A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post, February 5, 2008. With Amazon now looking at getting into the "used" e-book business, this topic remains ... well topical.
It is always with great trepidation that I venture into the shark-filled waters of Digital Rights Management commentary. I am still unconvinced that the inability to control one's creative work is in the best interest of either the producer or the consumer, but I am doing my very best to be open-minded about the issue.
Kevin Kelly's post in his Technium blog "Better Than Free" attempts to answer the question that bothers me as well:
"...the previous round of wealth in this economy was built on selling precious copies, so the free flow of free copies tends to undermine the established order. If reproductions of our best efforts are free, how can we keep going? To put it simply, how does one make money selling free copies?"
Kelly suggests eight "generatives" that are better than free:
He details how each of these qualities can be used to generate revenue. For example Personalization:
"A generic version of a concert recording may be free, but if you want a copy that has been tweaked to sound perfect in your particular living room -- as if it were performed in your room -- you may be willing to pay a lot. The free copy of a book can be custom edited by the publishers to reflect your own previous reading background. A free movie you buy may be cut to reflect the rating you desire (no violence, dirty language okay). Aspirin is free, but aspirin tailored to your DNA is very expensive. As many have noted, personalization requires an ongoing conversation between the creator and consumer, artist and fan, producer and user. It is deeply generative because it is iterative and time consuming. You can't copy the personalization that a relationship represents. Marketers call that "stickiness" because it means both sides of the relationship are stuck (invested) in this generative asset, and will be reluctant to switch and start over."
Stephen Downes made some similar observations in his blog post, "Economics in a DRM-Free World" a couple months ago. John Perry Barlow in The Economy of Ideas (Wired, Mar 1994) and Ester Dyson in Intellectual Value (Wired, July 1995) were to my knowledge among the first writers addressing the "when everything can be duplicated" issue and its impact on livelihoods.
My sense/hope is that DRM is a short-term stop-gap measure in the longer economic/cultural/legal picture and that variety of sensible economic models will replace selling large volumes of one's creative work.
Figuring out these models, however, will be a learning experience for our students and for many of us!
Oh, I worry about the patronage model that both Kelly and Downes mention. This is from Bill Bryson's book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage in a footnote on James Stow, author of the "great and stately" book Survey of London:
A tailor by profession, Stow spent a lifetime and endured decades of poverty to put together his great history. He was seventy-three when it was published. His payment was 3 [pounds] in cash and forty copies of his own book. When James I was asked to provide some charitable patronage for the old man, he merely send him two letters giving him permission to beg. Stow actually did so, setting up alms bowls in the streets of the City, though without much effect. p. 48
I hope I get a good corner.
Rembrandt. Beggar seated on a bank, 1630. Etching; 116 x 70; only state. © Trustees of The British Museum.