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Signs of the IP Apocalypse

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It is 1710 all over again. Like their ancient English ancestors, 21st century book publishers are throwing authors under the bus in a race to secure rights in the electronic economy. Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, in yesterday’s New York Times:

In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.

An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.

And so – though he does not tie the threads together – e-book “publishers” who claim the right to distribute electronic versions of books previously published by print publishers have no ethical basis for doing so.  Those rights haven’t been earned.  Never mind that the e-book publishers may have a legal right to do so. The missing elephant in Mr. Galassi’s room is the contract that the publisher signed with the author. Did older contracts include conveyance of rights to e-versions? Many observers say no.

At least some authors (creators) are doing their best to enjoy the view.

Peace-promoting global rock star Bono used his Times platform yesterday to offer the Chinese government as a model for how the Internet should be regulated to deal with the costs of music and movie piracy. Let no service provider go uninspected; let no mogul go unrewarded:

We’re the post office, they tell us; who knows what’s in the brown-paper packages? But we know from America’s noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China’s ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it’s perfectly possible to track content. Perhaps movie moguls will succeed where musicians and their moguls have failed so far, and rally America to defend the most creative economy in the world, where music, film, TV and video games help to account for nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product.

So that’s more than a little weird, right?  Starving artists should tell the American government to behave like the Chinese government, and enable “the moguls.” 

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Joshua Tree any more.

1 thought on “Signs of the IP Apocalypse”

  1. Good post, Mike. You look at comments like this and have to wonder. For copyright, it seems like 1708 to me — the old system is losing its grip and fishing for ways to put the genie back in the bottle. We’ve got to be on the verge of some new arrangement. Hopefully, legislators will have more sense than to let Bono lead the way.

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