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Digital Publishing and Copyright Infringement

I don’t have any deep and meaningful thoughts on this myself, but I’ve been wondering for a while why we don’t hear more about copyright infringement and DMCA infringement in the digital publishing industry.  The music, movie and gaming industries seem to have led the charge in protecting their copyrights in the digital world and being extremely vocal about it in the process. But not so the publishing industry. I’ve heard a couple of different explanations for this none of which I find completely satisfying. One is that publishers have different relationships with their customers than other industries – perhaps less adversarial in some senses, and publishers are thus more concerned than some industries about alienating customers by threatening copyright infringement suits. Another explanation has been that the publishing industry has somehow been better at using technological protection measures to protect its content. Again, I don’t know how much truth there is to that. I did correspond with one self-published author who told me that she sends out DMCA notices all the time to folks who illegally copy her work and that when she works with publishers, they also end up sending a lot of DMCA notices on her behalf. This author also mentioned to me that copyright infringement in the book industry is potentially more damaging to content creators (and distributors) because people tend to only read a book once while they go back to other digital copyrighted works – music, movies, games – multiple times and may ultimately decide it’s easier to just get a legal copy at the end of the day.  I’m not sure that makes sense either. If people download games, music and movies illegally, I can’t imagine that their ongoing enjoyment of that content would lead them to want to make legal purchases down the track unless there are other incentives.

I’d be interested in whether others have thoughts on these issues. I’ve been trying to puzzle them out for a while.

4 thoughts on “Digital Publishing and Copyright Infringement”

  1. I would be interested in hearing how the self published author’s works were originally distributed. With technical measures? If so, wondering who got the DMCA notices.

    I think it’s three things:
    1. DRM/Technical measures. It’s there, it works, and readers are not nearly as vocal about it, perhaps because you can check ebooks out at the library.
    2. Better and more price discrimination. With music, the difference between a whole CD and the individual songs makes it cheaper to buy the CD and rip the whole thing. With books, there’s a real price difference between electronic and paper, in part because of point 1 above: DRM limits resale, which allows for cheaper distribution when the publisher knows there is no secondary market.
    3. Amazon has made it much easier to distribute new self-published books than iTunes (and competitors) have made it to distribute self published music. I suspect this is for both quality and distribution reasons. As a result, there is still a relative oligopoly on music, while books (many of them decent and some really good) come out all the time, and cheaply at that. Thus, there’s less complaint about publishers controlling supply.

    People who want to sell their used books know that they are unlikely to get the difference back that matches the difference between hard/ebook for new releases – so fewer people complain.

  2. I’m skeptical of Michael’s suggestions. (1) DRM: Without going into detail, it is much more convenient to break DRM on ebooks from the major distribution sources than it is to break DRM on DVDs, mainly because the files are so much smaller. The motivation to break the DRM may not be there, for reasons I discuss here, The question of what it means for DRM to “work” is a very interesting one; I think it is important that one need not break DRM to carry out ordinary remix activities with respect to books. But circumvention tools are readily available for those concerned with backing up their books, or with more sinister endeavors.

    (2) Price discrimination: I think this is an interesting question, because we’re accustomed to thinking of price discrimination in IP as being about windowing/better and worse versions. You wait and rent the movie instead of seeing it in the theaters. But digital distribution increasingly means that those types of prices are higher for the digital versions; waiting will do you no good (often the Kindle version of a book is equivalent or higher priced than the print version, especially when a secondary market in the print version has had time to develop), and of course there’s no resale market. If what we mean by price discrimination is “in print, there was less of the ‘really cheap house brand sitting next to the national brand’ and now you can get a lot of cheap self-published stuff digitally,” that’s a different kind of price discrimination. I don’t think it’s at all obvious that DRM has decreased prices; eyeballing, they look like an increase, with the justification being that digital books are more convenient and users are paying a premium for that (something I do occasionally do, since my phone is much easier to carry than my phone + a physical book). The DoJ also doesn’t seem to think that DRM has decreased prices.

    (3) self-publishing: a fair amount of dreck/covers get into iTunes, as a search on any popular song title will show, It’s hard to compare and we’d need much better empirical numbers, as well as some theory about music consumption v. book consumption.

    I do think that convenience plays a big role for most people: that DRM is most effective which annoys users least, and doesn’t induce them to seek alternative sources. But the basics of DRM haven’t changed since iTunes had DRM for music: it’s still “break once break everywhere,” which is why the takedown notices for in-the-clear copies are a key part of your correspondent’s strategy regardless of DRM.

  3. Jacqueline Lipton

    Thanks for all of those thoughts, and particularly the references to your blog posts, Rebecca. I hadn’t seen those posts before and found them – and your discussions in the comment threads – very enlightening. I could see that maybe it is indeed a question of which DRM annoys people least works best. I can copy-type passages from a book I like and I can create fan fiction without making verbatim copies of lines of the original text, depending on the kind of fan fiction I’m writing. But it’s hard to make a remash of a song without actually copying from the original digital file.

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