BY ELIZABETH HERITAGE
I am of the generation that has grown up with a vastly changing copyright environment, and my ideas about ownership, sharing, rights, intellectual property, theft and fair use have developed – are developing – accordingly. As I’m the new Comms Lead for Creative Commons Aotearoa NZ, I wanted to use this post to introduce myself and my ideas, particularly – as I’m also a freelance publisher – around books.
As a lifelong consumer of creative media, my attitude to copyright has become a desire to do the right thing (i.e. support artists) tempered by a sort of frustrated pragmatism. For example, I can’t play the DVDs I’ve hired in NZ on my Playstation because I brought it back from the UK with me and it’s region-locked. So I have to rip illegal copies of films I’ve legally hired in order to watch them in my own home. And I’ve more or less given up watching actual television: partly because I want to choose what I watch from around the world, and partly because the energy I’m willing to devote to dancing round the various restrictions only goes so far.
I always try to keep in mind my experience as a consumer when navigating copyright in my professional life as a publisher. On the one hand, publishers and authors need to be able to make a living from books, otherwise there will be fewer (less interesting, less diverse) books and, I firmly believe, human cultural development will suffer. So there needs to be some kind of financial transaction. With books made from paper, this is very easy. We already have an international infrastructure of sales, distribution and bookshops that is essentially one giant paywall between publishers and readers. (Even when you get a book out from the library, the author still gets a cut.) But what about ebooks?
What to do about ebooks is a conversation I am constantly having with publishing colleagues around the world. How to best make them, whether to attach digital padlocks (in the form of digital rights/restrictions management, or DRM), how to market and publicise them, and of course, what the hell to do about that giant book-gobbling monolith, Amazon.com.
An interesting idea that keeps coming up is that piracy is the new publicity. (I really like the rakish “piracy”, sounds so much more dashing and romantic than “copyright infringement”.) Anecdotes abound wherein heavily pirated ebook titles have coincided with (caused?) inflated sales, both print and digital. This is all part of one of the fundamental truths of publishing: word of mouth sells books. Traditionally, publishers have tried to stimulate this by giving free copies to certain influential people (reviewers, journalists). Now, in addition to this, some publishers are trying limited zero-pricing, eg. whereby an ebook is free for a day or a week, then goes back up to its normal price.
Another thing I keep hearing is that publishers have to get better at communicating to readers the value that publishers add (in terms of editing, book design, sales and marketing infrastructure etc). This is to combat the big lesson that Amazon.com is teaching readers, i.e. that ebooks are only worth a couple of dollars. Well, maybe. It is true that publishing as a profession is enormously valuable, and it is also true that ebooks cost a lot more than 99 cents to produce. But is that the readers’ problem?
This disconnect is partly because, although the words inside may be the same, an ebook is fundamentally a different thing from a paper book. When you buy a paper book, you’re purchasing a stable, singular, physical object with a very clear ownership status. The book was in the shop, you bought it, that particular copy is now yours. Perhaps you will bend a few corners of pages back, or get your copy signed by the author, thus rendering your copy physically distinct from others. Your book-as-tangible-object will be unaffected by which electronic devices you own, which media platforms you patronise, how the Amazon vs Hachette battle plays out, and how well you back up your data. No malware in the world can touch it. Your paper book feels steady, feels valuable.
An ebook feels completely different. For a start – and this is especially true for books marked with DRM – purchasing an ebook feels much more like purchasing a licence to read a particular work, rather than buying an instance of the work itself. It’s also a lot more fiddly: you have to make sure that you get the right kind of file for the right kind of device. Often you find yourself unable to transfer your ebook from one of your devices to another, even though they all belong to you. And even if the ebook file works now, it’s vulnerable to future technological developments rendering it unreadable, possibly quite soon. Ebooks feel almost like a rental – temporary, with less commitment. Less valuable. No wonder we think they ought be cheap, even free.
And DRM – part of publishers’ doomed attempt to assert a paper-based copyright model in the face of the digital age – turns out to just be a giant pain. All it does is create irritating hitches, like my Playstation being unable to play local DVDs. DRM ebooks are much more difficult to share, which directly affects the power of word-of-mouth marketing. How will your friends know how wonderful your new favourite novel is if you can’t lend it to them? We have the big lesson of the music industry staring us in the face: the easier you can make electronic creations to purchase, the more consumers will be inclined to buy rather than steal them.
So where does this leave us? How can we strike a balance between ensuring that books reach the widest possible audience while maintaining an economically viable creative industry that supports authors and publishers?
I still think that the traditional copyright model is best for paper books: that still feels fair (except I think copyright should die when the creator does). But I believe that paper and digital are sufficiently different that ebooks – even electronic versions of the same title – require a different approach. They need to be sold differently, marketed differently, stored and distributed differently. Their copyright needs to be managed much more openly, with a focus on attracting readers through ease of sharing, rather than the punitive, adversarial approach of DRM.
No one can stop readers pirating ebooks. That option is off the table. Instead, it is publishers’ and booksellers’ responsibility to make high-quality, legitimately purchased, easy-to-share ebooks easier and more pleasant to access than pirated copies. I don’t know yet exactly how we’re going to do this, so please do chip in with your own ideas. But I have faith that somehow the publishing industry can make it happen. If you book them, they will come.
Elizabeth Heritage is the Communications Lead for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand and a freelance publisher.