If I Were King Of The Forest….

…not queen, not duke, not prince.

I was thinking lately about the copyright problem. If you’re wondering “What copyright problem?” I find it hard to believe you’re actually using a computer. But here. In a nutshell, content providers (the music, film and book industries) are trying to maintain archaic business models in a world where content consumers (thee and me) can download their stuff freely from the Internet.

There are a lot of monkeys in this particular wrench of course: Content providers have been progressively extending copyright beyond any reasonable level; the line between provider and consumer blurs as the means to produce and distribute content drops drastically; content consumers have gone from a relatively black-line situation of being able to copy content for personal use or backup, or for review or parody, to a world where the rules are vague and the punishments severe.

And so on.

All the while, increasingly draconian methods by providers continue to fail and to actually encourage piracy. The writing is on the wall and has been for decades, though we should not underestimate the ability of those whose business models are threatened to fail to read said writing till they are nearly out of business.

If it were me–if I were king of the forest–I would create a library with every film in it ever made. And I would charge precisely $1 for any film, highest quality print available and no attempt to lock it down. (No DRM or “digital rights management” as it euphemistically called.)

“But Blake,” you say, “one dollar isn’t very much. How can they make their money back at one dollar a pop? And won’t every one steal their stuff if it’s not locked down?”

To which I’d reply that you’re competing with free (which Jack Valenti famously and incorrectly said was not something that could be competed with). The point isn’t so much to provide the files (though being a reliable source is a selling point) as it is to store, index, recommend and serve said files.

I mean, think about this, even if storage were free (and cost will be a significant factor for years to come), if you maintain your own library, you’re doing a fair amount of work–hardware and software.

I used the original Napster on precisely one occasion–to make a mix CD of songs I already had Why? It was far easier than going through my library, taking out the CDs (or God help me, the vinyl) ripping a track, burning it, etc.

Now that was a service! It was easier for me to use that service than to use what I had already purchased. That’s value.

As for theft, it should be apparent now that it’s inevitable. By locking down media, you sell your customers a worse product than they can get for free. (I can’t tell you how many games I’ve been unable to play because of a problem with a DRM system.) The logic is apparently “because there are criminals, we are going to treat you, the paying customer, as one of them.”

But, get this, at $1 a pop, with easy access and good search, why would you bother storing stuff
locally? You’d have a few favorites, but in most cases, you’d pay a buck for whatever you wanted and then drop it (or let it cycle out) when you were done with it for a while. Then, if you decided you want it again, you’d shell out a buck to look at it again.

And for a buck? You’d take a few risks here and there. Back when there were bargain theaters, we used to go to them to see movies we figured weren’t very good. It was fun, and at $10 a movie has to be a lot better than it does at $3.

For a buck, what wouldn’t you try?

Songs could be cheaper (because they’re shorter and the volume people consume is much higher), maybe a dime or a quarter. Books are interesting because they can (and are) had for free from a library. But I think the principle is still the same:

Make it so easy and so cheap that the legal venue provides the best product for the exchange (of time and money). Yes, people will still take without paying. But I would bet your overall volume of sales would go up so much–much like the introduction of the hated (by providers) videotape created revenue streams they couldn’t imagine–you’d enter a new realm of profitability.

And you could include tons of free stuff as well as work with the independents who would benefit from being in your library. Eventually, the roles would change, so you’d be a pure distributor. Why spend millions making a pop star when they’re out there making themselves at no cost or risk to you?

It won’t happen peacefully, of course. Change is frightening, and probably all the more so when it’s inevitable.