self-promoting since 1998

Why Copyright is Doomed

Max Barry

The music, film, and publishing industries of the future are going to look a lot like TV.

If you work in the music, film, or publishing industries, take a good look around. Because this is as good as it gets. The writing is on the wall for all of us, and it says: "file sharing."

Anyone who thinks copyright piracy has reached endemic levels is in for a big shock. We haven't even begun to see endemic yet. This is the beginning, when file sharing is something done by teenage boys with pasty complexions. The ending is when everybody does it, and it's impossible to make money by charging people to listen to a song, or watch a film, or read a book.

Since the internet got popular, piracy—the illegal copying of intellectual property—has obeyed a simple law: anything that can be converted to a reasonably small computer file will get distributed. The amount of anti-piracy protection makes no difference.

If you think illegal copying can be stopped by coming up with the right technology—and judging from the music industry, there must be a few of you—take a look at the software industry. Piracy has been a problem there for decades, and they're yet to come up with a protection technique that stays unbreakable for more than ten minutes. The only reason software piracy hasn't exploded is that computer programs are so large you can't easily download them on a home modem. The software industry has a piracy problem, like it always has, but until most homes have broadband internet access, it won't have a crisis.

Similarly, the film industry only has a mere problem, because a movie is a big computer file no matter which way you compress it. You can get any new release film you want on the internet if you know where to look—and burn it onto DVD or pipe it straight to your TV—but you need to let your computer suck away at the internet for a couple of days straight. The average person isn't prepared to do that, so for now, Hollywood's piracy problem is minor.

The music industry is in crisis. Unlike films or software, songs compress into conveniently small files. Every month, about eight million songs are downloaded from the internet—and you can guess which way that number is heading. When the music industry lopped the head from Napster, where most of the file sharing was coming from, eight more heads grew in its place. Within a few months, two new services were each handling more downloads than Napster ever did.

The music industry is spending huge sums of money to stop piracy—like the software industry did before it, and like the film industry will next. Over the next ten years, we will see a variety of heavy-handed attempts at control of your computer by big business. None of them will work for long. The music industry is in for a profound and bloody revolution.

And so is the publishing industry. This sounds odd, because as yet publishing doesn't have any real problem with piracy at all. It's not even a concern. But publishing is the most vulnerable of all the artistic industries, and to survive it will need to transform into something very different.

The reason publishing isn't concerned about piracy is because it has the world's best anti-piracy protection device: flickering computer monitors. Nobody likes reading books on computer: it hurts your eyes, the fonts are chunky, and you can't take your monitor to the bathroom. There is no screen in the world that's as simple, portable, and easy to read as an ink-stained page. But there will be. A dozen or more companies are developing such products, and so it's only a question of timing.

Now imagine what will happen when you can download a novel onto a paperback screen. The internet is tailor-made to transmit plain text. Even today, using a 56K home modem, a long novel will take you about forty seconds to download. Quicker and easier than music.

But people won't really steal novels, will they? Well, yes. Everyone knows it's wrong to steal VCRs, but people still do it. Now imagine you could steal a VCR without actually taking it from anybody: you just had to touch another one, and a new copy would materialize in your hands. Except it's easier than that, because some people leave their VCR out in the open for the deliberate purpose of allowing you to get a copy of it, so you don't need to break into anyone's home. Except it's even easier than that, because you don't have to go anywhere; you just have to make a phone call, and your fully functional copy of a VCR will appear. Except it's not like a normal phone call, because you don't have to reveal your identity: you just dial a number, don't say anything, and the VCR appears on your desk. It's the perfect crime. You know it's wrong, of course: you're meant to pay for it. Do you do it anyway? Maybe, maybe not. But a massive number of people would. Enough to demolish any copyright-based business model.

The fact is, people know that copying a file isn't like stealing a VCR. You're not hurting anybody—well, okay, you might be depriving somebody of a few bucks in sales, but they're probably not exactly starving, right? And maybe you wouldn't have bought this film/novel/song anyway, so it's no harm, no foul. You could even argue that it's good for the artist, as promotion: if you like their stuff, you might pay out for future releases.

This debate is going on right now. But as interesting as all that is, the reality of copyright piracy makes it irrelevant. There's no point in arguing over whether Britney Spears should try to stop her songs being copied over the internet, because she can't do anything much about it. Piracy changes the rules of the game whether you want it to or not. There will be no vote on whether file sharing should be allowed. If you're currently making a buck out of music, films, or books, you'd better get ready for a future in which other people will make your work available to the public for free.

What will happen? Will we really see the collapse of Hollywood, of the music industry, of book publishing? I don't think so. But they will undergo a massive restructure. My guess is they'll end up looking a lot like the industry that's already subject to ongoing, pervasive piracy and doing quite nicely, thank you very much. This is free-to-air television.

Free-to-air television doesn't mind that you break copyright law every time you tape ER. It doesn't try to stamp out sales of blank VHS cassettes, or have VCR manufacturers build restrictions into their players. It doesn't lobby Congress for laws to allow it to break into your home and snoop your video collection. Because TV doesn't care. Its money doesn't rely on restricting access to its product, like the other artistic industries; its money comes from advertising.

You might think I'm talking raising the specter of novels interspersed with glossy, magazine-style advertisements. And I am. It's not as if books are currently ad-free zones. Many, if not most, include advertisements for other books in their back pages. Some include advertisements for other products entirely, like electronic organizers. A few, like The Bulgari Connection, feature product placement.

You can, of course, make a lot of good arguments for why advertisements should never be allowed to infiltrate novels. As an author, I have a lot of sympathy for those arguments. I don't want Pepsi or BMW competing for my readers' attention. I don't want my audience wondering if I'm telling a story or selling them soda. The idea raises a lot of disturbing questions about corporate censorship. But the thing is, it's a new way for authors to make money by writing books, and in the future we are going to need that.

When a computer screen can look and feel like paper, and piracy begins to not just nibble away at book sales but take great bites, publishers will realize they have the wrong business model. When it's no longer possible to charge people to read stories, they'll give books away for free—but laced with advertisements. They'll do it to survive. And the day this happens, authors everywhere had better get ready to meet with Coca-Cola.

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