Open season

Last week, the Author’s Guild posted a defense of its proposed settlement with Google. Their primary argument appeared to be that “it could have been a lot worse,” noting:

We also could’ve won. That would’ve been sweet. But here’s the thing: copyright victories tend to be Pyrrhic in the digital age. Our settlement negotiations went on with full knowledge of what happened to the music industry. The RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America) won victory after victory, defeating Napster and Grokster with ground-breaking legal rulings. The RIAA also went after countless individuals, chasing down infringement wherever they could track it down.

It didn’t work. The infringement just moved elsewhere, in unpredictable ways. Nothing seems to drive innovation among copyright pirates as much as a defeat in the courts. That innovation didn’t truly abate until Apple came along with its iPod/iTunes model, making music easily and legally available at a reasonable price. By then, the music industry was devastated.

I guess it’s always open season on pirates.

I’m comfortable with the idea that, when offered a credible, paid option, customers will on average opt to do the right thing. Tim O’Reilly’s “piracy is progressive taxation” post included “preferred options” as one of his central beliefs. In that realm, iTunes could be considered an example, although the debate about how and why the music industry changed deserves its own post.

When it comes to book piracy, though, the logic of the AG claim eludes me. As I understand it, Google scanned book content so that it could be searched, not so that it could be downloaded. They did not have a plan in place to offer content from copyrighted works as digital downloads (the proposed settlement does allow some business models to be developed).

If the AG perceived a piracy threat and wanted to accelerate the availability of an effective digital commerce model as a way to blunt piracy, why did it start by suing Google to stop the digitization of content? Of course, we could ask a related question: what evidence did you use to determine that piracy hurts paid content sales?

(With thanks to Eric Hellman. He may not agree with my post, but his ideas and engagement helped me develop the argument).

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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