Without remotely wanting to stand up for the theft of intellectual property and piracy in any shape or form, there is no doubt that when it comes to pioneering the possibilities of the digital age pirates were years ahead of the record companies, and we are all the better for it in the long run.
Record outfits got fat in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to over-priced records, tapes and then CDs, in which the physical medium used to distributed music existed merely to drive down cost. I guess that’s also how they saw the possibilities of digitising music for online sales which would explain why they invested little in it. It cut costs but not by enough.
Without particularly analysing business models or technology, the pirates had a deeper insight. Digital music isn’t just another passive medium but one that changes the way something can be bought and consumed. If you can download single tracks from multiple artists who is going to buy whole albums? Why buy not subscribe to a service rather than buying discrete bits of music? What is an album anyway?
The pain pirates inflicted on music was offset by the beneficial way in which they helped build a new market from scratch. Would the iPod exist without piracy? Some will argue that iTunes was the making of the iPod, but let’s not forget that iTunes was a late and well-funded arrival to a market the popularity of which had been proved by less salubrious operators. Interestingly, Apple was also from outside the music industry.
Fast forward to book and magazine publishing today and a similar set of tensions exist but without the same resolution. There is no Napster or Torrent for books and commentators seem more interested in debating the importance of eBook devices such as the iPad or Amazon Kindle than asking how digital publishing might change the business model for the better. Granted, books are technically harder to pirate than chunks of music and for now are more tied to such devices.
Meanwhile, publishers remain stuck a conservative mire, unsure what they can get away with charging (they reportedly want Amazon to keep prices high), unwilling to innovate, and unlikely to make a wide enough selection of works available until they are sure they are in control. Countless books remain out of print.
The written word is supposed to be in decline, but it doesn’t have to be so if we can find a way of making more of it accessible - not just what publishers want or are able to afford to sell us at a point in time - at a lower price and perhaps in new forms not yet envisaged. The people most likely to pioneer us this innovation are still the thieves, blind as they are to the obsolete business models and assumptions of yesteryear.
Legend has it that Microsoft once tolerated the industrial copying of its software in developing countries because it was a cheap way of establishing their applications as global standards, and that had a benefit in the long run. Even if not literally true, Microsoft sales have risen in every country on earth and the company now depends on such sales to keep itself in business during a period in which it is not doing much else that is both innovative and profitable. Many of those paid users started with pirated copies of Windows 95.
There is a way forward in all this but it will not be an easy one for the publishing world to harness.
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