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The End of Copyright?

25 November 2002

A thoughtful piece by Fred Reed in the Washington Times has raised the question of where copyright is heading, in the age of digital sound and words. The establishment view has always been that authors must defend their copyright and need a system which will guarantee them proper payment for the work in the form of a royalty on each copy sold, often with an advance against royalties paid upfront. This is defined as a percentage of the selling price and the working assumption is that the costs and profits of the chain of publisher, bookseller and distributor which gets the book into the hands of the book-buyer will swallow up the rest of the purchase price.

But with the advent of the Internet, in particular, the situation has changed radically. Not only is it possible to digitise written material easily, it can also be made available to everyone through copying off the Internet and downloading. It seems only a question of time before someone produces a hand-held device which really does the job at the right price.

But, as everyone knows, people are not keen to pay for things on the Internet, which is why it can be so difficult to make web-based businesses work. So, supposing the books were offered free? Would readers, hopefully encouraged to acquire a great many more books than they do now by books becoming freely available, be prepared to donate a dollar or £1 to the author? If they would, then the author might well get the same sort of amount as they do now in terms of royalties (although with less certainty), but conceivably on much greater sales. The difference is that publishers and booksellers who now dominate the process of getting a book from the author to the reader would be rendered completely superfluous. Now that's quite a thought...