A familiar trope of copyright critics is that those involved in creating content — whether record labels, movie studios, or book publishers — are stuck in the past. The challenges facing these industries stem from their refusal to embrace innovation.
The tech industry is especially fond of this trope and seem to have settled on the “buggy whip” as their analogy of choice. A notable example is last August’s statement by Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, who said, “Rather than adapt to the digital marketplace, NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and RIAA act like buggy-whip industries that refuse to innovate and seek to impose penalties on those that do.”
On its face, this claim doesn’t hold up.
As pointed out on Copyright Alliance last week, “the motion picture studios and other members of the creative community are licensing new technology models daily and have embraced an evolving technological landscape to create legal and innovative products and markets.” We have a wealth of different ways to experience content nowadays. The MPAA and RIAA both have pages listing just dozens of legal and convenient examples.
It’s true that people are changing the way they access and consume content, but the transition is gradual and ongoing. Traditional forms of consumptions — terrestrial radio, cable TV, CDs, for example — still make up the majority of how media is experienced. 1Glenn Peoples, Paper Sheds New Light on Music Listening Habits, Billboard, Nov. 3, 2009; Americans Watching More TV Than Ever; Web and Mobile Video up Too, Nielsen Wire, May 20, 2009. It doesn’t make sense to rush in gutting existing business models for unproven models, models that don’t yet sustain the production of the type of content people love.
In addition, many of the oft-touted suggestions for how the media industries should be adapting have yet to produce substantial returns. According to NPD analyst Russ Crupnick, the past 10 years has seen greater “ubiquity, disaggregation, fragmentation, liberal licensed, disabled DRM, and disinflation” but less growth in music buyers.
Content Industries are not Buggy-whip Makers
On a deeper level, this claim make even less sense.
The buggy-whip analogy comes from an article written by a Harvard Business School professor in the 1960s. 2Randall Stross, Failing Like a Buggy Whip Maker? Better Check Your Simile, New York Times, Jan. 9, 2010. It describes a business that refuses to adapt in the face of technological innovation. When automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages, buggy-whip manufacturers either had to change their business models or risk obsolescence.
How are content industries like buggy-whip manufacturers? It’s not like they are making something no one wants. People haven’t switched entirely to new forms of entertainment; people haven’t to a large extent embraced alternatives to the content created by traditional industries.
Note that complaints about outdated business models are often not that the RIAA’s and MPAA’s make it difficult for others to create their own music or movies. The complaints largely come from those who want to get the benefits of other people’s content. Service providers and hardware manufacturers certainly recognize the value of this content, they just want more of that value for themselves.
To put it another way, if media industries are making buggy-whips, and buggy-whips are obsolete, why are people pirating buggy-whips?
Piracy is not the Automotive Industry
But even if media industries can be described as buggy-whip industries, it doesn’t follow that copyright infringement is the automobile.
Piracy is not an innovation.
I sometimes wonder if those who compare content creation to the buggy-whip industry and piracy to the automotive industry realize that piracy was around long before the internet. Prior to mp3s and torrents, the record industry faced unauthorized CD and vinyl pressing operations. When the major product of the music industry was sheet music, pirate printers hawked “wretchedly-got-up versions” of popular songs on the streets. And through the centuries, authors and publishers had to contend with reprinters and copyists. The only difference between then and now is that copying is cheaper and more diffuse — a quantitative, rather than qualitative, difference.
But no matter how cheap and easy copying gets, it’s still only copying; no new works are created through piracy.
No doubt, the way people experience media will continue to evolve. Media industries will need to continue to adapt to remain successful. But the comparison between copyright industries and metaphorical buggy-whip manufacturers is inaccurate.
|↑1||Glenn Peoples, Paper Sheds New Light on Music Listening Habits, Billboard, Nov. 3, 2009; Americans Watching More TV Than Ever; Web and Mobile Video up Too, Nielsen Wire, May 20, 2009.|
|↑2||Randall Stross, Failing Like a Buggy Whip Maker? Better Check Your Simile, New York Times, Jan. 9, 2010.|