Last week I delved into some big-picture technology predictions for the next decade. This week, I’ll drill down into a little more of the nitty gritty. Let’s start with copyright. The issue – particularly the piracy aspect of it – stirs up some serious debate among consumers and creators alike. I’ve long believed that piracy is inevitable when goods aren’t available legally, easily and inexpensively. Let’s face it, in our digital age there will always be at least a small degree of what can be called piracy, or the sharing of digital content between people. In this way, it’s no different than the analogue days, when you would loan a book or CD to your friend. This is a well-accepted practice that only the most hard-core of content lawyers believe to be a problem.
There is a certain threshold for every creator and/or industry where, once crossed, that small-scale sharing becomes large-scale piracy. Each person and business defines their threshold differently. As a book author, I’ve never sat down and calculated it as it’s more of an abstract, nor can I say that anyone who downloads Sex, Bombs and Burgers for free is a pirate. How am I to know that they haven’t already bought a physical copy and that they just want a digital version? Or that after reading their free copy, they recommend it to friends who then go out and buy it?
In any event, I’m not intending to get into the merits or problems with file-sharing here. The point is, most businesses have figured out – or are in the process of figuring out – just how much “free” they’re willing to live with. The problem they all face, though, is that they have to deal with a global market under an antiquated system that still places copyright walls around countries.
According to my stats, there are people all around the world who read this blog – there’s even a couple in Turkmenistan. Many probably tune in for the porn news, but presumably some get curious about this thing I keep referring to: Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Alas, if they’re not in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the UK (and possibly South Korea… still trying to figure out if it’s been published there), they can’t get the book. At least not legally. That’s because publishers in other countries either haven’t bought the rights to the book, or they have them but just aren’t publishing there for one reason or another.
For authors – and this applies to creators in other fields too – there are a few options. One is they can initially sell worldwide rights to a publisher, rather than going country by country as I did. I’m told this is problematic for a few reasons – one is, unless you’re a big-name author, this route tends to result in less money paid out as advances. Another is that just because a publisher buys global rights to a book doesn’t mean they’re going to publish it everywhere, which brings you back to square one.
Another option – and I’m finally getting to the prediction part of this post – is self-distribution through online systems. For book authors, this is something like Amazon or Apple’s iBooks, or even a personal website. To boil it all down, I can either watch my book get shared electronically in places like Russia and not make a nickel from it, or I can release my own e-book there and at least get something. In other words, if I don’t release my work globally, I’m losing money. (By the way, I’m looking to do exactly this, as soon as I find some time.)
Over the next 10 years, this is going to become very apparent to content producers. I’ve been talking mostly about books so far, but it’s even more poignant when it comes to television shows and movies. Here in Canada, we’re denied a lot of the legal video content we want thanks to restrictive licensing agreements. We don’t get Hulu, while services such as iTunes and Netflix are mere shadows of their U.S. parents. Personally, I can’t blame anyone here for downloading shows and movies over BitTorrent.
Going back to my first point, when this sort easy availability is lacking, small-scale sharing inevitably turns into large-scale piracy. I don’t believe content producers are stupid, which is why over the next 10 years I believe they’re going to tear down some of the nationalist copyright walls they’ve erected. Maintaining the current system means they’re leaving money on the table somewhere in the world.