Learn to love content consumers

Have you been to a movie recently? Do you get subjected to these industry warnings against unauthorised copying? Well, don’t know about you but they really put me off going to the cinema. These warning ads say to me “Go and watch free content on YouTube”. I get the same reaction when I hear about some industry lawsuit against a random citizen who was sharing music (or their kid was sharing music). The clear message is “Stay away from the recording industry and its products for the time being”.

My views on IP are that both copyright and fair use should be stronger. I don’t see a particular reason for copyright to lapse, but I’d like to see fair use expanded to permit parody, fan art, and other kinds of related work. I think it should be fair for anyone to make, for example, South Park episodes or Calvin & Hobbes strips so long as they draw everything themselves and make sure not to pass off their work as the official thing. Such fair use would both enrich culture and allow entrepreneurs to fill gaps in the market that the copyright owner doesn’t fill for whatever reason.

In addition, I see copyright and other IP as business-to-business enforcement tools. It seems alien to me that copyright would be enforced against members of the public, in the same way that it would seem strange and probably wrong for an ordinary person to be accused of securities fraud. If the entertainment industry is using its B2B enforcement tools against the public, essentially its customer base, this only signals desperation and confusion.

While undoubtedly the industry is feeling, or predicting, an impact from file sharing and what have you, I think the industry should look at what copyright owners are doing wrong to be in this position. Ordinary consumers generally agree to pay for stuff that they consume, because they recognize it’s fair to do so and because it’s part of a healthy economic relationship with the supplier. If people aren’t willing to pay for music or films, and instead contrive ways to get them for free, that may be for three reasons:

  1. These aren’t real customers. Maybe they are students and don’t have money yet, but they’ll be great customers later. Maybe they want to try the content out, or they just want a clip.
  2. There’s something wrong with your pricing. Some group of customers want the content, but they want it cheaper.
  3. You’re selling the wrong product, or charging for it the wrong way.

For the first two problems there are well-known approaches, so let’s focus on the third.

The entertainment industry does a combination of things. It invests in content and has artists make it, or supports artists who want to make it. It markets the content, telling people what to buy and focusing what would otherwise be a much wider and more chaotic set of entertainment tastes. It then tries to collect revenue by selling the content wholesale to TV (however long that lasts), selling tickets to screenings, and putting the content on media and selling copies. For the most part, consumers enjoy the funded productions as well as the marketing activities of the entertainment firms, but they really dislike buying their own personal copies of media. Consumers always hated these. Since the 1970s, which is as far back as I remember anything, the point of getting hold of an album or a recorded video was to share it.

The entertainment industry has to adapt to that. As a first step it has to stop treating its customer base openly as petty criminals.

Beyond that, the industry has to find different ways of monetizing the assets. I’d enjoy going to the cinema if it didn’t smell of sugar and popcorn, if it was free of advertising (because then I feel I’m being double-charged), and yes if the stern copyright warning were gone. Instead of obsessing over camcorders, the industry could try to sell me a movie experience that I’d enjoy. Bars and coffee shops manage to do that around content that I could buy cheaper at the supermarket, so I’m sure it’s possible. The studios try to make the movie experience very slightly immersive with posters. Technology has kind of moved on. Why not theme the whole screening experience? It’s a challenge, take it up. How about restructuring the movie so it’s more interactive? After all, parts of it may suck, and I’m not happy to sit down and just watch something for two hours nowadays. If you have the whole asset, give me a way to order it with more sex, more space battles, less buildup, and fewer plot strands (or the opposite).

When it comes to music, I may not aways want a personal high-fidelity copy of a specific collection of around 10 songs. In other words I may not want an album to own. I may not want a 5-minute song either. Sometimes I do, but other times I just want to listen to music that I like. Good radio DJs provide that, and the recording industry should work with them rather than try to silence them. I may want to learn about music that’s new to me or try listening to everything from some artist. YouTube does that really well, much better than anything the recording industry or even the online retailers have to offer. If I like an artist I generally want to fund their work, and musicians are just people, not multi-million dollar production ventures, so it should be easy to subscribe to the artist in a meaningful way. With music being a relatively lightweight digital asset, more ways of owning and of sharing it should be open. If I own a track I’d like it kept for me on line and easy to access everywhere. If I subscribe, I’d like to subscribe to a vast collection, or some artist’s ongoing output.

Overall, the entertainment industry should be building healthy relationships with its consumers. We have them with the software industry, we get updates, and life is good. The entertainment industry needs to learn and follow.

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