When they write the history of how the recording industry botched its transition to digital content distribution, they’ll probably devote a whole chapter to the Diamond Rio.
Ugly as it was, the Rio was the first widely available portable MP3 player. While the appearance of the device indicated a clear demand from consumers for portable digital music, the recording industry saw it as a threat. Instead of embracing digital music and working to develop a viable business model for digital content distribution, the RIAA took the manufacturer of the Rio to court and tried to have the product taken off the market. The RIAA was at war with the MP3 format, and claimed that any device capable of playing MP3 files would clearly contribute to piracy.
The RIAA ultimately lost its lawsuit, and the rest is history. While the Rio may seem like a footnote now, it was an important milestone. The court ruling on the Rio case cleared the way for Apple’s iPod, and eventually the iTunes music store.
One of the many ironies of this case is that during the trial an RIAA spokesperson claimed:
“We filed this lawsuit because unchecked piracy on the Internet threatens the development of a legitimate marketplace that consumers want”
Ironic because it was only after the RIAA lost the lawsuit that the marketplace became open enough for someone (Apple) to develop a legitimate marketplace for digital content.
The reality, of course, is that piracy does nothing to prevent the development of a legitimate marketplace. Instead, it was the fear of piracy that prevented the recording industry from developing a legitimate marketplace.
These days the publishing industry is facing its own digital media transition. Products like Amazon’s Kindle promise to usher in a new era of ebooks and digital content distribution. Whether the Kindle will be the next Rio or the next iPod remains to be seen. In the meantime, publishers would be well advised to study history and learn from the mistakes of the music industry. The last thing the publishing industry needs right now is to let an irrational fear of piracy interfere with its efforts to build a legitimate marketplace for digital content.
It is not surprising that we are already starting to see ill-informed commentary about ebook piracy. What is surprising, is that the latest round of fear mongering is coming from Michael Arrington at TechCruch.
In a recent TechCrunch post that makes Arrington sound somewhat like an attorney for the RIAA circa 1998, he points to a couple of sources for pirated ebooks and notes that “reading these books on the new Amazon Kindle is trivially easy.”
One of the many things Arrington fails to note in his post, is that it’s trivially easy to read pirated ebooks on a PC, a Blackberry, a PDA, a Sony Reader, or even an iPhone. He seems to be suggesting that the Kindle will somehow contribute to piracy. In fact, book piracy existed well before the Kindle.
What the Kindle does is help create a legitimate marketplace that actually makes it easier for consumers to buy books legally than it is for them to download pirated copies. Whether it’s the marketplace that consumers want remains to be seen.
It should be noted that ebook editions aren’t the cause of the problem either. Publishers who think they can avoid having their books pirated by withholding digital editions are sorely mistaken. Many of the pirated ebooks floating around the net were sourced from printed editions. Anyone willing to cut the spine on a new release can run the pages through a high speed digital copier and post the book to Bittorrent 20 minute later.
In this day and age there’s a certain inevitability to piracy. Anything that can be digitized, will be pirated. Copyright holders need to come to terms with this fact and get on with their lives. Just because someone might download a book for free doesn’t mean there can be no legitimate marketplace for ebooks.
Instead of worrying about piracy, publishers should be focused on creating a viable business model for the digital age and developing a healthy and diverse marketplace for digital content.
And this is the area where publishers might have real concern about the Kindle. Amazon’s end-to-end ebook solution looks an awful lot like Apple’s end-to-end digital music solution.
It’s been well documented that the major labels would not allow Apple to sell their music online in a DRM-free format. Apple was more than happy to give the labels what they wanted in the form of a proprietary DRM system (aren’t they all) that locked users in to Apple technology.
Years later the record labels are finally realizing they gave away a lot more than they got in return. They lost all control over pricing, as well as the distribution channel. In yet another ironic twist, Apple’s market dominance has finally lead the labels to begin experimenting with DRM-free music.
Publishing industry executives who allow their business decisions to be dictated by an irrational fear of piracy will almost certainly make the same mistakes that music business executives made not so long ago.