Author Post | Rob Haines

I have invited the Fox Spirit Scribes to send through blog posts about anything writing/reading/publishing related that interests them. To kick off the series an article from Rob Haines whose story of swashbuckling pirates in a digital world ‘Pieces of 2^3’ appears in the first Fox Pocket ‘Piracy’

You can see more from Rob here

Changing the Digital Value Proposition

Who owns a piece of art?

Is it the artist, who created it? Is it the customer, who paid money for it? Is it whoever legally possesses the canvas it’s painted on, or the paper carrying the words which together build a world of the imagination? What if – in a world of digital consumption – there is no canvas, no paper, just data?

These are the sorts of questions publishers of digital media have been trying to figure out the answers to for the past decade, with varying degrees of success. To the ebook-buying public it seems simple: I paid money for a book, therefore I should own it. I should be able to take those pages, those words, and lend them to my family, my friends, to share what I enjoyed. Yet when a perfect, everlasting digital copy can be a single-click away it could be argued that such a copy is a distinct entity, an instance of the data which I didn’t buy and have no right to own.

Such arguments are beginning to pop up in more and more areas of entertainment; in an interview with Wired shortly after the announcement of the Xbox One, Microsoft’s Phil Harrison spoke about the diminishing importance of physical media, saying:

‘…assuming you have a physical disc…it’s just a repository for “the bits”. You can put that disc into [a friend’s] drive, you can play the game while you’re there, and then you go home and take that disc with you. But actually, “the bits” are still on his drive. If your friend decides that he really likes to play that game, then he can go buy it instantly…’

If it’s that easy to copy a piece of art, the reasoning goes, then the data which constitutes the art has no value in itself. If the data is infinitely reproducible, the transaction is no longer paying money for a specific piece of media (be that paper, optical disc or data), but instead paying money for the right to experience that art.

This sort of thinking results in the increasingly labyrinthine terms of use agreements drawn up by content providers like Amazon and Apple. You no longer own the content itself – after all, what is there to own? – but are instead granted a license to use it. You can’t lend it or re-sell it, except under the strictest and most tightly-controlled schemes, because it can’t be guaranteed that you no longer own a perfect facsimile of the original. And by and large, the ebook-buying consumer has either accepted these tradeoffs against the convenience of having a whole library of books at their fingertips, or else buy exclusively from those publishers and stores who’ve chosen to allow their readers the option to do what they will with the books they’ve purchased.

The more restrictive approaches seem to work best where there is a degree of compromise on both sides; I give up certain rights to share and re-sell the books I buy, and get the convenience of a weightless digital library in my pocket in return. Give and take. I need to feel that a publisher is meeting me in the middle somewhere, that every single change they’ve made to the way I used to be able to buy their product isn’t skewed unerringly in their favour. While it’s their right to change the terms they sell a product under, they also have to be aware of how that changes the value proposition for the consumer.

Microsoft’s failure in this regard over the past few weeks has become a perfectly encapsulated cautionary tale. Instead of the announcement of their new console eliciting excitement and anticipation, it’s become mired in confusion and deceit as details of how they plan to change the value proposition have crept out. They’ve chosen to take away the freedom to lend, to share, to personally re-sell, to play offline without daily internet check-ins, and giving nothing but condescension in return. Both press reaction and consumer response has been overwhelmingly negative, and it remains to be seen how much damage they’ve done to their potential audience as a result.

Meet us in the middle, publishers, and we’ll walk into this digital future hand in hand. Try to clutch every right to your chest, granting us nothing in return, and we’ll happily go on without you. There’s always more entertainment to be had elsewhere.