14 July 2010

Please, Please Pirate Me!

In 2002, tech publisher Tim O'Reilly published a controversial essay titled, "Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution." The clunky title does not do justice to its broad vision and insight into the future of publishing, of all media. Time is proving O'Reilly correct, and daring to practice what he preaches, he continues to flourish as a publisher. A recent speaker at AAUP reported that the consistent feedback from ebook users is: if you want our business, we want all our ebooks like O'Reilly ebooks (DRM-free pdfs). A room full of fearful publishers groaned.

I won't summarize all of O'Reilly's article. No point. It's essential reading, so just read it. He breaks down his argument into seven "lessons," but I'll single out just three highlights.

1. O'Reilly's first lesson is, "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy." There is a massive disparity in supply and demand for all creative work, and as I've noted before, this disparity is growing exponentially for books. This greatly dilutes their economic value. Even if you can get published, the vast majority of books fail to find readers and fail commercially. The flourishing of niche enthusiast communities online and the "long tail" serviced by omnibus sellers like Amazon has certainly been a boon for authors, "But even then, few books survive their first year or two in print. Empty the warehouses and you couldn't give many of them away." Authors and other creators who are not established should be primarily concerned with finding an audience. Once you have an audience, you can find a way to monetize your popularity. But as for the great mass of unknowns . . .

2. "For all of these creative artists, most laboring in obscurity, being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement. Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say 'may' because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues." With respect to music, for example, another essayist says likewise, yes, you should be worried about piracy, if you are U2. Otherwise, this system of free and easy distribution only works for you. And anyway, the only way to stop it is to stop recording music.

3. I'll say it again. I believe you can always turn popularity into money. If you fail to do so, that is a market or marketing problem. O'Reilly highlights the basic market problem that is feeding "piracy" (a term he rejects for unauthorized online distribution). "The simplest way to get customers to stop trading illicit digital copies of music and movies is to give those customers a legitimate alternative, at a fair price." The problem is that the pricing in old distribution models is not transferable to new distribution models. Traditional publishers are aggregators, publicists and printers who used to be necessary to connect content creators with an audience. Some of their services are still very necessary, but to remain economically viable at all will require for many self-reinvention.

    The question before us is not whether technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing will undermine the role of the creative artist or the publisher, but how creative artists can leverage new technologies to increase the visibility of their work. For publishers, the question is whether they will understand how to perform their role in the new medium before someone else does. Publishing is an ecological niche; new publishers will rush in to fill it if the old ones fail to do so.

As I've noted recently, when it comes to using socially traded content, free is not free. This is an O'Reilly principal (often repeated). People will cheerfully pay for you to give them the content they want, if you can provide it "at a fair price," meaning at lower cost than they can otherwise obtain it. Time and frustration are costly, and convenience, in aggregate, is worth a lot. That's why one of O'Reilly's seven lessons is, "'Free' is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service." The reason why so many paid services fail is less their cost than their poor implementation (limited selection, poor navigability and filtering, etc.) and unreasonable restrictions (limited format and quality choices, platform restrictions, DRM). iTunes has been a wild success compared to other music services because it's not in the music business at all. It's in the convenience business.

For unknown creators, particularly of fungible works like fiction, the great takeway from this is that, yes, the free and easy distribution of your work should be a concern. Not as something to prevent, but to promote, by every means available to you.

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