Good Times, Bad Times, you know I had my share

Google maps link.

Good times. This post is about some of the good things that have been happening in the copyright / IP landscape recently. It’s been a busy 2 or 3 weeks.

Firstly, there is this from the Wall Street Journal

ACTA is effectively dead, the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda admitted Friday. An official spokesman said the “political reality” was the fight was over.

Quoting the mass demonstrations across Europe as the reason for this perspective seems to indicate that, at some level at least, democracy is alive and healthy. If you look at the map showing these demonstrations as represented by google, you see that this is chiefly a revolution of the Eastern Europeans. With the exception of Germany, the density of protests in the older western European nations is anaemic at best, and in the case of the UK embarrassing. Why we don’t care, in this country (the UK), I just don’t know. America and Australia are just as bad.

In Germany, the pirate party has representatives in 3 regional legislatures. A performance many suspect is in large part, due to their stance on simple power sharing, or democracy if you will.

“We offer what people want. People are really angry at all the other parties because they don’t do what politicians should do. We offer transparency, we offer participation. We offer basic democracy.” – Matthias Schrade

There is an unsurprising demographic bias amongst Pirate party supporters (younger, of course), but if they can exert this level of influence on the German political landscape as a party driven by the sub-35’s then we should assume that they could very quickly become significant, within years not decades.

The Netherlands also made waves with their legislative agenda this week, becoming the first European nation to pass laws enshrining the principles of net neutrality into law.

In the publishing world we have the news that Tor and Forge ebooks will be distributed DRM free by July this year. I am so happy with this news. Of all the measures in play from the incumbent content industries the one I have the most trouble with is DRM. Not because it’s the worst aspect, or the most pernicious aspect of the incumbencies fight to retain relevance, but because it is so directly anti-consumer.

It’s the same feeling I have about insurance companies that will not submit their rates to aggregator sites. I know why they do it, price point control. But, if you can only achieve that, by refusing to endorse legitimate new mechanics, that are certainly, massively valuable to the consumer (ie. aggregators) then I do not want to trade with you. To reject such pro-consumer developments is a strangely aggressive position for a modern brand in a networked world.

Anyway. Back to Tor and DRM. This whole episode has been rather quaintly framed by its intersections with the author Charlie Stross.

Charlie had originally written this post explaining how he saw Amazon’s business strategy and how it was a direct threat to the publishing industry. In particular Charlie showed how Amazon have been able to manoeuver themselves into a position of both monopoly and monopsony.

Amazon has an effective retail monopoly, via its Kindle platform combined with the lockin effect of the DRM. Because you can’t move your books from the Kindle to another ebook reader, you are essentially stuck buying all your content from Amazon. Which is a monopoly. At the moment, we the consumers, are still enjoying value from Amazon because of the next bit, the monopsony.

This retail monopoly has created a wholesale monopsony. A monopsony is where one buyer faces many sellers, and can therefore dictate terms. Because Amazon owned the ebook market through the DRM led lockin of the Kindle, the publishers had no choice but to sell to Amazon on terms that Amazon dictated.

It is a classic case of disruption and disintermediation. What is most striking, however, is that if the publishers had not fought the changes and disruptions of their business models as they did. If they had not decided en masse, to shackle their legally acquired product with injudicious ‘protections’ such as DRM then there is a good chance that Amazon would not be as much of a threat as it is right now.

It turns out that Charlie’s post caught the eye of a good many relevant people and he was invited by Macmillan to discuss the issue with them further. This post describes the outcome of that venture.

Of course the big 6 publishers had originally fought back against Amazon’s position via their deal with Apple, reintroducing the agency model and price point ownership. That ‘solution’ is, at least temporarily, on ice while the US government proceeds with their anti-trust suit for price fixing.

What is perhaps being left unsaid in that particular cul-de-sac, however, is that with regard to magazines and journalism, even the “hallelujah tablets will save us” agency model wasn’t terribly valuable.

Have a look at this somewhat damning indictment explaining exactly why. I am feeling somewhat vindicated, by the way.

Publishers believed that because they were once again delivering a unique, discrete product, analogous to a newspaper or magazine, they could charge readers for single-copy sales and even subscriptions, reëducating audiences that publications were goods for which they must pay……

This is from the editor in chief and publisher of the MIT Technology Review. He goes on.

…..But the real problem with apps was more profound. When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn’t really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, “walled gardens,” and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.

The article goes into a lot more detail and is very much recommended, a good read, even if you do not agree with everything he says.

There is one last point here. This comment, from the same article surfaces a similar problem to the one that we have just seen dissected by Charlie Stross.

Because people expect free on the web, this poster wants to stay with Apps sold within the Apple app store (it isn’t explicit from this image but in later comments he expands on his “HTML5 isn’t a platform” position to ridicule the development of webapps over native apps). His argument is clear and not exactly original, the attraction is the payment platform.

The problem with delivering content via the web is that people don’t expect to pay for it

BUT BUT BUT…….THIS IS WHAT MUST BE CHANGED, NOT AVOIDED. Sorry for shouting but it does seem necessary. The whole strategy, so far, has been about keeping the old control mechanisms in place. We can’t, currently, control payment behaviour on the web, so we have tried to force consumers into smaller less connected webs, walled gardens. It is such a philosophically regressive step, I find it borderline offensive. When faced with a tool such as the internet, the most effective democratisation of information in human history, we seek to hamstring it. To reduce it, in order to meter it.

Surely what we must change is people’s expectations about paying for content on the open web.

To do that….there has to be content on the open web.

The change is coming. This whole optimistic post is about things happening that are counterpoint to the bleak news of SOPA and PIPA and ACTA, that demarcate the transitionary trends that oppose the current attempts to breathe life back into the dying incumbency models.

I don’t know how this will play out exactly, or how quickly, but I’m very glad to see evidence that it’s no longer such a one sided fight.

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