The View from Silicon Valley: How to kill the content goose

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The Independent Online

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." – Pogo, 1971

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." – Pogo, 1971

"How insane does an industry have to be when it manages to screw its partners, its customers and its sources, all in one move?" – Doc Searls, 2002

One of the tough nuts technology hath wrought is copyright and its limits, and what to do about it. Information – aka "intellectual property", aka "content" – is clearly the industry of the digital future. Creating things out of thin air and getting paid for it is a terrific business, whether it be music, movies, software or this column. There's no question about this, unless you happen to be brain-dead, a hermit, a politician, a lawyer or an executive of a music, movie or software firm.

Way too many people are spending what could be productive time dealing with this issue. I have no doubt that just the legal fees being expended on the issue of "copyright protection" could put a serious dent in world hunger.

It's not that the stakes aren't high: in fact, that's the problem. Copyright industries contributed $535bn to the American economy in 2001, says the Motion Picture Association of America. Copyrighted software, music, films, books and other content was growing twice as fast as all the other US industries combined.

No one complains more about "piracy" than these industries, yet there is a close correlation between piracy and success. The US recording industry complains that $4.5bn is lost annually, yet it generates $17bn in revenue. The software industry claims $12bn in annual piracy: Microsoft alone raked in $25bn last year.

Software marketers will tell you that if people will steal software, you want 'em stealing yours, not the competition's. These "thieves" become customers. Marketers also say that the hardest thing is to get people to care about your product. It's hard, and expensive, to get the attention of media-saturated folk. When millions download a program, song or movie, they pay for bandwidth and give their time and attention. Customers who do your marketing for you? At their own expense? What idiot wouldn't want them?

The movie, music and software industries wouldn't. They are all led by relatively small groups of companies whose main asset is near (or actual, in Microsoft's case) monopoly control. You want to make a movie, a CD or publish a program, you have to go see these guys, hat in hand. They like that.

The internet not only facilitates "piracy"; it provides a whole new distribution medium that the incumbent middlemen might not control. They don't like that. So their hired guns are lobbying hard for legislation, and for even more draconian measures to outlaw any technology that makes copies.

In the 1980s, the movie industry tried to outlaw the VCR. In 2001, eight out of 10 movies depend on video rentals and sales to make money. Box-office receipts, far from being hurt, have doubled in 10 years. In 2002 these industries are trying to outlaw the internet and PCs. Truly, their only worry should be that they succeed.