Yesterday, I had an opportunity to hear Joe Karaganis of the American Assembly speak at the 21st Annual Conference on Libraries and the Future, hosted by the Long Island Library Research Council (LILRC). This year, its conference theme is "The Cloud in the Forecast: Access and Ownership."
Karaganis has co-authored or edited studies of media piracy in emerging economies as well as a current effort to better understand "copy culture" in the United States and Germany. He is also leading an effort at the American Assembly to study the "Ecology of access to educational materials in developing-world universities", a project that is now underway.
In an expansive talk, Karaganis explained the piracy research. He had provided a similar overview at O'Reilly Media's Tools of Change conference in New York last February, but LILRC's more intimate setting allowed a bit more room to explore the implications of the American Assembly's research efforts.
On the "Ecology of access" project, Karaganis noted that higher-education students in developing-world countries can and do share thumb drives whose contents are "a better resource than any library might have provided them ten years ago." In effect, piracy has solved the problem of access; the question for higher-education publishers has migrated to "now what?"
Publishers do have options. Karaganis observed that "Innovation happens when people don't ask permission." Seeking permission generally ensures a protracted and potentially unsuccessful negotiation, a point I made under a different banner in a recent post.
Generally, Karaganis was not optimistic about enforcement, noting that even "moderately effective" measures depend on surveillance that most developing countries are unlikely to undertake. As well, the sneaker-net culture of filesharing using thumb drives wholly undermines the likelihood that any surveillance will uncover the pirated content.
This is a reality in developing nations, where the disparity between U.S. prices and local affordability creates an opportunity for pirates. A potential solution is more realistic local pricing for media assets. Rather than benchmark prices to what works in the U.S., media companies might consider more affordable pricing that mirrors local ability to pay.
Karaganis was not sure that this approach will take hold, either. In his study, it appeared that media companies are willing to sustain high levels of local piracy in markets that they hope will some day grow affluent enough to accept higher prices. The risk, of course, is that content creators and their publishers foster an extra-legal market that never goes away.