Saturday, May 31, 2008

What’s next for copyright?

Everyone knows there is a copyright war going on right now. Big companies own the copyright to virtually all music, movies, and television shows, and they want to make large profits off these rights. People, on the other hand, want to be able to play their media when and where they want, and ideally they'd like to get it for free. This conflict shows up in a number of guises – battles over internet privacy, digital rights management, and bittorrent, to name a few – and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. I do think there is hope for a solution, but the industry needs to accept that they can't control everything.

To see it, let's take a look at one website that ignores copyright and gets away with it: YouTube. Users can upload and watch virtually anything, and due to the sheer number of uploads, copyright holders can't keep up. It survives because there is a big company protecting it from lawsuits, but that isn't why it's popular. The biggest feature here is ease of use – users go to YouTube because it is the best way to get the content they're looking for. YouTube already makes lots of money; if publishers were to learn from this, I think they'd have a winning strategy.

Of course, the challenge is to turn this example into a general solution. I would say that big publishers can do it, but they need to change their business model. What they should do is try to control the brand and be the best for distribution, to make it as easy as possible for people to get the content they want. I'll give a couple examples of how I think this could go.

I picture a website much like YouTube, but controlled by a publisher. Users can visit it to watch movies and TV shows for free, at their own leisure. To fund this they use the tried and true internet model: advertising. Most of it is general advertising, keyed to the content in the movie, and the rest is good for the publisher – collector's edition DVDs, upcoming movies with the same director, etcetera. Sure, people still pass movies around on bittorrent, but this is quick and convenient. Then persecuting people who share files isn't really necessary, since many of them will make it to the publisher's site on their own. Similarly, people won't fight as hard to protect other sites hosting the content, since there is an easy, legal, and free channel to get the same. Naturally this wouldn't be a replacement for physical media, but the shows will be on the internet regardless of what publishers want, so they may as well get a slice out of it.

For music, this could go even further. A music company could run their own download site or tracker, putting up the content themselves. It would be high quality official content, for free. They could try to get users to pay if they like the music, buy physical copies, etcetera. Remind you of anything? Radiohead has done this. After this is in place, they could go after other distributors, to keep people coming to the 'official' site. Again, people will share the music. But who cares? It's free unless they choose to pay, and let's face it, they are going to share anyways.

In that case, why would this kind of scheme work? A number of reasons:

  • It is easy to do. Laws don't need to be changed, and people won't fight it.
  • Profits are still good. Maybe not as high as they once were, but that industry is dying anyways. And compared to physical media, costs are virtually non-existent, so people wouldn't need to pay nearly as much piece of media for this to work.
  • Publishers have already lost control; they just don't know it yet. If you can't control your users, make them want to come to you.

There are lots of signs that this kind of model is coming. The biggest problem is that it isn't being done by the publishers. Either artists are breaking off and trying it themselves, or companies are springing up to sign deals and try it for themselves. Somehow we need to get the publishers to try it, and I think the whole problem of draconian copyright enforcement will slowly disappear. Or at least, it won't be the users themselves getting slapped with lawsuits.

1 comment

  1. Now, this post is actually quite interesting. I didn't understand the last posts at all, but I'm always drawn to discussions of copyright. Personally, I think the laws do need to be changed. The protections on intellectual property rights are ridiculously extreme. Still, that won't happen anytime soon, and your suggestions make sense for businesses. It seems that most people believe that media corporations should rethink their copyright enforcement, but said corporations still have their heads in the sand.