Stop Stealing From Your Customers! Eroding non-creator copyright protections hurts us all

The past week, I’ve been caught up in philosophical meanderings related to the digital goods business and the notion of copyright law. I’ve read quite a bit here and there around the web on the subject and I see more than a few disturbing things.

1. Most people, including creators, don’t really understand copyright

I am continually bothered by the number of writers, musicians, etc who seem to believe copyright gives them some sort of all powerful right to totally control what happens with their work, even after it’s been sold and is out in the world. Copyright doesn’t do that. It grants you a limited monopoly right to use your work commercially, nothing more. One of the primary reasons there is so much consternation about copyright is that those limitations are slowly being eroded away. Life plus 70 years is a flat-out joke that totally spits in the face of what copyright is all about. Think about this for a second and tell me that copyright’s ends of protecting the public interest even still exist: Not one single American creative work entered the public domain statutorially this year. None. Nada. Zero.

Things like the upcoming Kirtsaeng decision in the Supreme Court, depending on how they rule, and the intricate licensing schemes pioneered by the software industry and dove into whole hog by the media industry purposely erode first sale rights, giving creators control of secondary markets (or the ability to prevent them altogether). That also undermines the idea of limited protections. The newspaper industry fighting against Google News and aggregation is an all-out assault on fair use, yet another attempt to wipe away or severely lessen copyright law’s limitations.

I can’t totally blame creators who behave as though they have some kind of all encompassing powers under copyright, media companies have been working very hard behind the scenes to make it that way for their own benefit. But those limitations exist for a reason. Take them away, and the entire purpose of copyright gets perverted away from a protection that gives creators a fair chance at exclusivity for a while to try and make a buck and allows the public to benefit from these works in a way that promotes future progress. Without those limits, the very progress copyright law is supposed to promote gets stunted.

Copyright law grants you the opportunity to make money, it doesn’t guarantee it, and the value to society on the whole is supposed to be balanced against creator’s interests, protected from the very exploitation the erosion of those limits is actively causing.

2. Very few on the creator side seem to give a damn about consumer rights

This, to me, is the most disturbing trend I see emerging, especially when it comes from Indie authors. You can’t talk out of one side of your mouth about appealing better to readers, then ignore or argue against the idea that readers also possess protections under copyright law that we’re actively taking away through the licensing scheme ebooks are sold under. The digital goods market is built upon a foundation of taking away consumer rights. What’s worse, is that we also have creators out there throwing around loaded terms like piracy and stealing that aren’t accurate. Many times, they’re used to demonize people bahaving in ways they always have with regards to sharing material. Every man, woman and child in this country commits an infringing act on par with downloading a torrent file every single day. Probably several. We just don’t see it and most probably don’t even realize we’re doing it. The internet has brought part of that behavior out into the light of day. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening on a major scale before the internet. It absolutely was. It didn’t destroy these industries, in fact, I believe it made them considerably stronger. File sharing won’t destroy these industries today, either. What will, however, is if we continue on a path that makes copyright effectively infinite, steals rights from consumers at every opportunity, and tries to force unprecedented controls onto people for works they’ve already bought. It also doesn’t help if creators act like entitled assholes, throwing accusations of theft around while totally ignoring the fact that their entire business model is based on gutting consumer rights. Take a deep breath, go read up on the history of copyright and try to grow a little perspective.

And remember, the perversions of copyright are being driven by giant media conglomerates for their own ends. They don’t care about your rights as a creator any more than they do the rights of consumers. Don’t confuse your interests with theirs. When they’re done wiping out consumer rights, they’re very likely to turn to undermining yours, if they haven’t already. And don’t expect what fans you have left to sympathize when that happens.

3. Everyone seems to believe digital goods are infinite despite the obvious reality that they’re not

I still don’t understand how otherwise intelligent people buy into this heaping load of bullshit. A big part of the argument justifying swiping consumer rights is that digital goods are infinitely perfect. Come on! Do you really believe that we’ll be reading these same epub or mobi files on these same devices five years from now? Or ten? Technological progress is just going to come to a grinding halt, is it? We’re not going to have better, more capable devices in the future with improved or even radically different formats for these works?

If consumers don’t have any ownership rights in these products, what’s to stop an entire generation of culture from being essentially erased on the whim of corporate interests the next time a shift in standards or new technology comes along? One of the key arguments I’ve seen against second hand goods is the idea that no one will ever buy new if the used versions are identical. To begin with, nothing gets sold second hand without it being bought first hand. And don’t give me the line about people wholesale copying the same file and selling it over and over again. That’s a tech problem no one has bothered to solve because the entire industry was built upon the notion that readers were never going to have these rights. More importantly, when we do have a media shift of sorts, these current files will no longer be identical or the best thing going. If we have resale rights, I could be buying today’s epub files cheaply used or choose to buy the newest holographic version that hits the market in 2025. The long tail may be somewhat infinite, but that doesn’t mean the specific containers we’re using today are. I’m not a big fan of the notion that corporate interests can remove a giant swath of our creative culture just by switching standards or technology. Show me where in copyright law that kind of thing is allowed. It runs directly counter to its stated intent of benefitting the culture.

My perusings through this issue, mostly because Amazon filed a patent they may never even use, have been pretty eye-opening. As much as I love ebooks, and the new digital frontier, there’s always been this nagging little voice in the back of my head and I finally figured out what it’s saying: “Hypocrite!” Despite the fact that I frequently argued against increasingly controlling software licenses during my years in the industry, I never really connected the fact that, when I sell an ebook to a reader, I’m engaging in the same activity that I felt was so exploitative from the other side. I’m starting to get a picture of the weaknesses in selling digital goods, and most all of them stem from the erosion of limits in copyright law. Economic karma, perhaps. It may seem odd that I, as a writer who earns money because of copyright, would argue against more power granted to me as a creator, but I take the long view. It’s simply bad business to rip off the people paying us, and that’s what we’ve been doing from day one. By advocating for or even turning a blind eye to the giant theft of customers’ rights we’ve all taken part in, we’ve created a system that is already doing damage to our culture. Copyright doesn’t just protect creators, it protects consumers and society on the whole in a fine balancing act. What it shouldn’t be doing is warping that balance in support of business models that wouldn’t function without the self serving perversions.

Say what you like about copyright, but its value is much more than simply protecting my rights as a creator. Our system has lurched away from any semblance of balance, and it’s getting more slanted every day.

Over the past few years, I’ve read many articles from creators containing a plea for people to “stop stealing” from artists through downloading. I’d like to end this by throwing that plea back at creators.

Stop stealing from your customers!

Here are the links to the other copyright related pieces I’ve written lately, for you reading pleasure.

The Benefits of Globalization Don’t Apply to the Little People

Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

Amazon and the Mystery of the Great Used eBooks

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Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

That sound you just heard was the collective heads of everyone in the traditional mass media industry exploding as news of Amazon filing a patent for a process to resell digital goods spread. Many of them are having enough trouble keeping their heads above water in the current digital marketplace as it is. Now, suddenly, they might have to deal with competition from an area they thought was locked down, resale rights of customers. Oh shit.

Personally, I’m all for this development, although I would much rather someone other than Amazon be the one to push this possibly emerging market. However, the fact that they’re taking steps to be prepared for it again shows why they have essentially made fools of the traditional industry. They think ahead, they pay attention, they prepare and, most of all, their business model adds value for their customers instead of taking it away.

I’ve long been a proponent of an aftermarket for digital goods. I believe it’s lack is the one key flaw in the ebook market. In fact, I’ve started to develop a little theory about this. Far from being just simply a loss of value for consumers, I’m starting to get behind the notion that the lack of an aftermarket is a primary cause of three of the most troublesome issues with ebooks and other digital media; piracy, discoverability and the downward pressure on prices.

1. Piracy

I usually take issue with even defining the activity of file sharing, even obviously infringing file sharing, as piracy. I just don’t think it is. I also think it clouds the issue by broadening the scope of conduct corporations would like to monetize into a individual crime, which hurts efforts to combat actual, destructive commercial-scale piracy. But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to use the term piracy here. It’s easier to type than “possibly infringing and much maligned but potentially fair use protected file sharing,” which would be a far more accurate description of the conduct to which the industry objects.

The biggest joke of all from the anti-piracy brigade is the assumption that every download is a full price lost sale, complete with lost royalties for the creator. That’s obviously a skyscraper-high pile of horseshit I’m not going to waste time refuting. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s somewhat true, who’s to say that lost sale would have even been one that affected the industry or artists at all? It’s easy to suggest that someone downloading an ebook wasn’t going to buy it anyway. But what if they were going to buy it, only a cheaper second hand version? Even if it was a lost sale, it wasn’t one that would have earned the industry a dime anyway. Or any royalties for the artists. Amazon routinely lists used alternatives to new versions right on the product page, always significantly cheaper. Is it really a stretch to think that people who choose downloading for free over buying full price wouldn’t also choose to buy cheaper used than new? Even if every download were a lost sale, if those sales were going to be of the cheaper, used variety, the industry and artists lose nothing. And it’s perfectly legal under the first sale part of copyright.

Ebooks circumvent first sale by being sold as a license for use. When that happens, customers lose the ability to resell those goods (among other things). It’s why I can’t just sell the ebook I bought last week from Amazon to somebody else on eBay. But the book publishing industry has long existed side by side with its used counterpart. There has always been a place to buy books at a significantly discounted price. When eBooks took off, however, there was a vacuum left where that discounted market used to be. Isn’t it possible that piracy grew to fill this very gap that the loss of first sale left in the digitized side of the market? We went from a system where you could get books full price new, heavily discounted used, or free from libraries to a system where it was full price new, extremely limited and inconvenient from libraries or free through piracy. The industry, through the means it chose to sell ebooks, removed the discounted option completely, hamstrung the legal free option and then loudly wondered why people pirated.

I think a lot about rights, I am a writer, after all, and I spend a fair amount of time complaining about rights grabs from publishers. But it just dawned on me that I’ve essentially missed the biggest rights grab of all. The way ebooks are sold protects publishers under copyright law, protects authors under copyright law (although I would argue in too ancillary of a way through publishers but that’s for another day) and takes away almost all the rights of consumers under copyright law. It is pretty egregious when you look at it. The first theft was committed when publishers agreed to the licensing scheme and took away customer rights. Then they turned right around, started pointing fingers and yelling, “Thief!”

Removing first sale rights created a vacuum in the ebook market and piracy was what grew in its place. Nature does, indeed, abhor a vacuum.

2. Discoverability

Here’s another thought that’s been kicking around in my head: what if, instead of causing the drop in sales, piracy actually prevented that drop from being significantly worse? Think about it. When digital music hit the scene, that industry panicked, fought the rudimentary early age file sharing spots like Napster and Limewire tooth and nail, right down to suing their own damn customers. At that point, broadband was slower, not nearly as widespread, and most people didn’t know how or have the capacity to download sometimes large music files. As first sale rights fell away, the secondary markets thinned, discovery was hampered and sales dropped precipitously. When ebooks hit publishing, there were well-established file sharing networks in place, broadband was much faster and more ubiquitous. The discovery hit from loss of first sale was mitigated somewhat by piracy and the drop in sales was much lower. Book publishing, quite possibly, was somewhat protected from itself by the very pirates it so loves to demonize.

Look at it this way, when I buy a print book, I can go sell it to someone else. They in turn, can sell it again, the next owner can sell it, then that owner could donate it to the library where it can be checked out over and over again. That one book could pass through numerous hands, all legal and all based on one sale, the first sale, from which publishers and creators reap their proceeds. The rest of that book’s lifespan constitutes exposure, or discovery, if you prefer. Now, if I buy an ebook, other than a limited ability to share with a few people under specific conditions, the life span of that ebook essentially dies immediately after the first sale. All of that exposure and discovery that was present with print books sold with first sale rights is washed away. And again, the industry is perplexed about why people aren’t finding new books as easily as in the past. That kind of thing happens when you destroy the primary mechanisms of discovery by swiping rights from customers.

I’ve seen numerous polls that suggest bookstores are the number one place for discovery of new works but I’ve never seen one differentiate between what kind of bookstores they’re talking about. Is it more likely you’ll try out new authors in Barnes & Noble where you’re paying $10-25 or so on average per book, or in a used bookstore where hardcovers are $2 and paperbacks can be had for 50 cents? I suspect discovery has been done far more at bookstores selling heavily discounted used books (and libraries, where it’s free) than at stores selling only higher priced new books.

Everybody seems to be wondering why online book discovery is struggling so much. Could it be because publishers have hamstrung libraries and blocked the development of discounted used ebook stores by eliminating consumer rights to resale, places where discovery is far more likely to happen than full price, brand new alternatives? Nah, couldn’t be that, must be the pirates, you know, the only place actually emulating the primary means where book discovery was done in the past.

3. Downward Price Pressure

Taking away first sale rights from consumers does one other key thing, it takes away the customer’s ownership stake in the product. If you can resell something, that has value, and when you buy a print book, it retains that value because of first sale rights. But with ebooks, the monetary value drops to zero immediately after you pay for it. Don’t think for a second people don’t understand this basic fact. The loss of an ownership stake, and the instant elimination of any monetary value necessarily degrades a product in the customer’s eyes. By swiping first sale rights, publishers have devalued their own products. It’s the reason why so many people complain so loudly about ebooks priced anywhere near what print versions cost. We’re not stupid out here, we know damn well you’re selling us a product that doesn’t have anywhere near the tangible value of a print book, and that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the book. I can’t sell it and its uses are limited. I possess significantly fewer rights with ebooks. Consequently, it makes no sense to pay print prices for way-less-than-print value.

Then, there’s this. With the aftermarket for ebooks nonexistent, wiping out a highly discounted layer of sales, it created a huge gap between the prices of trad pubbed ebooks and indie books. That, in turn, created a situation where indie books could be priced much cheaper and attract significant sales through super-low prices alone. That, then, set off a race to the bottom fight for those sales, culminating in 99 cent novels, and generally increasing the downward pressure put on all ebook prices. But consider, if there were a used layer there where trad pubbed ebooks could have been picked up for $2-3 or so, the massive gap in prices between indie and trad books never would have happened, the severe price advantage wouldn’t have sparked the uptick in sales that set off the race to the bottom. Indie authors would have been forced to compete on factors beyond simply super-low prices, and the downward pressure they’re experiencing now declines appreciably. Also, if those same customers now bitching about $15 ebooks knew that could get a few bucks back on them through resale, they wouldn’t be so likely to complain about price. They’d retain their ownership stake, and very likely, not balk at paying a few dollars more. There’s two key elements right there driving prices down that go away if customers hadn’t had their first sale rights taken from them.

First sale rights are hugely important. I’m of the mind that swiping them from consumers as ebooks have is responsible for most of the biggest problems in a growing industry segment. An aftermarket isn’t something to be afraid of, it aids discovery, maintains value in the product chain and gives your customers not just a right to resell, but an actual ownership stake in the product, albeit a small one, relatively. It now becomes in their best interest to maintain the value of ebooks because they have some skin in the game. Take them away, and it seriously damages discoverability, drives prices down as the reality of lost value sinks in, and it drives possible customers to alternatives like piracy.

Whatever the technical difficulties in creating a digital goods aftermarket, or giving consumers back the first sale rights that have been swiped by the ebook licensing scheme, the consequences will be far less severe than continuing to treat customers as naive dullards who don’t mind being gouged by higher prices for a lesser product. There’s a good reason first sale exists as part of copyright law, free markets don’t work when one party has too much control over economic activity. If we don’t change course soon, the ebook market will find out exactly how dysfunctional things can get when the playing field gets unfairly slanted. Customers have rights, too, and it’s high time publishing remembers that.

The Big Problem With ebooks, DRM and Intellectual Property Rights

Here’s a rather interesting piece I read the other day about the difficulties of buying an ebook for someone other than yourself.  This has long been one of my primary concerns over the digital transition we all are neck deep in at the moment.  When we bought a vinyl album or a VHS tape or a CD or a DVD or a video game or a printed book, we owned a real tangible thing.  Certainly, we were really purchasing the content contained within that medium, but we could hold it in our hands, give it to a friend, donate it to the library or even resell it, if we so chose.  When we buy the digital equivalent of these products, what exactly are we paying for and do we really own anything at all?

The media companies tell us that we’re paying for the right to access their intellectual property per whatever terms they strictly dictate.  But to me, this is an unsatisfactory answer and clearly represents an enormous step backwards for consumers in both the value of what we purchase and the ability to put it to use.

In my lifetime, there has always been a thriving aftermarket for these products.  I, myself, have sold vast numbers of CDs, DVDs and books at various points over the years when I needed quick cash.  It was always part of the value I was purchasing to begin with.  Now, however, with intellectual property laws and wholely digital products, that aftermarket not only has ceased to exist, it has even been criminalized.  I believe this development is not only intended by media companies (the music industry fought used CD stores for years to no avail) it’s also greedy, shortsighted and potentially destructive to artists and creators.  And that doesn’t even address the fact that it represents a de facto price increase for consumers because we really have no legal right to resell the products we just purchased.

The article referenced above doesn’t address the lack of an aftermarket, but to me, it does raise some interesting and disturbing questions about what it is exactly that we’re paying for.  The author describes the nightmare of trying to purchase as ebook as a gift for someone else.  He lists off several retailers who have no options for doing so at all, and the difficulties of even dealing with the few who do.  He also makes what I believe is a very cogent point about the one retailer he dealt with where this wasn’t a problem:

“It’s worth noting that (they) may have been helped in setting this up by the fact that they sell DRM-free ebooks…”

Of course they were helped by it because DRM is the mechanism by which our rights as consumers have been taken away.  I used to buy a lot of CDs.  But then, all of a sudden, I’d buy a new disc and be forced to install some kind of ill-defined spying software on my computer just to listen to it.  Even then, I couldn’t rip a copy of a tune from the disc and make a mix tape for my car.  Shortly thereafter, I stopped buying CDs.  I had lost a significant enough amount of the value of purchasing a CD that it no longer made sense to plop down $15 for a product that no longer suited my needs.  I didn’t make a snap, sudden choice.  I just found, months later, that I had stopped even shopping for CDs.  DRM took away my abilities as a music consumer, and they lost me as a customer for that medium because of it.  If publishers don’t tread lightly here, the same thing could happen with ebooks.

I’ve published two ebooks, readily for sale at major online retailers (yes, that was a shameless plug) and I’ve eschewed DRM.  I’m fully aware that it makes my work more susceptible to piracy, I just don’t care.  Unless and until someone comes up with some DRM that makes some damned sense and isn’t just blatantly limiting consumers’ rights and their ability to use my work, I’ll never be a party to its use.

My question is why can’t I just walk into Barnes and Noble with a memory stick, buy up some ebooks, load up that stick, wrap it up and give it to my friend who has a Nook for Christmas?  Why can’t I go to Amazon,download some ebooks on my computer at home, load em up on a memory device and give it to my other friend with a Kindle for Christmas?  Why can’t I take the ebooks I’ve bought over the years, load em up on a device and donate them to my local library?  Why can’t I take the Raymond Chandler ebook series I have bought, load em up and sell it on Craigslist?

There are two reasons (well, three if you count the fact that most of that activity is either illegal or against terms of service): one is DRM that controls what we can do with products we’ve lawfully purchased.  Two is that without DRM, the files can be constantly replicated over and over and over again, and nothing could stop me from repeating this process to infinity, or by another term, engaging in blatant piracy.

So here’s what I suggest: a new form of encoding for these files that allow two simple yet profound changes.  First, each file allows the purchaser to make one copy for backup purposes, the copy encoded so as to be non-replicatable, and once that copy is made, the original also becomes impossible to copy.  It can be done.  I had DVD backup software 10 years ago that did this, made a copy of a movie but the copy itself could not be copied. 

The second suggestion, and major league game changer, is to make all files readily transferable, but not copied.  I can move an ebook from my computer to my smartphone but the process wipes out the file from the computer.  These files could be infinitely shifted from device to device but always leaving nothing behind.  I can do this right now simply by cutting and pasting.  There’s no reason we can’t have the same process built into the file itself.

Do this and we return the rights to consumers because I’m not duplicating the file every time I move it.  I’m effectively shifting the same file.  I can loan books to my friends again, just like I always could with printed copies, and if I want to read it again, they have to give it back.  I can donate them to the library again, and they can check out the book just like they have always done with printed copies.  Library patrons would still have to actually return the books, as well, so others can check them out.  I can readily and easily buy ebooks for friends as gifts every bit as simply as I can today with printed books.  And best of all, I could resell ebooks I’ve bought, creating an aftermarket for digital books that benefits both consumers and publishers just like the used book market always has.

Create DRM that allows these activities, and I’ll be totally behind it.  Technology is pretty amazing and we’ve progressed far beyond things I ever thought possible.  But we can’t head into a bright new future by taking value away from consumers, we won’t benefit nearly as much as we could by limiting the abilities of customers to do things they always have, things that bring value to their experience, and to the artist and publisher side, as well.

Why hasn’t this already happened?  Media companies don’t want it to happen.  They’re under the mistaken impression that they profit by limiting their customers rights and exerting unprecedented controls on products we lawfully purchase.  They want to destroy the aftermarket, and they want to get paid every time someone opens a book.  These changes will never come from the old guard. 

If they do happen, and I believe they should, it’ll be a startup or an industry outsider who brings it about.  It’ll be someone who sees value in expanding their customers’ abilities and experience instead of limiting them.  It’ll be someone who sees the value in a thriving aftermarket and the indirect transactions between friends, relatives and others that provide essential exposure and word of mouth that lockdown controls prohibit.

The path to the future needs to include protecting and improving value to the customer, not taking away what they already have. With these kinds of simple changes, DRM will become a driving force to real profit instead of a hindrance to it.

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