Protecting Our Property to Death

Peter Coffee: We can profit from our digital works by treating them like a composer's sheet music.

What could be harder to own than a string of bits? It costs essentially nothing to copy, its unauthorized copying leaves no trace upon the original, the copy probably cant be provably traced to the original—but in most cases, you cant use what you own without exposing it to others who might abuse it in various ways.

You cant ship software without giving users the bits. You cant publish content without giving users the bits. Encryption tools are stopgap measures: At some point, the system has to expose readable text or audible sound or visible images or streams of machine instructions or other external signals of some kind. At that point, capture and reuse are trivial tasks that become cheaper—and more accurate—every day.

This inspires too many people to ask, "How do we make this harder to steal?" When I point out that the trend is inexorably in the direction of making bits harder to protect, people accuse me of having no respect for intellectual property—a bizarre accusation, since I make my living producing strings of bits. Yes, we add value to our words with art and layout and other embellishments, but all of those can also be captured in a PDF file: One way or another, I make my living stringing bits together, whether with a keyboard or a camera.

The last thing I want to see is a social attitude that says my work is merely information, therefore somehow inherently free, and that I have no business expecting to make a living from its sale.

But the question cannot—must not—become one of making bits harder to steal. All of the answers to that question commit us to spiraling investments in nonproductive assets with inexorably diminishing returns. Rights management technologies are like chemotherapy: They try to kill the cancer of unauthorized use without quite killing the value of the bits to their legitimate buyer. Like chemotherapy patients, the buyers wind up suffering—but with the twist that its not their cancer thats being cured. Needless to say, they resent the inconvenience and eagerly seek alternatives.

The question must therefore be, "How do I endow bits with more value?" Consider music as an example. Great classical works are in the public domain: Why do you think they were so often heard as sound tracks in 20th-century cartoons? And yet, people will pay to hear those works performed with skill, in live concerts, even though they could hear them free on noncommercial radio stations—or purchase indefinite access in the form of a music CD. Is there a model here for application developers?

Or consider newspapers and magazines: They still sell, even when their content can be had for no charge from a Web site. What can developers learn from this?

The application equivalent of a live performance is a tailored installation. Follow the example of The Mathworks: sell a basic, packaged product at little more than the cost of reproduction and distribution, but offer more capable add-on or substitute modules plus paid professional support—or certification to third-party consultants, who pay you a fee for referrals and for privileged access to premium resources. Your application is the sheet music, so to speak; the real money is in the performance rights that you license to the artists who go out and face the audience.

The application equivalent of a printed newspaper or magazine, as opposed to a free news Web site, is superior convenience: regular delivery of software updates, project templates, contributed materials from the community of expert users, and other subscription material that comes to buyers instead of making them find it. Like magazines that offer special reprint collections as incentives for prompt renewals, developers can offer their own premium materials and support—while treating nonpaying users as their best prospects, instead of abusing them as thieves.

Dont be like the fabled restaurant owner who tried to make poor students pay for the privilege of sitting where they could smell his roasting meats, because it added flavor to their rice. The judge in that legendary case awarded just compensation: He had the students pour coins from one hand to another, and let the food seller listen to the sound. Look for ways to deliver more, not less, or your own rewards will someday prove equally fleeting.

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