So, the Department of Justice has formally filed suit against Apple and several major book publishers claiming collusion over eBook pricing. Let’s say Apple and the publishers are guilty as charged and in violation of our nation’s antitrust laws. Here’s my opinion on that: So what? What Apple and the publishers are doing here is trying to find a way to sustain creative works in an era when copyright law is slowly dying. As I noted here in a post yesterday, I take no joy in reporting the fact that property rights for intellectual creations no longer function effectively. I wish they did still work, but they are failing rather miserably in an age of highly decentralized digital dissemination. Moreover, I am not prepared to see government go to absurd enforcement extremes in an attempt to make intellectual property rights work. But, that being said, something needs to sustain and cross-subsidize cultural creations in an age of mass piracy. I have increasingly come to believe that consolidation of content and conduit (or devices) is a big part of the answer. Alternatively, some sort of informal collusion among cultural creators and information distributors may be the answer.
Apple and the publishers have figured that out and come up with a plan that keeps intellectual works flowing while making sure that the creators behind them get paid. At a time when copyright critics always say “just find a better business model” Apple and the publishers did just that. But now Department of Justice officials say that business model should be forbidden. That’s crazy. If we’re going to let copyright die, we should at least grant more pricing and deal-making flexibility to the creative community to structure business arrangements that might give them a lifeline.
But won’t such deals give publishers and other creative artists and industries more pricing power that will help them keep prices up artificially? Yes, of course! That is the whole point! God forbid we actually have to pay something to cultural creators. Ain’t that a scandal. But here’s a news flash: That’s what copyright law was all about, too. It was about helping creators put some fences around their “property” to help them maintain some degree of pricing power for goods with zero marginal cost. The scheme worked brilliantly for many years. It spawned a vibrant marketplace of ideas and helped America become the leading exporter of expressive works on the planet. But now the effectiveness of traditional copyright is fading rapidly. Industry consolidation, cross-promotions, pricing deals, and so on, will increasingly be the “better business model” some will turn to. So, are we going to allow it? Or will critics just keep mouthing “go find a better business model” and have the government step in every time they don’t like the one industry chooses? I say let experimentation continue.