illustration of Shakespeare

Intellectual Property and the Economics of Entertainment

There’s been buzz over the past few weeks concerning how Condé Nast, the New York Times, and other publishing companies are busily preparing digital versions of their various publications. The gist is that they want to be ready for the only-rumored, yet heavily hyped, Apple Tablet. Apparently, the Kids From Cupertino have achieved such a level of credibility that corporations will pour money into preparing for a tablet-style computer that Apple might be thinking about launching maybe next year.

Here we have one more piece of evidence to indicate that the written word has begun its unavoidable migration from paper to the digital media. Good news for tree huggers; bad news for Hammermill, Champion, and anyone who owns a printing press. Not that the tactile enjoyment of a glossy magazine or well-produced book is likely to be replaced by a sterile LCD screen any time soon. And we won’t be closing libraries and replacing them with giant servers in the foreseeable future. Of more immediate concern, however, is the effect the presumed Apple Tablet and the all-too-real Amazon Kindle may have on the source of all that content — the writers.

Over the past 20 years, digitization has changed the music industry. Album sales have declined over the past decade to the point where combined CD and download sales now represent only a fraction of what CD sales alone accounted for in 2000. Thousands of recording industry jobs have disappeared; so have thousands of retail record stores across the country. Today, the primary revenue source for the artists is live performances. Being a rock star ain’t what it used to be.

Other forms of digitized entertainment, such as cinema and video games, are managing to hold their own against pirate attacks for the time being. But as books become easily shared digital files, how will the authors and their publishers be able to control unlicensed dissemination of the work? Will a Stephen King, a John Grisham, or a Dan Brown continue to produce entertaining works of fiction when the sales dollars begin to decline? Unlike music, there isn’t a very lucrative market for live performances by an author.

There is no money in poetry, of course, and poets continue to write, don’t they? The difference is that poets write for the purpose of self-expression, not to entertain others. A major difference between art and entertainment is that the latter requires a revenue stream to justify its existence. This isn’t to say that works produced to entertain cannot also be art, but let’s not forget that Shakespeare wrote plays to earn a living. Shakespeare

You cannot own what we call “ intellectual property ” any more than you can own an idea. What you can hold onto is the right to control the reproduction and dissemination of its physical manifestations — hence the term “copyright”. Should writers and publishers be in a hurry to embrace a method of distribution so inherently vulnerable to illicit reproduction and sharing? If you had a novel going to press tomorrow, would you be willing to allow it to be published digitally as well? Do you see any way to protect book authors in the future… before they all turn to writing for the stage or screen? I’d be interested to know if you do.


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