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The Future Of Intellectual Property

How writers and publishers get paid for producing books and articles is at the heart of most debates about intellectual property. I say “most debates” because some communities truly believe that words grow on trees and that if nobody could make a living writing and publishing, there would still be an infinite amount of good things to read. But for the rest of us, eBook publishing and various forms of online piracy have become an existential question, especially if we try looking five or ten years into the future.

A scientist cousin of mine suggests that all electronic books and documents should be distributed freely, but tagged with author’s name and a counter that tracks the amount of time each eBook is in use. This information would be tracked by an international database and used for apportioning payments to authors. Whether the payments come out of general government budgets, a tax on electronic device purchases or some other funding mechanism is largely a political debate which I’ll leave for another time. The first question that needs to be answered is the practicality of tracking eBook usage and paying authors a slice of a pie based on their popularity. For the sake of this argument, we need to assume that very few people will bother to defeat the usage tracking since there’s no financial savings involved for the individual.

One problem with such a system is that the same sort of people who currently make easy money by gaming the existing system will surely rush to game the new system. They could do this by publishing nonsensical books and artificially running up the usage counters through use of BotNets, prize hunting scams or other methods. Another problem is that books are not valued in the market by page count. The publisher of a definitive work on corporate governance which is updated every year may only expect to sell a thousand copies and therefore price them at $1,000 apiece. A mass market paperback expected to sell hundreds of thousands or millions of copies will be priced closer to $10. If some adjustment isn’t built into the system, the only books to get commercially published will be those for mass audiences. But if a sliding scale of value is introduced, that would just make it easier to game the system, since a relatively small network of humans could be organized to pretend to read a small number of high paying titles.

On the positive side, such a system would increase the value of word-of-mouth referrals and reduce the impact of traditional marketing. It would likely create a new class of self publishing authors whose works were deemed noncommercial by traditional publishers without even testing the market, as we are currently seeing with low priced Kindle books. It would potentially allow millions of authors who would have paid to get published an opportunity to actually get paid for publishing, even if the total amount is very small. And it would save society from the moral hazard of online piracy created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

I think that the greatest challenge for such a system, no matter the funding mechanism, would be the tendency of societies with unfunded liabilities for retirement, health care and education, to shrink the overall pool of money available for authors and publishers over time. Eliminating publishers, the middlemen of the intellectual property world, would help the money go farther. But in the end, I suspect that fewer authors would be able to make a living writing. This might be good for the overall economy as it would lead to increasing opportunities for consultants and various experts, let’s call them “talking books”, who would take the place of many knowledge based niche titles that are currently published. But it wouldn’t do much for authors like myself who make a living selling books rather than selling our time as consultants or public speakers.

Still, I give my cousin credit for thinking out of the box, and I want to believe that there’s some solution for our increasingly digital future that doesn’t rely on hiding beneath the blankets and hoping for the best.

17 comments to The Future Of Intellectual Property

  • Bryan

    This is a sticky wicket – so to speak. Written IP does seem to be going by the wayside (unfortunately) which means maybe less quality along with less authors as the only people who could possibly make a living writing would be third-world “author farms”.
    I like your cousins out of the box thinking, however reading that first paragraph, I immediately thought that his proposed system would be gamed immediately (which you promptly brought out in the second paragraph). Indeed, there is no easy solution I think, so I’ll just need to get that “hidey blanket” out of the closet and hope for the best.

    Incidentally, I didn’t get an e-mail though I am subscribed to the blog? I just happened to stop by to see if you maybe had some words on the courts throwing out the proposed “Google Book Settlement” (aka, the fox guarding the hen-house settlement).

  • Bryan,

    Google’s new world order that promotes piracy over legitimate websites really has me questioning the publishing business. I’m not an expert on the DMCA law, but I worry it basically prevents small publishers like myself from even fighting. I can’t sue everybody who ignores a DMCA request, refuses to send give thier DMCA agent, doesn’t post contact information. My inclination is to just move on to something else.

    I never paid any attention to the Google Books settlement one way or another. I think the main bone of contention was the opt-out vs opt-in, but I don’t really know. I remember writing a few years ago that Google’s overall approach to locating owners of copyrights was typical of spoiled children – because it’s difficult they felt they shouldn’t have to do it.

    Morris

  • Ray Saunders

    Until the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of people who made a living writing and many of those self-published. Part of that may be due to a small audience for lack of general literacy. Many writers had a ‘day job’. We may return to that and I won’t weep if the publishing industry crashes. In some ways they are parasites even though they do add some value – editing, distribution, marketing.

    The real exposure to piracy is when IP moves to electronics. It’s too easy to copy etext, music and video. You probably don’t find a lot of bootleg paper copies of your books and I doubt that a lot of amateur musicians are pretending to be famous ones. (Although Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson formed a Country-Western group called The Highwaymen and ran afoul of the original folk group who sued – and one of whom is a Federal judge. Talk about ‘home court advantage’).

    I think a lot of the criticism of DMCA is that it lets the webhosts off the hook too easily, and in fact, it would require and army of people to monitor large hosting companies, which would destroy their business. However, that’s something computers are good at. If someone is selling your work, the money has to flow and that path is a much smaller part of the hosting world – most websites don’t sell. Software could be written to monitor all websites that take in money directly and zero in on sites selling IP (as opposed to websites selling products). Beyond that, certain websites sell only IP material and could be specifically scrutinized – if it’s your business model to sell ebooks, you can be held to a higher standard re piracy than EBay, for example. Maybe I should start coding and form a company that monitor for and reacts to piracy.

  • Thank you, Morris, for your recent posts about pirating and Google. I don’t disagree with what you’ve said. But I think Google has shot itself in the foot. It was bad enough when Google search results became overweighted with blog posts, but now it’s all article mills, etc. I gave up searching there a while back when I switched to Ixquick, which provides better results, and as a bonus, supposedly doesn’t track me afterwards. My husband also gave up on Google and uses Yahoo or Bing now. One can only hope we’re starting a trend :)

  • Ray,

    I partially agree on the first part. I know many early writerswere paid “in kind”, as the publishers were realy just printer who would give the uthor a percentage of the print run to sell on their own. But I’ve read a great deal of English lit from the 1700′s and 1800′s, and it’s clear that not only were most of those writers doing it for a living, they weren’t ashamed of it. A few big names earned extra giving speeches, but most did it with steady production, selling manuscripts outright to the publishers rather like today’s work-for-hire writers.

    However, monitoriing websites for infringements isn’t the challenge. That’s dirt easy, can even do it with Google. The problem is that the DMCA puts the weight of the work on the author, and the infringing site is free to let another “user” upload the same thing again. And with syndication, as I pointed out in my last post, a single infringement can create thousands of clones in an instant.

    So I just Googled “DMCA moral hazard” to find my blog post about it to paste in here, and the top return in Google is some site that uses tricks to fake Google into believing my article is there. Boy, does the new Google ever suck at search. Anyway, it’s really here:

    http://www.fonerbooks.com/2010/03/ebook-piracy-and-moral-hazard-of-dmca.html

  • Barbara,

    It’s is genuinely weird how bad their results have gotten. Looking beyond the problems with my lost visitors, I get all sorts of weird garbage if I try to search on Google now. Mainly thin sites that reuse content from YouTube or other people’s blogs. It makes no sense at all.

    Morris

  • Out of curiosity, is there anyone besides you Morris, and the readers of your blog who are aware of the issues Google has created for itself and its users? Is this making noise anywhere else?

  • Kevin,

    Well, the Google WebMaster Tools thread that they set up for Public Relations rather than communications has over 1,000 posts. Many of the people posting are spammers or trolls, but there are a couple hundred legitimate writers and larger educationa sites mixed in:

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=76830633df82fd8e&hl=en

    There’s also been a lot of talk on the forums for web professionals, like WebMasterWorld, but everybody there is doing it for a living so the proportion of spammers is even higher.

    I’ve gotten my story out several places, such as CNN Money:

    http://money.cnn.com/2011/03/08/technology/google_algorithm_change/index.htm

    The Wall Street Journal (behind their firewall), and interview on WebProNews:

    http://www.webpronews.com/foner-books-another-victim-of-the-google-update-2011-03

    and an op ed I wrote for them titled, “Is Panda The New Coke?”

    http://www.webpronews.com/google-panda-algorithm-update-foner-books-2011-03

    Most have been tweeted and shared quite a bit. There’s no question Google knows about these issues, especially the promotion of piracy, they just don’t belive they are legally liable so they don’t care.

    Morris

  • Hi Morris, this may be OT but I wouldn’t mind seeing a comparison of all the options available to self-publishers of eBooks. I recently launched a 45 page PDF sold via ejunkie on a site that somehow was favored in the recent algo change. Both the eBook and site have done quite well (site now at #3 in google) and now I’m curious about expanding into the realm of tablets. Also, I don’t have an ISDN and have been wondering about adding it to google books. My only concern there would be if I have control over how many pages are visible for sneak preview. – thanks for all the great content!

  • I wonder how safe publishers are if they only use Kindle, Nook, etc as an outlet for e-content, as opposed to selling PDF’s direct. A legitimate ebook buyer would check Amazon Kindle store if they really wanted a certain book, and although the author makes less money due to the Amazon cut and possibly even more costly the customer’s email address belongs to Amazon and not the publisher, these prices may be worth it to avoid the piracy challenge. This has been my approach to ebooks so far.

    Regarding the Panda update, I wonder if 80% of the impact really is good but the 20% bad just happens to be right smack in the heart of what matters to us small publishers, e.g., eHow getting crowned and piracy ending up higher in searches. I have no idea if this is the case, just a conjecture.

    Wow, in reading through some of the links posted by Morris in the above comment, it is really clear that Google messed up big at least in the 20%. It’s pretty hard to believe the extent of the idiocy.

    In Morris’s other comment above,

    “So I just Googled “DMCA moral hazard” to find my blog post about it to paste in here, and the top return in Google is some site that uses tricks to fake Google into believing my article is there. Boy, does the new Google ever suck at search. Anyway, it’s really here:

    http://www.fonerbooks.com/2010/03/ebook-piracy-and-moral-hazard-of-dmca.html

    I was even further dumbfounded by the situation. It is just unbelievable that Google can’t tell a shameless content mill from a real website. Don’t they have ways of detecting farse content and viruses? I bet a 20 year old college student could write a script to do so. Wait, isn’t that how Google started? Maybe its time for the next Google to rise up from a 20 year old who is connected with reality and not a bunch of engineers who have become desensitized to reality.

    Bryan #2

  • Ben,

    Not a bad idea. Problem is that my experience is limited to direct sales of PDF’s, Kindle, and older eBook programs like Ingram. I haven’t bothered with iStore, for the time being, people can buy Kindle books for tablets, though that situation will likely change this summer as Apple clamps down on letting people shop elsewhere without paying Apple commission. I’ve talked with the owner of SmashWords which is the leading solution for authors and small pubs who want more exposure, but I’m leary of dividing my trade, since I don’t believe availability has a high correlation with sales. But I’ll think about writing something (longer:-)

    Morris

  • Bryan,

    I can’t get passed the fact that Googling:

    Laptop Repair Workbook

    brings up a piracy site #1. I’ve DMCA’d Google a couple times, used their quality reporting tool to point out that the piracy site they are sending people to runs a fake AntiVirus scam, all to no avail. But I’ll admit my one trip through Federal Court didn’t leave me hungry for more. I’m more inclined to take my ball and go home:-)

    Morris

  • Ray Bank

    Morris! Do you have “Internet book marketing” on paper? If yes, where can I buy it? Thanks.

  • Ray,

    Not unless you want to print the PDF:-)

    I never got it to the point that I wanted to give it to an editor, go through proofreading, book design, etc. The only reason I published it at all is because people kept asking me to gather my various blog posts and writing on the subject.

    Morris

  • Interesting issues. You might be interested in something I wrote regarding the religious approach to protecting intellectual property: http://www.neshamah.net/images/leff_IP.pdf

  • [...] a recent post about the future of intellectual property, I wrote about a scheme for directly compensating authors for eBooks based on the number of times they were read. The two have more in common than you might [...]

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