Getting It: In A World Of Digital Abundance, Sell The Scarcities

from the dickens-of-a-good-idea dept

A recurrent refrain from the copyright industries is that you can't make money from digital goods if they are freely available online. To which Techdirt has been pointing out for years that not only are there many ways of doing precisely that, but lots of people are already coining it as a result. One of the Guardian's columnists has noticed one of them - that in a world of digital abundance, you can make money by selling associated scarcities:

Earnings from recordings have been plummeting for a decade, while from live they are rising ever faster. Warner Brothers release albums free online to publicise forthcoming concerts. In Britain HMV is closing 40 shops while tickets for a Rihanna concert can cost 330 [$500], and for Coldplay 180 [$280]. A seat for Madonna is more expensive than her entire recorded output. A top American performer would reckon to earn between 80% and 90% of revenue from live performance. In the US alone, touring revenue that grossed $1bn in 1995 rose to $4.6bn last year.
The article then goes on to list other manifestations of this trend, such as Tony Blair's $160,000 fee for a speech "in the flesh"; a doubling of attendances at museums and galleries; 90% audience levels at the UK's National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company; and the fact that even "humble" authors find "appearances at literary festivals (those that pay) can compensate for dwindling book advances and, in the case of poets, eroding copyrights."

But one of the most telling examples is the following:

Performers such as Stephen Fry have taken to reading their books in public, Dickens-style
Dickens undertook his American reading tours in part because piracy of his works was rampant there, so he made little money directly from the many published copies. But amidst this unwelcome abundance, he was still able to sell the ultimate scarcity his presence to earn handsomely from the reputation his pirated works created.

The same is true for countless other writers, musicians and artists before Dickens, who lived when there was little or no copyright, and whose works could thus be copied freely. In other words, people have been using abundance to sell scarcity not just for years, but for centuries. Maybe it's time today's copyright industries got the message.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: abundance, business models, economics, scarcity


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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 7 Dec 2011 @ 5:08pm

    Re: Ulysses S. Grant

    The reality of the situation is that Mark Twain gave Grant a royalty of 75% on memoirs, close to an unheard of amount then and since. It did, as you indicate, pull his family out of debt. He had also had his military pension restored by then.

    The fact that Twain offered the royalty and Grant accepted it indicates that it was Twain, not Grant that held the copyright. Not that it mattered all that much with Grant getting a royalty rate like that. Nealy half a million dollars in income in those days for the family left them, shall I say, comfortable. Copyright terms were shorter in those days, too.

    The reality is that no one knows whether or not Grant would have written his memoirs in the absence of copyright, whether Twain would have offered as much for them or whether or not that was the only way for Grant to pull his family out of debt because (i) copyright existed, (ii) he and Twain made a deal that for Grant would earn guarantee a large return and (iii) his family lived in wealth and luxury afterwords so the statement is moot.

    Such deals would have been offered before copyright by a publisher to an author and resulted in wealth for both even tough it would have taken more of Twain's legendary sales and persuasion skills to do it over the copies put out by "unauthorized" publishers but it likely would have happened pretty much the same way.

    The reality is that we just don't know and never will.

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