The following is a response to a comment made by Karen Schneider on my Monday post on libraries and DRM. I originally wrote this as just another comment, but as you can see, it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. At any rate, it seemed to make sense to give it its own space, if for no other reason than that it temporarily sidelined something else I was writing for today. It also has a few good quotes that might be of interest. So, Karen said:
I would turn back to you and ask how authors and publishers can continue to be compensated for their work if a library that would buy ten copies of a book could now buy one. I’m not being reactive, just asking the question–as a librarian, and as a writer.
This is a big question, perhaps the biggest since economics will define the parameters of much that is being discussed here. How do we move from an old economy of knowledge based on the trafficking of intellectual commodities to a new economy where value is placed not on individual copies of things that, as a result of new technologies are effortlessly copiable, but rather on access to networks of content and the quality of those networks? The question is brought into particularly stark relief when we talk about libraries, which (correct me if I’m wrong) have always been more concerned with the pure pursuit and dissemination of knowledge than with the economics of publishing.
Consider, as an example, the photocopier — in many ways a predecessor of the world wide web in that it is designed to deconstruct and multiply documents. Photocopiers have been unbundling books in libraries long before there was any such thing as Google Book Search, helping users break through the commodified shell to get at the fruit within.
I know there are some countries in Europe that funnel a share of proceeds from library photocopiers back to the publishers, and this seems to be a reasonably fair compromise. But the role of the photocopier in most libraries of the world is more subversive, gently repudiating, with its low hum, sweeping light, and clackety trays, the idea that there can really be such a thing as intellectual property.
That being said, few would dispute the right of an author to benefit economically from his or her intellectual labor; we just have to ask whether the current system is really serving in the authors’ interest, let alone the public interest. New technologies have released intellectual works from the restraints of tangible property, making them easily accessible, eminently exchangable and never out of print. This should, in principle, elicit a hallelujah from authors, or at least the many who have written works that, while possessed of intrinsic value, have not succeeded in their role as commodities.
But utopian visions of an intellecutal gift economy will ultimately fail to nourish writers who must survive in the here and now of a commercial market. Though peer-to-peer gift economies might turn out in the long run to be financially lucrative, and in unexpected ways, we can’t realistically expect everyone to hold their breath and wait for that to happen. So we find ourselves at a crossroads where we must soon choose as a society either to clamp down (to preserve existing business models), liberalize (to clear the field for new ones), or compromise.
In her essay “Books in Time,” Berkeley historian Carla Hesse gives a wonderful overview of a similar debate over intellectual property that took place in 18th Century France, when liberal-minded philosophes — most notably Condorcet — railed against the state-sanctioned Paris printing monopolies, demanding universal access to knowledge for all humanity. To Condorcet, freedom of the press meant not only freedom from censorship but freedom from commerce, since ideas arise not from men but through men from nature (how can you sell something that is universally owned?). Things finally settled down in France after the revolution and the country (and the West) embarked on a historic compromise that laid the foundations for what Hesse calls “the modern literary system”:
The modern “civilization of the book” that emerged from the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century was in effect a regulatory compromise among competing social ideals: the notion of the right-bearing and accountable individual author, the value of democratic access to useful knowledge, and faith in free market competition as the most effective mechanism of public exchange.
Barriers to knowledge were lowered. A system of limited intellectual property rights was put in place that incentivized production and elevated the status of writers. And by and large, the world of ideas flourished within a commercial market. But the question remains: can we reach an equivalent compromise today? And if so, what would it look like? Creative Commons has begun to nibble around the edges of the problem, but love it as we may, it does not fundamentally alter the status quo, focusing as it does primarily on giving creators more options within the existing copyright system.
Which is why free software guru Richard Stallman announced in an interview the other day his unqualified opposition to the Creative Commons movement, explaining that while some of its licenses meet the standards of open source, others are overly conservative, rendering the project bunk as a whole. For Stallman, ever the iconoclast, it’s all or nothing.
But returning to our theme of compromise, I’m struck again by this idea of a tax on photocopiers, which suggests a kind of micro-economy where payments are made automatically and seamlessly in proportion to a work’s use. Someone who has done a great dealing of thinking about such a solution (though on a much more ambitious scale than library photocopiers) is Terry Fisher, an intellectual property scholar at Harvard who has written extensively on practicable alternative copyright models for the music and film industries (Ray and I first encountered Fisher’s work when we heard him speak at the Economics of Open Content Symposium at MIT last month).
The following is an excerpt from Fisher’s 2004 book, “Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment”, that paints a relatively detailed picture of what one alternative copyright scheme might look like. It’s a bit long, and as I mentioned, deals specifically with the recording and movie industries, but it’s worth reading in light of this discussion since it seems it could just as easily apply to electronic books:
….we should consider a fundamental change in approach…. replace major portions of the copyright and encryption-reinforcement models with a variant of….a governmentally administered reward system. In brief, here’s how such a system would work. A creator who wished to collect revenue when his or her song or film was heard or watched would register it with the Copyright Office. With registration would come a unique file name, which would be used to track transmissions of digital copies of the work. The government would raise, through taxes, sufficient money to compensate registrants for making their works available to the public. Using techniques pioneered by American and European performing rights organizations and television rating services, a government agency would estimate the frequency with which each song and film was heard or watched by consumers. Each registrant would then periodically be paid by the agency a share of the tax revenues proportional to the relative popularity of his or her creation. Once this system were in place, we would modify copyright law to eliminate most of the current prohibitions on unauthorized reproduction, distribution, adaptation, and performance of audio and video recordings. Music and films would thus be readily available, legally, for free.
Painting with a very broad brush…., here would be the advantages of such a system. Consumers would pay less for more entertainment. Artists would be fairly compensated. The set of artists who made their creations available to the world at large–and consequently the range of entertainment products available to consumers–would increase. Musicians would be less dependent on record companies, and filmmakers would be less dependent on studios, for the distribution of their creations. Both consumers and artists would enjoy greater freedom to modify and redistribute audio and video recordings. Although the prices of consumer electronic equipment and broadband access would increase somewhat, demand for them would rise, thus benefiting the suppliers of those goods and services. Finally, society at large would benefit from a sharp reduction in litigation and other transaction costs.
While I’m uncomfortable with the idea of any top-down, governmental solution, this certainly provides food for thought.