"You can't compete with free!" is the mantra of a number of copyright maximalists -- and no matter how many times we show them examples of people successfully competing with free, it's still taken as inviolable law by some. Yet, here we are with yet another example of it happening anyway. As you know, last week the Senate Intelligence Committee finally released
its CIA torture report (or, rather, the redacted version of the executive summary of the full report). It is a gripping read, and you can read the whole thing here
(or embedded below). We can post it here for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the document is in the public domain, as a work of the federal government.
A little over ten years ago, we noted that the famed 9/11 Commission Report
, despite also being in the public domain, had become a best seller
in its printed version -- even though it, too, was in the public domain. It appears something similar is happening with the CIA torture report. There is a Kindle version that costs $2.99, and despite the report being available as a PDF (which can be viewed on Kindle), the fee-based version of the torture report is the number one seller in the "intelligence & espionage" section
(beating out James Risen's recent book Pay Any Price
). And this is happening despite the fact that people on Amazon are warning people not to buy
the fee-based Kindle version, posting comments to tell them it's just a PDF that's available for free.
Yet, it appears that the convenience factor has made it worthwhile to an awful lot of people, who are willing to pay the money rather than figure out how to get the PDF onto their kindle. As we've pointed out for years, things like convenience and ease-of-use are real selling points -- and it's why things like Netflix and Spotify have been shown to decrease infringement -- because it's worth paying a little extra for a better-to-use system.
Meanwhile, physical copies of the CIA torture report are being rushed out with at least one publisher, Melville House, saying it will be out by the end of the year -- though, I'd imagine others will follow suit. In Michele Boldrin and David Levine's book, Against Intellectual Monopoly
, they have a fascinating discussion on how publisher W.W. Norton made out wonderfully in being the first to publish a hard copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, despite not having to pay any copyright royalties:
The 81-year-old publisher struck an unusual publishing
deal with the 9/11 commission back in May: Norton agreed
to issue the paperback version of the report on the day of
its public release.…Norton did not pay for the publishing
rights, but had to foot the bill for a rush printing and
shipping job; the commission did not hand over the
manuscript until the last possible moment, in order to
prevent leaks. The company will not reveal how much this
cost, or when precisely it obtained the report. But expedited
printings always cost extra, making it that much more
difficult for Norton to realize a profit.
In addition, the commission and Norton agreed in May on
the 568-page tome's rather low cover price of $10, making
it that much harder for the publisher to recoup its costs.
(Amazon.com is currently selling copies for $8 plus
shipping, while visitors to the Government Printing Office
bookstore in Washington, D.C. can purchase its version of
the report for $8.50.) There is also competition from the
commission's Web site, which is offering a downloadable
copy of the report for free. And Norton also agreed to
provide one free copy to the family of every 9/11 victim.
As Boldrin and Levine point out, according to copyright system supporters, this situation couldn't possibly work out. After all, Norton is agreeing to publish a work that anyone can get for free, and which any other publisher (including the federal government) can offer for sale at a lower price
. In fact, the book notes, a rival publisher, St. Martin's, teamed up with the NY Times and got a second physical copy on the market just a couple of weeks after Norton's physical copy, and priced it at $8.50. Clearly, Norton got a bad deal, right? And yet, Norton sold 1.1 million copies of the book, and donated $600,000 in "profits" from the book to charity. But, you know, you can't compete with free (and public domain).