The Problem Of Copyright

Bushcroft Is Coming, And Disney Is With Him

April 7, 2003

"Copyright piracy," meaning the digital copying of music and movies and, sooner or later, books, is a legal problem that hasn't gone away. The implications are huge. The music industry loses large amounts of money on music shared across the internet. It consequently pushes the adoption of totalitarian controls, which are the only kind that could work. In fact companies that lose money on digitized copying are proposing remote controls over everyone's computer that the FBI would not dare suggest. Much more is involved that teenagers stealing ghastly noise.

Regarding all of which, a few thoughts.

People argue that piracy deprives authors of their legitimate royalties. Maybe. A case can be made that copyright hurts writers by reducing sales of books. Consider:

Books cost too much. A hardback today costs twenty or twenty-five dollars. I will not pay twenty-five bucks for a book I will read once and put on a shelf. If books cost a dollar per each, I would buy without thought any that appeared interesting. If it disappointed me, I wouldn't care.

Now, about current prices of books: It is important to distinguish between money that goes to the author, and money that goes to the publishing industry. Authors typically get royalties of roughly five percent-that is, a dollar on a twenty-dollar book. (This may be slightly off. I haven't fought with New York for a while.) The rest goes to the industry. Some of it covers costs of production and distribution, yes, but it doesn't go to the author.

Certainly we ought to pay authors. They create something of value. Writing a book can easily take a year of full-time work. The publishing industry serves only as a middle man. It is no more necessary, nor deserving of protection, than a slide-rule factory. At best it serves as an inefficient means of distributing books. At worst, it abuses writers. For example, a beginning writer has no choice but to agree to restrictive contracts that make him a virtual slave to the publisher. Either he signs, or he doesn't get published.

So the question becomes how to get the author his dollar without paying an additional nineteen to hucksters in New York.

Suppose that, instead of paying twenty dollars for a hardback, I could download the same book from a website, pay a dollar by credit card, and know that the author would receive it. I would buy a lot more books. The author of each would earn as much as if I had bought his hardback. I would be happier with more books, the authors would be happy with more sales-and New York would be out of the loop.

For example, I like P.J. O'Rourke. Yet I have read only two of his books. Why? Well, I don't much like libraries because going to them is a nuisance and I always forget to return books on time. When I'm in a library, P.J. slips my mind. I won't pay New York sixty bucks to read three books. Now I'm in Mexico. English libraries are scarce.

But I'd download all of P.J. right now if I could pay a buck or two each, and burn them onto a CD for later rereading.

For this to work, we would have to have electronic book-readers that were pleasant to use and didn't cost too much. They exist, but do cost too much. They aren't much good because copyright keeps most books from being available for download. When a new book is downloadable the distributors sometimes try to charge the same twenty bucks you would pay for a hardback. It's nuts.

The technical challenge of making a reader with a clear screen and the size and feel of a book is not great.

But there is a problem with digital downloads: Once a book were loose on the web in digital form, people could get it without paying. A friend could simply email it to you, for example. The question arises: Would people pay a dollar for a book they could get free?

I think they might.

Suppose I wanted a particular book and could find it easily on a central download site. Suppose further that the page describing the book had a button that said, "Contribute to the author," which would let me simply and easily pay to the author an amount which would be charged to my credit card. I would pop for a dollar without hesitation. If I liked the book, I might well come back and tag on another few bucks. A dollar isn't worth stealing.

Now, some people would not pay. However, many people, who would not have paid $20, would buy it for a dollar.

And of course distribution on the web makes a book globally available to the entire earth. I suspect that the inconvenience of buying books, of having to go to a bookstore, substantially lowers sales. If books were available for a buck, from home, I for one would do more impulse buying.

Some arithmetic: If ten times as many downloaded the book as would have bought a hardcopy, and only twenty percent of them paid the dollar, the author would make twice as much as he would have made by selling in hardback.

The advantages of allowing unrestricted copying would be large. The intellectual heritage of mankind would be at the disposal of anyone with a computer. The internet would become a vast public library. Any book, any music, or any movie would be instantly available to anyone anywhere. The world's cultural wealth would become a public utility, like tap water.

And it is technically within grasp. All the pieces are there. We just need to assemble them, and find some way of remunerating artists without letting publishers and record companies milk us.

The alternative may be, and looks very much as if it is going to be, an elaborate system of chips and software built into all computers to allow remote authorities to monitor your files, and erase automatically ones they don't think you should have. Sounds like paranoid delusions? Read.* (Slightly techy.)

The crucial fact is the interests of government, which always wants more surveillance of citizens, and of the entertainment industry, which wants to stop piracy at any cost, are converging. Finding a way around the copyright question would eliminate the support of business for spying.

A lot more is involved than the theft of Santayana.

*TCPA