I have been thinking a bit lately about the tension between copyright law and the proliferation of self-publishing online. How do you protect your copyright when any work can be copied or transcribed within a second of its unveiling and published around the world by any average Joe with a cell phone and a twitter account? It’s a question I’ve been asking without clear answers so far (but would love to hear your thoughts).
Check out what the US Copyright Office says copyright law protects: “original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Stop and think about the level of technology disruption and subsequent business model innovation in some of the areas listed – music, movies, books, software, etc. If you want to find industries rich with innovation – you could just pick the industries that the US Copyright Office is trying to protect and go from there.
I wonder what copyright law will look like and how it will be used 10–20 years from now. Right now, each industry and each author has to decide how they will react to technologies that are seemingly threatening their core asset. It seems there are two broad options – (1) try to protect your work under copyright law as you always have or (2) embrace technology and adjust your model. History seems to suggest that banking on #1 is an uphill battle because you’re on the wrong side of technology innovation – just ask the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). Option #2 requires vision and courage to change your industry by leaving old models behind.
Another way to put decision matrix for authors is: do you want to own the content or do you want to own the community? If you want to own the content, you protect it with all your might. If you want to own the community, you may need to put your content out there and let people around the world engage with it (a great example of this in education is MIT Open Courseware). Both are legitimate options. But, one possible ironic consequence of pursuing the second option is that by giving away or opening up your content, you may end up inheriting more valuable content which is the feedback and engagement of the broader community. In effect, you might just give up one asset to create one that is far more valuable.