit goods.

Well, yes. All of that is certainly true on the macro level, and the drive for ever tighter copyright protection is being driven, as usual, by big business, which simply hates losing so much as a penny.

On the other hand, there may not be quite the same need for concern on the micro level. When drafting this post I remembered once reading an article by an American woman who was a singer, and she produced convincing evidence that, as far as her career was concerned, she actually benefited from allowing free downloads of her recordings. Through the miracle of Google I was actually able to find this article again. It's by one Janis Ian, who has nine times been nominated for a Grammy award, and it's an interesting read. What Janis has found is that people who can hear her stuff for free are much more likely to buy her CDs and tickets for her concerts.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Janis Ian has abandoned the major recording labels because sticking with them involved a loss of artistic control. It is also worth noting that her article may not be all that difficult to find because (according to her biography) it is posted on 5,000 web sites in all. So maybe someone actually agrees with her.

Reverting to the book world, it is fairly well known that Cory Doctorow, whom I mentioned only yesterday, found that it paid him to give away electronic copies of his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow allowed distribution of his book under a Creative Commons licence, which meant that readers were allowed to read the book for nothing, and then copy it and send it to a friend if they wished. In the first ten days after Down and Out was published, 50,000 copies were downloaded. Far from damaging sales of the printed book, which emerged at the same time, this process seems to have acted as a valuable advertisement. Doctorow reports that his publishers do not regret the decision to use a Creative Commons licence.

This 'giving it away for free' strategy does not always work, however. There is a novelist called Jon Wright who also offers his work as a free download. I had some email correspondence with him a while back, and at that stage Jon's free book had found just three readers. Though things may have improved a bit since then.

Which leads me to my final point, which is that this very blog, the GOB itself, is also made available under the terms of a Creative Commons licence -- see the little logo at the bottom of the sidebar. What this means is that you are free to copy and distribute any part of this blog, provided you identify me as the author of it. What you can't do is take my work and sell it for your own commercial advantage -- not, at any rate without agreeing terms with me. Neither can you 'alter, transform, or build upon' the work without asking my permission.

Yes, I know that very few of you would want to do any of these things, but that's the position if, by any chance, you do. And it is rather different from the tight-arsed attitude which is embodied in traditional copyright law, observance of every letter of which is insisted upon by the paranoid writers of this world on the one hand, and, of course, big business on the other. The big business representatives would no doubt tell us that you gotta look after the bottom line. Which is true. But it turns out that there is more than one way of doing it.


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