Thursday, July 02, 2009

Gladwell on Anderson on Copyrights

Compared to Beresford (below), Chris Anderson seems younger and less crotchety. But he is no less skeptical about intellectual property rights.

At least as described by Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker review linked above, Anderson believes that in the coming era "products made of ideas" -- books, music, news articles, and much, much more -- will be capital-F free. This is because digital reproduction and transmission are themselves nearly free, and so exert a constant downward pressure on prices, more or less requiring vendors to use content as the bait to attract clicks, which are then (in the appalling new term of art) "monetized," or given financial value, by some alternative means. Which is codeword for "advertising, like on Google."

Gladwell demolishes this case with a few easy strokes. He points to YouTube, Google's hugely successful subsisdiary -- if success is measured by number of users. If success is measured by actually making money, then YouTube is a flop: "Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds."

But Gladwell's main point is that even if digital reproduction and distribution seem to be so inexpensive that they are free, the truth is that they depend upon an enormous and costly infrastructure. He likens it to the production and distribution of electrical power. Apparently, digging up coal to burn only amounts to 20% of your bill; the rest is (or was in the 1960s; perhaps this has changed) the cost of building and maintaining the plants, powerlines, and so forth. Just replace that with server farms and wireless networks -- not to mention the telephone and electrical lines still needed to make the Net go.

All of this touches, at least a bit, on the question we raised yesterday, regarding copyrighted liturgical material. Honestly, the publication of hymns and so forth works a lot more neatly with Anderson's model than, say, newspapers or pharmaceuticals. The truth is that when the Times and the WaPo die, there will be markedly less and markedly worse news coverage of world events; BBC and NPR will be all we have left. If Big Pharma lost all patent protection on its formulae, you can bet that there would never be any new drugs for less-widespread diseases, ever again. But if GIA and Augsburg-Fortress (and all their competitors) were to go 20 years without publishing a single new hymn, it is doubtful that anybody would notice or care. In other words, their intellectual property already has a strikingly low value.

What about their infrastructure? Historically, it was books -- the editing, manufacture and distribution of same. It probably still is; but how much longer will that be a viable business? Secular book publishing is a wounded animal. Books intended for worship are a specialty item, and might well be affected by different market forces. Augsburg's new ELW is said to have sold very well, because, after all, church pews look naked without those neat rows of hymnals in their slots on the back. On the other hand, our own congregation didn't buy them, and doesn't plan to -- not because of any particular feelings about ELW, material from which we use often, but rather because we just don't use our hymnals anymore.

(Aside: Anybody want to buy 200 or so LBWs? Or Supplement 1992? Or several dozen copies of TLH, including the Braille edition and Large-Print Missal? Just asking.)

We have already said that we pay, quite happily, for the Sundays and Seasons online service, which provides us a license for most Augsburg liturgical materials, in a convenient electronic form. But can we be honest? We wouldn't pay much for the license. We pay for the convenience -- which is worth a great deal. But we would happily pay, say, half as much for the same sort of access to material that was not copyright-protected.

So one business decision that the publishers may need to make, not far down the line, is whether to continue creating new liturgical content, especially at the rate they have done so these past few decades. Unlike an old newspaper, public-domain liturgical materials have a great deal of value -- at least as much as the new stuff, and that is a charitable assessment.

6 comments:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Our church choir has sung a song that was a copy. Somebody said that it was from somewhere in the southern hemisphere and that hymns aren't copyrighted there. I've always wondered if that is true.

Its too bad that the Lutherans aren't willing to pay more musicians and composers for more new music. Our choir director has bought Catholic hymnals to get access to new music commissioned by the RCs. At least one of them is Lutheran. Some of that music has ended up in the ELW.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you will address the anti-green movement of congregations moving to the "print the whole liturgy in the Sunday morning bulletin" model at the same time we are being encourged to conserve, which might indicate greater use of the pew edition of the hymnal. web

Father said...

Sadly, I and mine are among the offenders here; we deplete the Canadian forests every week. We salve our consciences, slightly, by reflecting that our newsletter is small, infrequent, and has a modest print run.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I hate "worship folders" for the green reasons, but also because it seems to imply that we are too stupid to use a book. If the pastor and worship committee plan a service that considers "hospitality" and the pastor ques the congregation as to the location of the parts of the service, then the visitors will feel welcome, regardless of the form of the bulletin.

And save me from the power point listing of the lyrics.

mark said...

How come the Missouri publishing pontiff has not been commenting about these important publishing and intellectual property posts? Have you banned him from these pages?

Father said...

Banned? By no means. But since we aren't discussing that-study-Bible--which-shall-not-be named, and for which I assume he does a nightly search of the web, it may be that he hasn't noticed.