Monday, September 04, 2006

Tim O'Reilly on P2P

Back in 2002, Tim O'Reilly (founder of O'Reilly Publishing, perhaps the biggest IT and computer book publisher in the world) wrote an article about piracy and copy-protection. He details four lessons he had learnt from years in the business of selling, and giving away, books, and explains why they also apply to music and video:

  1. Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

  2. Piracy is progressive taxation.

  3. Customers want to do the right thing, if they can.

  4. Shoplifting is a bigger threat than piracy.

O'Reilly describes the bias of the existing distribution and advertising system, and points out that for many artists, piracy is a boon, not a problem:

For all of these creative artists, most laboring in obscurity, being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement. Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say "may" because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues.

Our current distribution systems for books, music, and movies are skewed heavily in favor of the "haves" against the "have nots." A few high-profile products receive the bulk of the promotional budget and are distributed in large quantities; the majority depend, in the words of Tennessee Williams' character Blanche DuBois, "on the kindness of strangers."


I have watched my 19 year-old daughter and her friends sample countless bands on Napster and Kazaa and, enthusiastic for their music, go out to purchase CDs. My daughter now owns more CDs than I have collected in a lifetime of less exploratory listening.

Then, in 2005, O'Reilly linked on his blog to an article by The Book Standard titled Buying the Cow, Though the Milk Is Free: Why Some Publishers Are Digitizing Themselves. According to O'Reilly:

[...] free downloads can be good marketing, or in the worst cases a minor inconvenience, rather than the horror story that the copyright mafia makes them out to be.

Last month, he revisited his earlier ideas about piracy and copyright, and continues to stand by his earlier conclusions.

On a related note, Nat from O'Reilly discusses the sort of fan mail authors like to hear:

I downloaded a copy from the Net, but realising how good it is, today I will buy a copy to support your work. I do not need a hardcopy, I will continue [to use] the digital version, but I will buy a hardcopy anyway.

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