Are You Eating Your Coffee Beans?

Smart companies are ‘giving away’ portions of their content online without hurting sales of their other products.

It is often stated that since copying digital works is very easy to do, and since illegal copying of copyrighted works is widespread, then the copyright laws must be rewritten to deal with this “problem.” But is it really a problem? Is 100 percent enforcement of civil or criminal copyright laws necessary to achieve the desired result? What is the desired result? Is 100 percent enforcement of any law necessary to achieve it? Where is the evidence to support the proposition that artists are starving because of Internet copying?

Many consider ease-of-copying to be the Internet’s biggest liability. I view it as the Internet’s biggest asset. Publishing on the Internet is alive and well. Publishing on paper is alive and well. Smart companies are “giving away” portions of their content online without hurting — and in many cases helping — sales of their other digital (or non-digital, for that matter) products.

I did just this from 1992 to 1995 when I published my first book simultaneously in print and on the Internet, using a scheme I called “print-and-pay” copyright. Users were free to use the electronic copies but were asked to mail a check if they printed it. (The alternative was to purchase the book.) Was it successful? Yes, my publisher sold 5 times more than it projected.

The first users of coffee cooked the beans and threw away the water. That’s called not knowing what your product is. Similarly, the challenge in the digital age is to know your product. Your product is, in part, intellectual property. It is, in part, the embodiment of intellectual property. And it is, in part, the processes that create and embody the intellectual property. The time is now for publishers to leverage the Internet’s biggest asset — ease-of-copying — to their advantage. For more information, see “Ease-of-Copying in the Digital Age – Turning a Negative into a Positive.”

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