Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Achtung! Minen!

Ethicist Randy Cohen, over at the New York Times, has wandered into a minefield.

For an ethicist to parse language as he does shows that ethics and ethical behavior is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But when the complex system that brought the ethical quandary to the fore shows it's not working to satisfy its consumers, you've got to wonder where the blame really lies.

Not really. The blame lies with the Cohen questioner, seeking absolution for pirating an electronic copy of a book after paying for a hard copy, and in Cohen, for giving the absolution sought for.

But one could argue that an accessory to the crime is the publisher, who is not exactly giving the consumer what he or she wants.

Read Cohen's column here.

The language he uses is interesting. He points out what the questioner is doing is illegal, and that his/her action is "not pristine." Yet he condones it in saying this:
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
So very wrong. but then again this is coming from an industry that gave away its content as the Internet came into being and then suddenly wondered where all of its readership and revenue went. Maybe they want to see others suffer that same ignominious fate. It kinda makes me want to knock over a bunch of newspaper kiosks to steal the papers there just because I read Cohen's column online. So to suggest stealing an e-book is ethical -- albeit illegal and "not pristine" is okay because the questioner earlier bought the hard copy of a book is wrong. Ethically.

I feel the reader's pain, however. I rarely buy new books. Typically, I buy them used, and I know not a penny of the fifty cents, the dollar, the two dollars, goes back to the author. The reader expressed willingness to buy the electronic copy of the book but was thwarted by the industry's practice of "windowing," putting out the hard cover edition of the book first and holding back on the paperback (and e-book) to drive sales of the original, ten-peso version. I understand that theh publisher wants to maximize profits on the hardcover edition. But you'd think that they'd look at the volume sold, rather than the platform, in seeing how well a book is doing. Selling an electronic copy is as equivalent a value as a hardcover as far as best-seller lists go. But maybe I'm wrong.

Clay Shirky speaks a bit on this, in an essay he wroteon how complex systems often fail to adapt to new technologies and new strategies not because they can't but because they won't. You can read the full essay here. This is what he says in regard to paying for content in the Internet age:
"Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don't know how to do that..."

In the future, at least some methods of producing video for the web will become as complex, with as many details to attend to, as television has today, and people will doubtless make pots of money on those forms of production. It's tempting, at least for the people benefitting from the old complexity, to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they're going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That's not how it works, however.
The development of the quattro threw book publishing on its ear back in the daym, because suddenly books could be produced cheaply and be thrust into more and more hands. Publishers then were liivd because it was undercutting their organized way of doing things. But thanks to the quattro, more people became literate, more people read, and more books were eventually sold. Maybe publishers and authors earn less on an e-book sale than on a hardback sale. I should be concerned about this as I'm writing a book and want to be a published author. But because of the way the machine works, my chances are slim. If books could be produced less expensively -- say, in e-books -- more authors might get a chance. maybe more schlocky authors, like me, will pollute the reading pool. But maybe publsihers could make more money on smaller, less-expensive authors, right?
Here's another example: Birdemic. It's a completely schlocky, terribly written, performed, produced and edited film by an amateur filmmaker who, in the Hollywood machine, wouldn't have gone anywhere. But the movie is so fantastically bad it's being put into limited release throughout the nation because, hey, this outside Hollywood weirdo made a really, really bad movie. Maybe his is bad. But maybe his can prove to be an example of content created outside the framework of the traiditonal machine. He could pave the way for much better movies.

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