Copyright and the Digital Age

I authored the following short essay for publication in a pamphlet produced by the RSA entitled Promoting innovation and rewarding creativity: A balanced intellectual property framework for the digital age. The pamphlet was published at the beginning of January and along with my piece included items by Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA), Lynne Brindley (Chief Executive of the British Library), James Boyle (Professor of Law at Duke), Derek Wyat (MP and leader of the APIG enquiry on DRM), Charles Arthur (Editor of the Technology Section) and Vanessa Lawrence (Director-General of the Ordnance Survey).

Copyright and the Digital Age

Today most types of material subject to copyright are available in digital form. As a result, the distribution, production and re-production costs of copyrightable material have dropped, and continue to drop, very rapidly.

‘Entry’ into most copyright ‘industries’ has grown easier, as a direct consequence of this fall in the costs of participation. For example, today the creator of a new song or novel may instantly distribute their work to anyone with an internet connection. In the past, production on such a scale and with such global distribution, if it was possible at all, could only have been achieved by going through a major publisher or label.

Looked at simply, these changes in entry costs imply alterations in the structure of the industries affected: as entry costs fall there should be a large, and rapid, increase in the number and diversity of those making and distributing copyrightable work (a democratisation of creativity). The rents (profits) of existing intermediaries (publishers, record labels) and ‘star’ creators will drop, with a reallocation of that surplus to other producers/creators and consumers — the lion’s share going to this second group.

However, there are reasons to be wary of this straightforward reading of the changes implied by the arrival of the ‘Digital Age’. As human beings, we have a limited amount of time and attention. Whilst the cost of making and then conveying a work to consumers may have dropped radically, the cost of ‘discovery’– that is, of the work being found and subsequently read, listened to, or watched — may not have declined at all, in fact, it may have risen.

Advertising is one way for producers of creative works to address this issue of limited attention. But advertising is not free. In fact, it is another entry cost but one which, unlike those mentioned previously, shows no evidence of declining in the digital environment.

If this is so, then the simple story is flawed. Unless there is a change in how we pick what to read, what to listen to, and what to watch, the actual change in overall ‘entry costs’, and the concomitant changes in the structure of copyright industries is likely to be very limited.