Thursday, November 8, 2007

How do writers get paid without copy protection?

Hal comments (thanks!) that music and video can't be protected, and as a result only interactive content, particularly games, will be commercially viable. Music and video will be produced mainly as an adjunct to games and given away free. I was going to get into this anyway, so that seems like a great jumping-off point.

First, I completely agree that music and video can't be protected by purely technical means, and that interactive media have a much better shot. Copy protection fundamentally requires a tight connection to an object or event in the physical world, and interactivity provides such a connection. Frankly, though, I'm reluctant to claim categorically that anything can be effectively copy-protected, even when it looks like there's an airtight case. Where there's a will there's very often a way.

Nonetheless, the model of paying a fee to be able to participate in an interactive experience with others looks viable. It certainly seems to be working so far. I can also see single-user cases working, particularly if the game play has a random element to it. This also seems to be working so far.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that it's necessary to protect content strongly in order for content creators to make a living. Text, for example, is impossible to protect. No one really tries, that I'm aware of. The exception would be environments where secrecy is at a premium, in which case protection is generally a combination of encryption to prevent casual access and stiff penalties for giving away the keys or unencrypted content.

And yet writers can still make (a little) money. How?

First, the traditional print model is still alive. I've heard newspaper publishers express concerns, given that classified ads have serious alternatives online (often including the newspaper's own online ads), but daily papers are still around, as are independent weeklies, supermarket tabloids and mass-market magazines, coffee-table books, specialized trade rags, pulp fiction and pretty much everything else.

Not only has print not disappeared, I'm not sure I can even think of a particular commercial genre or format that's disappeared. You'd think by now something would have. Small-circulation newsletters tend to be emailed or on web pages these days, and office memos have (thankfully) more or less bitten the dust, but those are non-commercial.

Print has (at least) three ways of making money. At least one of them carries over quite well to the online world:
  • The book as a physical artifact. Coffee-table books look great. You just can't get that on your screen. If nothing else, the resolution and contrast are way higher than for anything you can get on a screen. Other books use special paper and fancy bindings to look gorgeous. Children's books are particularly inventive in using pop-ups, textured materials and so forth. These are niche markets, though. What's interesting is that nothing electronic yet seems to have killed off even the humble paperback.
  • Subscriptions. You pay me a regular supply of money, I give you a regular supply of content. This seems to work well for cable TV and satellite radio. In the case of music radio, you can get all the content elsewhere, but what you don't get is the particular selections and, of course, the charming DJ's. Talk radio is more of a live performance and in many cases interactive. As such, it's one prototype for (probably) copy-protectable interactive content. Not all radio or TV is paid for by subscription, though, and pure subscription models are fairly rare in print (investment newsletters come to mind). The alternative, of course is
  • Advertising. Not even Mad magazine survives purely on subscriptions any more. Plenty of "free" publications survive on advertising alone. Online, without the cost of printing presses, paper and delivery, no one needs to charge a subscription fee. Why bother, given that it's trivial to copy the content? So instead, you get a variety of ads in exchange for the convenience of being able to get a document hot off your search engine. There are various technical ways of stripping out ads, but the dirty secret is this: ads are actually useful, at least sometimes. The symbiosis between "real" content and ads has been around for a long time and very much alive and kicking now. Just ask Larry and Sergey.
This by no means exhausts the possibilities for making money without strong copy protection. I've singled out text here because it's been unprotected for longer -- at least as long as we've been calling the web the web -- while other media are still a bit more difficult to copy. For now.

Of the three approaches above, physical print is all about literal copy protection, while subscription depends at least to some degree on protection through interactivity (even a print magazine has to stay fresh by responding to its readers). Advertising stands out in that it not only doesn't require copy protection, but actively encourages free copying (as long as the ads stay attached). The more copying, the more people see the ads.

1 comment:

David Hull said...

Note to self: this one held up pretty well