Piracy, Google Digitization project and ‘right’ pricing of ‘original’ work


Yesterday there was a book exhibition in my company that was selling books at “massive” discount ranging from 40% to 60% of the cover price.

Lot of people had turned up to see the exhibition – but very few of them were actually buying any. Reason? Well, in India you can get cheap duplicate copies of all the popular books at any book stall near street corner, traffic signal etc. – and that too at one-fifth of the original price (actually one-tenth)

I read an interesting anecdote about the piracy in a recent interview of Danny Boyle – the Oscar winning director of Slumdog Millionaire. Sreenivasan Jain, the interviewer, presented Danny with a pirated DVD of Slumgog Millionaire.

Piracy, Srenivasan told him, has its own way of bestowing status on art. A bit like the pirated books sold at traffic lights: if you’re part of the traffic light Top Five, you have a hit novel on your hands.
Danny squealed in mock outrage, “I can’t accept it!” He even refused to hold the DVD in his hand for a few seconds 🙂

But I have a different view on this…though I completely respect rights on the person creating an original work (be it a book, a song or a movie), I feel that the piracy (by this I mean ‘reproducing the cheap versions’ only not ‘stealing and modifying idea’ or any other forms of piracy) does not necessarily originate from an intention to belittle the effort of original creator. With regard to cheap imitations, at least, it addresses the demand-supply gap and exorbitant and illogically high prices that the “original” work is charged for. Many times creators or distributors ‘exploit’ people by charging extremely high prices, e.g. in case of Harry Potter books (which in my opinion do not deserve to fetch so much of money – I know lot of people won’t agree)

Thus, pricing, too, has very little to do with the ‘quality of content’ and is mainly about demand-supply and marketing (creating hype). Let me explain with an example:

The Argumentative Indian is a well-though and written commentary on Indians. Though the book by Amartya Sen has become popular (mainly because of Amartya Sen himself and not by virtue of the contents), the popularity (in terms of no. of copies sold) cannot be compared with a Five Point Someone or a One Night At Call Center (which, to me, are very ordinary books – and did not deserve the kind of fame or success they got)

Of course, genres of these books are totally different. The Argumentative Indian is a critical (and hence boring for many) book while the other two are mainly for leisure reading with a great mass appeal (who prefer light reading do not want to stress their grey cells too much). But genre/ content is not the only reason. Pricing is another reason. While The Argumentative Indian is priced at Rs. 295, the other two books are modestly priced at Rs. 95 only – making them accessible to much wider population.

Firstly, people want to buy/ consume new creative work – that is how there is so much demand for books, movies, music. Secondly, people want to buy original stuff – when it is priced right. (Right in terms of their valuation)

But if they ‘think’ that price for original is too high, they would not settle for nothing…instead they would turn to imitation/ pirated copies. That is how ‘market’ or ‘demand-supply’ decides the right-price of any work.

This can be best explained by the Moser Baer CDs/ DVDs. Earlier the original movie CDs were priced at Rs. 200 onwards. And DVDs at Rs. 400 onwards. Since this price was not affordable to most people, the pirated CD/ DVD market was on high – with pirated copies selling at about Rs. 50 (for CDs) and Rs. 120 (for DVDs).

Then came Moser Baer – India’s largest manufacturer of blank CDs/ DVDs. It purchased rights for many old/ new movies and started producing original copies of those under its own label – Moser Baer. They priced these modestly – at Rs. 30 to 40 (for CDs) and Rs. 70-100 (for DVDs)

So now you could get the ‘original’ CDs at cheaper price than the ‘pirated’ copies being sold by street-shops. People felt that price was ‘right’ – so they jumped on to those…and now Moser Baer CDs sell so much that they have virtually driven pirated CDs out of business (Pirated copies still sell NEW movies – which aren’t yet officially released by Moser Baer – so to use management jargon, pirated CDs business has ‘repositioned’ itself to a new and limited business segment – that is NEW movie releases – and have left the old movies market to Moser Baer)

……………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Now how does all this relate to the title ‘Google and the Future of Books’???

I came across following New York Times article: (Google and the Future of Books) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22281

For the uninitiated, about 4 years back in Dec 2004, Google launched a project to ‘digitize all books ever printed’ anywhere in the world. This caused serious repercussions across the world, and received mixed reactions. People who felt that the pricing of books was a major hindrance in access to books/ knowledge, welcomed the move as it would make access much cheaper. Others, who saw it as a threat to the Copyright of content opposed it.

Google, the online giant, had been sued in federal court by a large group of authors and publishers who claimed that its plan to scan all the books in the world violated their copyrights.

Four years on, Google has reached a partial settlement agreement. As part of the class-action settlement, Google will pay $125 million to create a system under which customers will be charged for reading a copyrighted book, with the copyright holder and Google both taking percentages; copyright holders will also receive a flat fee for the initial scanning, and can opt out of the whole system if they wish.

Now compare this with the earlier case of piracy/ cheap imitations I talked about. Google’s digitization of books project cannot be called ‘piracy’…but it still is linked with the sam
e
issue.

Both raise a valid point – how the ‘original’ work should be priced.

Piracy and imitations are present because – a. there is huge demand for the original work and b. the pricing of this is beyond scope of most of the people who want it.

Google’s digitization project makes access to the books very easy and cheap – thus reducing the necessity to pay high price for the books. (You could only pay ‘per read’ i.e. the pages you actually read, and would not have to pay for the entire book. Thus if you did not like the first 10 pages of the book, you need not have to pay for the rest – unlike a print version.)

Combining both, one could argue that it is high time when the creators, publishers and distributors take a note and decide how the work should be priced ‘right’ – otherwise, with advent of technology, it would not take too long to drive them (the print media) out of business.

I feel irritated and angered when I see ads on TV (starring leading faces from film and music fraternity) urging people to “stop piracy, and start buying only original labels”…without compromising on their exorbitant price. If I could get a pirated MP3 CD for Rs. 30, why would I buy one for Rs. 150 – just because it is “original”???

When I buy a pirated item, I do not intend to berate the work of the creator – what I object about is the middle-men (the distributors, marketers) who make loads of money for no reasons – by appealing to our ‘conscious’ and selling their ‘original’ copy for 5 times the ‘imitation’

My logic is simple – books, movie CDs, music CDs are work of ‘creative mind’ only till they create it; but when they start ‘mass producing’ it, the work becomes a mere ‘commodity’ and therefore loses its price premium. So it MUST be priced cheaply or should not be ‘mass produced’.

An M F Hussain painting fetches valuation in millions – not only because it is a ‘quality product’ but also because there is no other painting like it. If someone wants his/her book, movie or music similar price, he/she should maintain its uniqueness and should make it a commodity.

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