A Position Paper by Max Whitby, touchpress.com
The regulatory framework controlling the publication, copying and distribution of content evolved in a technological and commercial environment very different to the digital landscape in which we now find ourselves. Our copyright laws were shaped in an age when IP was published in physical form, copying cost money and distribution was far from free. In that context it made practical sense to restrict the right to copy in order to protect the livelihoods of authors and publishers, who had to make a considerable investment in order to reach market.
Today it still costs time, creative inspiration and skilled effort to generate valuable IP. That much has not and is not likely to change. And the financial and creative investment involved remains something that copyright framework should continue to protect and encourage, so that artists may eat and their audiences may continue to enjoy their output. But attempting to implement this protection through the blunt instrument of controlling the right to make and distribute copies of a work no longer makes sense.
As the digital pioneer Stewart Brand remarked in the early days of the information revolution: “Information Wants To Be Free”. Another way to express this thought is that the ability to discover and communicate information (particularly the sort of protected information that is considered Intellectual Property) is a fundamental strength of our digital society. It is the engine driving the generation of ideas. We seek to stop this process (for example by attempting to prevent copying) at our peril.
Savvy authors and publishers know that free distribution of their copyright work is often an excellent thing. In crude commercial terms, piracy can sometimes be considered a highly effective form of marketing. Of course this depends on enough people being willing at some point to pay for content. But often discovery comes about through exposure to the free stuff. The challenge to digital publishers is to give away enough to encourage wide distribution. And then to offer real persuasive value in the form of additional content, enhanced functionality and community engagement that comes with purchase.
Let me give an example from my own app-publishing company Touch Press. On several occasions in the past year we have chosen to give away part or even all of one of our titles free in order to reach a substantial new audience. The most spectacular example is our children’s app Barefoot World Atlas. Apple selected this as one of their favourite apps of all time and invited us to give it away free for a week to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the iTunes App Store. We happily agreed and in seven days the app was downloaded four million times, vastly increasing our installed base. Now we are about to release a major update that will offer this expanded audience a range of additional content via in-app purchase.
So what needs controlling is the right to make money from copyright work. In other words to charge an audience. A shift in the legal framework towards this goal will continue to protect the fountain of innovation, without paradoxically blocking the free flow of ideas. The price of such a change will be to oblige authors and publishers to deliver real value and convenience to their audience in those things they choose to charge for.
Max Whitby is CEO and co-founder of Touch Press, which published The Elements, one of the first apps on the iPad at launch in 2010 and now downloaded 800,000 times. Touch Press has since released 16 titles, including the landmark literary app The Waste Land, and most recently Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Max started his career at the BBC Science Department where he produced numerous Horizon documentaries. He headed an early collaboration between the BBC and Apple. He co-led a management-buyout of this BBC group that floated on AIM. In 2004 Max completed a PhD in chemistry at Imperial College. He is passionately interested in natural history and has filmed every species of British bird, butterfly and bumblebee for another digital venture natureguides.com. He has two BAFTA awards.