Copyright Sage Bill Patry On What Content Owners Should Do Now

Bill Patry

I had the pleasure of sitting down this week with Bill Patry, one of the country’s top copyright scholars and a leading thinker on digital rights issues. Here’s a short account of our chat followed by three specific pieces of advice Patry, now counsel for Google (NSDQ: GOOG), has for content owners trying to adjust to the digital age.

I met Patry in a Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) which seemed like a fitting place to discuss the state of the content industry. The bookstore giant is a leader in providing both content and community but faces the same existential threats that felled similar icons like Borders and Tower Records.

Patry, who was copyright lawyer to the US House of Representative and authors a seminal textbook series, is also an obsessive book and music consumer. He boasts of blowing thousands of dollars a year on sheet music and recordings, and letting his 10-year old daughter buy whatever she likes in Diane’s Books in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is rooting for the content industry.

“I want them to be wildly profitable because I love their stuff.”

As for the laws that protect that content, Patry is dismayed by the state of dysfunction that pits publishers, creators and consumers against one another. He has ideas for legal reform but is also realistic. He believes copyright has long been about ideology not evidence, a phenomenon he attributes to people’s passion for the creative arts. Patry also says there are inherent political problems that prevent dislodging lobbyists and reforming copyright.

“In the grander scheme of American politics, copyright is small potatoes. We’re not going to elect a President based on his view of copyright issues.”

Patry also questions whether another giant of copyright law, Laurence Lessig, made the right decision in launching a “rootstriker” campaign to fix Congress rather than simply running for office himself.

High discussions of copyright are all well and good but, for many creators and publishers, the more pressing issue is how to find a business model that will let them survive in the digital era. Patry’s new book, How To Fix Copyright, offers a mix of theory and practical ideas. We will have a proper review of the book this weekend but, for now, here are three concrete pieces of advice from Patry:

Focus On Access Not Copies

Control over the reproduction of books, music and movies was forever the cornerstone of the content industry’s business model. Today, though, the significance of copies is becoming meaningless in an era where an infinite number of digital reproductions can be made at nearly no cost. In practical terms, this means that content owners should focus on expanding access through technology like streaming rather than controlling copies.

This may not reassure content owners who confront others who share their products without permission. Patry thinks the response here once again turns on access:

“The answer to the contraband stuff is flooding the market with authorized versions.”

Pricing Matters As Much As Piracy

Patry is aware that global piracy is a concern for the content industry but believes that the issue is “more a pricing problem than a moral problem.” He thinks that the industry is leaving money on the table by holding out for Western level pricing rather than making digital media available at prices that consumers in developing nations can afford.

This means increasing the customer base and making money from a larger number of small transactions. Doing so, Patry says, also requires recognizing that copyright is a means to an end — putting money in artists’ pockets — rather than an end in itself.

Focus On The Product Not The Law

Media products, like those in other industries, have a finite life cycle and it’s ultimately futile trying to extend that cycle after consumers have embraced a new era of products. Publishing industries, though, are fixated on passing stricter laws in an effort to wring more revenue out of dated products. This is a mistake.

“You can’t control through laws a product cycle that is over. Laws aren’t going to help you force people to buy things they don’t want to buy in the first place.”

Patry suggests it’s better to focus on providing consumers with new products in “formats, places and times” they will embrace.

He also suggests that publishers concentrate on value-added features. They can do so for digital products but also for legacy products like hardcover books and music compilations. Patry explains he recently refused to buy a $30 DVD of Kung Fu Panda 2 because there is no added value to justify the cost. But he will happily shell out much more than that for the beauty and tactile joy of an elegant edition.

It will be interesting to see if publishers think Patry’s prescription is a viable one — lots of access to affordable digital products coupled with retailers that sell pricey but beautiful legacy versions.

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