“Damn the man!”

With DRM continually imposing restrictions, Milena Popova presents some better and more viable alternatives which uphold market principles, but also maintain consumers' choice

Child with headphones, laughing

Image: CC-AT Flickr: flattop341

A couple of recent ORGZine articles have focused on how DRM is broken: how it denies you access to the content and devices you’ve legitimately bought, how it limits consumer choice, and how it simply doesn’t work because for every coder out there creating new forms of DRM there are a couple of thousand hackers who see them as a new challenge. Does that mean it’s all doom and gloom for the content industry? Will we have no new music, movies or books, because people aren’t prepared to pay for them any longer? Hardly. Here’s a brief overview of some of the exciting new business models in content distribution which are springing up all around us. I don’t know exactly what the future of content looks like, but here are a few guesses and extrapolations from what I'm seeing already. This is just the beginning.

There is, by now, more than just anecdotal evidence that—for certain types of content—putting it up for free on the internet will actually increase your sales. Books are a good example here and Cory Doctorow demonstrates this quite nicely - all his books are available for free from his website and he's selling loads of them. I suspect part of the reason why this works so nicely with books is that we bibliophiles already have a special relationship with dead-tree versions of things, we like to own them, and we like to support the people who create them. It's in the culture.

Putting your stuff up for free on the internet does two things. Firstly, it helps you reach a wider audience. A lot of people who wouldn't fork out the best part of a tenner on a book or CD will happily download it for free. They might find they like the book or CD, and that might make them pay up, or it might make them recommend it/share it with their friends, and some of them might pay up. Secondly, it allows you to price-discriminate in the most finely-tuned way possible – it allows you to charge every single person who comes across your content exactly what they're willing to pay for it. This is actually a good thing for content creators: it maximises your (the creator's) profits while the consumer pays for the content according to how much they value it - no more, no less. This may mean I get lots more content more cheaply now, or I focus on giving my favourite artists more money - the choice is up to me. Price discrimination is traditionally seen as Evil by economists who believe in the Market. In many cases it is. In this case, I have yet to see an argument to convince me.

I think another trend we're likely to see is a move away from big blockbuster type content—bands like Metallica, or the Foo Fighters, movies like Avatar, big-budget TV shows, etc—towards a wider range of smaller artists. Being a rock star may not make one or two bands a year hugely, astronomically rich, but more artists should hopefully be able to make a living off their art.

We're going to see a wider variety of distribution models. My favourite example at the moment is the last Indelicates album which comes as a "pay-what-you-like" download, CD, iTunes type formats, CD plus various levels of extras such as art books, and the super special edition where Julia and Simon Indelicate rock up at your house, perform the album, record the performance and sign over the rights to the master. Amanda Palmer is also experimenting with different ways of making money, including pay-what-you-like releases and webcasts where she auctions off her finance's daughter. Ditto Zoe Keating.

Kickstarter looks like a great way of funding art too: you get people to pledge to fund your project. If you reach your pledge target within a certain time, you get the money, but if you don’t your supporters don’t get charged. You can further incentivise people to pledge money by offering special goodies and unique opportunities - let them have their name in the credits, send them a complementary copy of the finished work, or any other kinds of extras you can come up with. I’ve pledged to a couple of projects, one of which got funded and the other didn’t. I got a free album download off one of them and a free ebook off the other, and I still stay in touch with both projects and am likely to spend more money with them in the future.

Consumers' relationship with art and artists will change. It will be a lot more direct. Art isn't the shiny disc that you buy from Tesco's anymore. It's the project that your favourite artist announces on their blog and asks you for funding and posts updates about and that you wait for with increasing excitement. How we find new artists we like will change. I did a little calculation last year on how much money I'd spent on music over the previous six months, and had to stop counting at the £300 mark lest I gave myself a heart attack. Of all of the musicians whose music I bought, I'd only discovered one or two through the radio. One set were street musicians whose CD I bought. A few I'd discovered through other artists I liked - Amanda Palmer through Neil Gaiman, Zoe Keating and the Indelicates through Amanda Palmer, etc. One CD I'd meant to buy for a while and was prompted by seeing the artist in an episode of a TV series which I was catching up with online. A substantial number I discovered through friends pointing me in their direction and giving me free samples to listen to.

Of course there will be free-riders. Not everyone will pay for the content they download for free, even if they really like it. But those people might point their friends in the direction of that artist - there's a reason why I'm plugging a bunch of artists in the previous paragraphs! And even if they don't, you know what? That's okay too. As long as there are enough of us willing to pay for our art so that artists can make a living, that's fine. It'll be a bit like public services: some people pay their taxes, some people find all the loopholes, some people claim more benefits than they're allowed. It's not always 100% fair, but in the grand scheme of things, it works.

I think the sooner artists start engaging with their fanbase in a direct way and looking for creative ways to distribute their art, the more successful they will be. Content consumers need reeducating, and those artists who reach out to do that education first will be ahead of the game. Those who hide behind their record labels, sue their fans and see them as the enemy... well, we'll see, but I'm certainly not buying CDs from Metallica anymore - haven't ever since they helped shut down Napster.

The distribution models I've talked about don't necessarily suit all types of media. They work well for books and music, but they may not work well for the type of TV and movies that we're currently used to. But we're already seeing innovation in those sectors too, with developments like Hulu, or being able to buy individual episodes of series from iTunes. 

Bottom line: change is happening. There will be winners and losers, it'll be a long and difficult process. But the sooner we collectively stop sticking our heads in the sand and admit that DRM is a dead-end, and consumers take some responsibility themselves, the sooner we can start figuring out - together, rather than as enemies - what we want the future to look like.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She blogs at milenapopova.eu and tweets as @elmyra

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By Milena Popova on Jan 25, 2011

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