Friday, January 25, 2008

Another nail in the coffin for DRM and the old school...

Here is the story of how author Paulo Coelho benefited from the free distribution of his work, in this case, a book called "The Alchemist." He said, in his keynote speech at a conference in Munich called Digital, Life, Design:

"In 2001, I sold 10,000 hard copies. And everyone was puzzled. We came from zero, from 1000, to 10,000. And then the next year we were over 100,000."

This is a pretty odd pattern for a book - to go from almost no sales to hundreds of thousands as years go by. It turns out, pirates had made electronic copies of his work available online through BitTorrent. The free availability of his work exposed him to millions of new fans. So, Coelho actually went out and located links to torrents of all the different language translations of his books and published them on his web site. Sales skyrocketed.

I've long held that restricting distribution of artistic work works against the artist. While people who closely guard copyrights will maintain that 100,000 illegal downloads of a song (or book) is equivalent to 100,000 lost sales, I believe exactly the opposite. This is for several important reasons:

1) People do not buy something they can't afford. Kids especially have limited amounts of discretionary income. A pirated CD or computer game or whatever does not equate to a lost sale.

2) Increasing distribution of artistic work increases popularity. It's free advertising. How many bands did you get into because a friend of yours made you a copy of their album? Electronic distribution is this same basic idea to the nth degree.

3) Your potential audience is almost limitless. By restricting distribution you rely on old-fashioned word-of-mouth to spread the word. The benefits of viral distribution of art far exceed the potential losses because some people aren't paying for music. That is, even if some portion of the people who downloaded your music would have paid for it, the benefit of an exponentially larger number of potential customers being exposed is far greater that that loss.

4) Every artistic work has potential for sales other than the item that can be distributed electronically. Increasing your fan base can only increase those kinds of revenues. Authors sell printed books. Musicians sell tickets to concerts, physical and electronic media, merchandise.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that this only works if you're GOOD. If you let people try something before they buy it, well, you better be offering something worth buying. In some ways, this is the crux of the fear that has taken hold of the traditional record-label recording-industry model. Their business is less substance than sparkle. I remember the days when your favorite band put out a new album and you'd rush to buy it, and listen to it start to finish over and over. Now, the vast majority of what comes from the major labels is driven by a single hit song. So who wants to buy a whole album of crap for one song? While this is great for record labels, as they rake in the bucks for a load of drek, consumers naturally weren't as excited. The consequence: album sales are down, individual MP3 sales are up as a result.

Free distribution of artistic work is the future. And it has almost universally benefited good artists of any kind who have embraced it. But the old guard continues to fear it, because it puts them out of a job. The writing is on the wall, though. The floodgates are starting to open. Let's just hope that the unfortunate breed that continues to cling desperately to the protections of our backwards copyright laws dies off soon.

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