24 May 2008

Copyrights and treaties and jails and oh, my

I just bumped into a warning about efforts toward a new copyright convention. After considering the source and its concomitant shrillness, there’s one conclusion that can be drawn from the whole prospect:

Corporate rights holders want to protect their business models at any cost.

That's not a new conclusion, I know.

Meanwhile, I sit here as someone who’s been writing here and there about this and that, practically all of it online, for nearly thirteen years. Maybe I flatter myself, but I reckon I have some insight on the issue: there’s nothing to stop anyone from making tons of money off of ideas that are mine, and I’m okay with that.

The realities of a level playing field

What gets to me is that these big rights holders are still living in the world of fifteen-plus years ago, when works of artistic merit with high production values could be considered scarce.

They’re not anymore.

Understandably, these same rights holders want to lock down the past century’s worth of good stuff and stripmine it for every last red cent of revenue, while the market that would like access to those works is pushing back.

The best and easiest resolution to this conflict is to go ahead and let the market decide the best course of action, period, end of sentence — in effect, to hasten the inevitable.

Living in the attention economy

There are only 24 hours in a day, and of those a normal First World resident might have six or eight of them to spend at their own discretion. They need to decide how those hours are to be spent: with people in a gathering place? At home? Chatting online? On the phone? Passively enjoying a lease on intellectual property?

My focus here is on the last of those options: one way or another, the market is going to decide the price point greater than the expenditure of time at which people will be willing to exercise it.

For the notional consumer, the bottom line is one of opportunity cost: what is the best use of one’s time, and is that best use deserving of the expenditure of money?

Without respect to monetary cost, the best use of free time varies from one person to the next, but I suspect it can be said to center on one of the following activities:

  • Passive entertainment to the end of relaxation
  • Making things
  • Socializing with family or friends
  • Resting

The upshot for creative rights holders is that they need to focus on the market of people who engage in passive behaviors to relax, and draw sufficient attention to what they have to offer in the fragmented marketing environment of the present day. Finally, they need to prove that the access they’re selling to their offerings is sufficiently more valuable than access to others’ offerings that can be had at lower monetary cost.

The big disconnect: production cost vs. market value

The current solution to this disconnect can be summarized in two words: reality television.

Cheaply produced content that’s attractive to a comparatively large audience is a cash cow.

As much to the point, expensively-produced content needs to guarantee large audiences.

The necessities of intrinsic value, effective marketing, and ease of access

Any work with pretensions to being an ongoing revenue source must be well-written and well-performed; bring your A Game, or stay home.

Furthermore, such a work must be marketed effectively, both with paid placement and through word of mouth. Paid placement is a larger component of this system than the freetards¹ will ever admit, because it plays right into efforts to encourage ease of access.

Ease of access: should I stay or should I go?

Simply put: what's the path of least resistance to obtaining works? The less the time and effort required to gain access to a work, the more willing a prospective leaseholder will be to pay for it, all other factors being equal. This is why iTunes is such a smashing success: they have a huge catalog at tolerable price points, sitting at the far end of a regular gusher of bandwidth; it’s a million impulse purchases waiting to be made. The only better alternative is entire albums with hundreds of known BitTorrent seeds — an alternative that doesn’t exist far beyond the origin of a Zipf distribution.

If, however, your album’s not on iTunes nor in a nearby retail joint, then BitTorrent’s the only network on which you stand a chance of finding it at a reasonable opportunity cost… unless you have the patience to order it from an online retailer and wait for its arrival.

The inevitability of this dynamic decreases not a jot in other media or points of purchase, either.

Summary: one way or another, prospective leaseholders of intellectual property will get what they want, when they want it. The goal for the owners of that property should be to make it available as quickly as possible, with few or no impediments to use. The ones who do will retain the privilege of charging fees; the others will be shit outta luck. The better the work and easier the access, the higher the cost that the market will bear. The more popular the work, the more profit will be made.

Back to the problem: why restrictive legislation is wrong

We are left with rights holders who cling to the fiction that their property is scarce, artificially or otherwise; their collective delusion results in the demand that governments sponsor and enforce the fiction, notwithstanding the demands of common sense.

The medium term consequence of such sponsorship will be to leave the great creative works of the 20th and early 21st centuries in a permanent limbo, a Dead Sea in our oceans of cultural heritage, which will start to form the day upstarts figure out how to best use the tools at their disposal.

How to set things right

  1. Make stuff that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts.

    To do this, you must have good writing, good performances, and production values exactly at the lowest point needed to maintain the performers’ hold on their audience.²

  2. Get the word out to as many people as possible, as often as possible.

    People can’t see things that don’t cross their path, and won’t stop to obtain them unless the effort of doing so is worthwhile.

  3. Once you’ve got their attention, make it pathetically easy to obtain your stuff.

    If you can't show a member of your audience where something is and set up a system that will allow them to start downloading it within sixty seconds of hitting a landing, that person will find something else that does offer those benefits.

  4. Make that stuff usable on the user’s terms.

    In other words…

    • Copy protection is bunk.
    • Rights- and scope-managed formats are bunk.
    • Excessive advertising, watermarking, and nagging are bunk.
    • Crap-bundling is bunk.
    • Crap quality indices are bunk.

On those days when I have the money, I would gladly spend money on music, films, television, or literature if I felt tremendous confidence that it was good, and could have my hands on it in toto inside of five minutes. Wouldn’t you?


¹ While urbandictionary.com hews to the identification of this term with Open Source Software diehards, I refer to the broader class of people who cling to the prospect of inalienable and total freedom of information just as tightly as conglomos cling to the erstwhile artificial scarcity of their intellectual property.

² I propose to you that had not Titanic’s story not been so @#$&ing insipid, its production budget could’ve been slashed in half with little impact on its sales.

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