- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

An intriguing question: Might authors and musicians be better off without copyright? The thought is not an idle one: Copyright may be on the verge of disappearing whether we like it or not.
As previously noted in this column, digital technology and the Internet in particular allow copyrighted works music and books, for example to be copied and distributed without payment. The old business model in which an author or musician owned his work and charged for the right to read or listen to it, may not be any longer enforceable. Then what? Whither the publishing industries?
More importantly, how would authors and musicians make money?
Consider the economics: A hardback these days usually sells for $20 or more, which greatly limits the sale of books. If books cost $1, readers would buy many more, simply discarding those they found not to be interesting.
Of the $20, assume that the author gets 5 percent that is, $1. The rest goes for publishing costs and corporate profits. It is important that authors be paid, since they contribute something of intrinsic value.
If it were possible to sell the book on the Web for the dollar that actually goes to the author, then writers would prosper. I would buy many books for $1, but very few for $20. (Assume for the moment that a pleasant-to-use electronic book-reader existed into which one would download books. Such a machine is not a grave technical challenge.)
The objection to selling books as digital downloads is that once anyone has a book in digital form, he can e-mail it to other people for free. This notion is driving the music industry mad.
But what would happen if the Web site included an easy means for the reader to make a voluntary payment to the author of whatever sum he liked? Technically this is no longer difficult. A slightly modified PayPal-like system would work fine. The reader could pay nothing, or anything, for the book. He could read first and, if he chose, pay later.
The crucial question of course is whether people would pay for what they could get for free.
I don't know the answer. However, people who read books are (I think) on average fairly principled. Certainly those I know would feel obligated to toss a buck to a writer who had given them the pleasure of a good read. They wouldn't pay $20, especially knowing that the author would get very little of it. But a buck? Yes.
Now, if any book anyone wanted were available easily on the Web, with no obligation to pay, it seems likely to me that the number of readers would increase dramatically, and not just because of the price. Downloading a book would be easy, and impose no shipping costs or delay. Further, it would be available to the reading public of the entire Earth in that language.
If the number of readers increased tenfold, and 10 percent of them paid $1, the author would make as much as he does now.
The music industry has spent fortunes trying to prevent youths from pirating music. Nothing has worked. It may be that nothing will ever work. Log on to the post-Napster file-sharing services (Grokster, Kazaa, Morpheus and so on) and you will find literally millions of people online at once, downloading music.
Movies are now swapped illegally on the Internet. Books easily could go down the same road. Putting a book into digital form would require nothing more than a scanner, optical-character-recognition software, and perhaps a bit of patience.
As broadband spreads, piracy gets ever easier. Maybe the best answer will turn out to be not to protect copyright at all. I could certainly be wrong but, if things continue as they are, shortly there will be, de facto, no copyright.

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