Monday, December 14, 2009

when is the work of the intellect "property?" (part 724)

Welcome to another in an ongoing series of blog posts wrestling with some popular copyright misconceptions, as I see them.

Popular misconception (as I see it):

Intellectual property has lost its traditional value in the digital age.

The latest example of this very popular notion can be found in Maclean's columnist Andrew Potter's recent Ottawa Citizen special report "Content for the people, by the people," in which he states:

The culture has changed from one marked by information scarcity to one of plenitude, and there is no longer value to be had in gatekeeping or rationing. We live now in an attention economy, and the result has been a transfer of power to the masses, who will shop their eyeballs and scarce time to the most interesting bidder.

Potter dutifully references American scholar Lawrence Lessig who theorizes that our entire culture is in the middle of a radical shift in how we approach the products of the intellect... a democratizing Read/Write approach taking over from the elitist Read Only media push. He also scares up the populist specter of government repression of individual rights at the urging of evil entertainment corporations -- "Big copyright continues to manipulate governments into passing draconian intellectual property regimes that suppress the rights of users..."

There's no doubt that remix and open-source interaction are as buzzy a cultural news item as you'll find these days, but can we really conclude as Potter seems to that these trendy practices are so powerful, and things have changed so much in the arena of intellectual property that traditional businesses might as well just fold their tents and move on?

Two recent articles from two vibrant online news sources suggest the radical change we are experiencing is perhaps not so cut and dried, or so devoid of very real, very traditional intellectual property control issues:

The Guardian reports that in the print-based world of book publishing, a big pot of "oh no, you don't... oh yes, I will..." is coming to a rolling boil because of the serious money involved in digitizing valuable backlist titles for a hungry e-books market. Publishers, literary agents and writers are armouring up for a good old-fashioned industrial-age rumble and, presumably, they'll all be making legal reference to those draconian intellectual property laws we all find so tiresome these days.

As well, the New York Times reports on further developments in that story, in which bestselling personal growth guru Stephen R. Covey has moved the e-book rights for two of his Simon & Schuster blockbusters to a digital-only publisher associated with Why? More money:

Arthur Klebanoff, chief executive of RosettaBooks, said that Mr. Covey would receive more than half of the net proceeds that RosettaBooks took in from Amazon on these e-book sales. In contrast, the standard digital royalty from mainstream publishers is 25 percent of net proceeds.

“There are superstars, and superstars are entitled to more,” Mr. Klebanoff said.

I am not arguing that technology's many new rewrite, remix, republish options haven't presented a powerful challenge to intellectual property control mechanisms, because clearly they have. Hello, music recording industry?

I'm just quite certain we haven't seen the end of very traditional industrial relationships within intellectual property-based businesses, and that those relationships will continue to place real monetary value on product. We will definitely continue to renegotiate all the many ways consumers can interact with the products of the intellect they purchase, but those consumers, all of us, will absolutely still be required to purchase intellectual property products, one way or another.

To think otherwise is to confuse democratization with utopiatization.

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