The ineffable Shatzkin reports ( this week on an innocent story with dramatic implications. It seems from his calculations from Hachette UK releases that if eBook sales are indeed now 25% of total sales (and 30% for fiction), then over 50% of sales in all are “online” (print and eBook), and for “some genres and authors, close to two-thirds”. Given that 80% of online in any format in the UK is Amazon, the book trade have acquired an intermediary who can, at any point, tilt the table with offers to authors that no other player can match. In short, the rules of the game can now change radically, the inflection point has been reached, and the “over Niagara in a barrel” experience of the music industry is about to be repeated. So let me, amidst the angst and heartbreak, the invocations of Longman in the 1720s or Murray 1 in the 1820s, the competition law actions, the desire to retain territoriality in a global market and all the other things which will inevitably follow, issue a plea for one small concession? When we have thrown out baby, bathwater and all, can we please throw out the ancient, encrusted law of Copyright as well, and then start over?

Its not, of course, that I despise Intellectual Property. Far from it. Intellectual ownership is hugely important and should be respected at all costs. The ability of individuals to ensure that their creativity is recognized and acknowledged is of paramount importance in a society where intellectual creativity has to be honoured and represents the only we have of saving ourselves – from ourselves. Nor do I baulk for a moment at the thought that individual creators, and their licensed intermediaries, should be able to make investments in the processes by which ideas and entertainment and education are released into society, and seek a good return on those investments. In short, the activity of the book trade, and every other IP based industry, could go on as it is for ever and I would not turn a hair. True, Book publishers (I was one for 20 years) have mostly been rascals, untrained for anything but with a nose for the money. Byron had it about right when he asserted to Murray that Barabbas was the first publisher. His faith in this would have been confirmed when his publisher burnt his memoirs to protect the Byron brand. Allen Lane and Jonathan Cape were sublime marketeers and I suspect that the editors who added lustre to the trade, like Max Perkins or Dick Seaver, realised a lot less out of it in terms of capital accumulation. Today it is a business of Super Corporations, and they must come to terms with Amazon in their own and various ways. Small publishing, the work of individuals to culture and develop excellence in unlit places, will flourish as honestly in the low cost start-up environment of the web as it always has elsewhere.

I know that the leadership of the publishing industry globally fear that Copyright is being eroded at every point. Trade associations reach for the adjectives to tell governments how vital it is to protect the existing framework of law. Fair Use must be protected – or rejected – according to where you live in the world. Educational re-use is a string back of exceptions and deceptions which enable publishers, librarians and teachers to persuade themselves that they have got the best of the deal in subclause 3(e) and thereby assured the protection of life on Earth for another generation. Meanwhile, copyright breach is an unpunished, apparently victimless crime, as sinless as speeding, whose conscious abusers claim that they are “liberating knowledge” while 90% of their brethren do not even know or realise what they are doing when streaming a downloaded book. Apparently victimless, but actually the whole system must be lubricated with cash to make it work, and the victims threatened are of course users themselves.

So, why don’t we step back from “Copyright”, desert the word with all those archaic suggestions of unfairness to learners or the poor, cease to talk about “monopoly” rights and thus invite the enmity of every competition lawyer on the planet, and begin in an new place with a new approach matched by a new language. In my own years of lobbying the European Commission, as junior delegate and bag carrier to the great Charles Clark, my Leader produced the new line in argument “The answer to the Machine must lie in the Machine”. How true, but so far we have not produced an answer half worthy of the Machine. Surely, in a machine age, where every network connection of any sort is known to the network, and every one of us is known as a user (and the National Security Agency plus GCHQ know what we use) we cannot be very far away a universal licensing regime? One that existed at several levels, to accommodate one to one, one to many, many to many forms of licensing. The latter may even be a levy on broadband or a network licensing scheme. Then we could move to global licensing organizations with real clout collecting funds which really were worthwhile to those whose Outed content is so vital to the remashing of information and content and data into new service environments. Which is how the internet operates.

But inside the Internet we are still trying to operate the Book Trade as if the Internet did not exist. Something here has to give. At a guess, at this moment, it will not be Amazon.


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  1. Over Niagara in an eBook « P U B L I S H I N G on July 8, 2013 12:52

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