Why Books Aren’t like Food when it Comes to Copyright

So this wasn’t on my list, but in trying to soak up all copyright information I can, I happened upon this TED talk by Johanna Blakley, a lecturer and researcher in fashion, English, and pop culture.  She’s on WordPress, too, and her blog is here.

In her TED talk, Blakley takes the controversial stance that the lack of US copyright protection for fashion is actually a good thing for both the public, and for the industry–lack of copyright functions to set trends, promote innovation, encourage dramatic and identifiable style amongst designers, and avoid needlessly complex legal battles involving the minutia of hem-length.

But for all this may very well apply to the fashion industry, I believe Blakley is flat wrong in her closing statements which suggest that other industries besides fashion (such as film and book publishing), might benefit from the removal of copyright in the same ways fashion does.

There are a number of ways in which fashion and publishing is not analogous in the realm of copyright, and I believe it is potentially very careless to group these industries together.  I’ve seen this trend to group all media in Matt Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma and other modern critiques of copyright.

The difference between these industries can start to be seen as Johanna Blakley answers the question: “why hasn’t the fashion industry been destroyed by copy culture?”  Knock-offs for every major brand can be found on street corners, so why do people still buy Gucci?  Her answer is that the customer base for street sales and for authentic designer merchandise is not the same; the customers who shop on street corners and even Forever 21, aren’t the people who are interested in buying Prada and Gucci.  Gucci and other brands can make money because there is s select audience who is willing to spend money on “authenticity.”  Meaning, there is a perceived difference in these products, either through status of authenticity or a perception of quality difference (either in fiction or in reality).

Does this apply to books?  Not so much.  A “licensed” copy of a book is largely seen as just as good as an “unlicensed” copy.  Wilde, Poe, Melville, Dickens, and others were consistently ripped off when international copyright was not enforced between countries; people were willing to read Dickens from a publisher who gave nothing back to the author and who even didn’t edit their work well or consistently.  I think this unconcern with book authenticity has something to do with the awareness (perhaps unconsciously) that the product being valued is not material but immaterial—gleaned through a very regular series of symbols (letters) which differ almost imperceptibly between copies.  In an industry where where a copy is a copy is a copy, unlike photocopying a photo, or making your own Gucci bag, there is no erosion of quality or meaning when copying–in the form of reprinting, photocopying, or re-type-setting a book unless a mistake is made.  And then, the book is as good as the original (excepting perhaps manuscripts and works-in-progress), whereas, in fashion, there is the perception that authenticity has a material effect—that it’s somehow “not the real thing.”

This reminds me of branding taste-tests.  Does Coke actually taste perceptibly better/different than drug-store brand cola?  The brand has every reason to try to get you to think so, but does it really?  Even if it did, what if the cola recipes swapped–do you think anyone would switch?  It’s the brand, not the substance, that they are really selling.  The same is true, I suspect, of fashion.  A Prada bag carries with it the significance of the brand and all the baggage that comes with it–the status, the style, the history of the brand, the lifestyle…I *suspect* that while quality may certainly be a factor in building the aforementioned, it is an afterthought for the consumer, who is dedicated to the brand.

In contrast, does anyone care about the brand of book they read?  No, I’m not talking about the author (though certainly one could argue that there is status significance attached to reading a certain author) but in this analogy the brand is the publisher, who produces the work.  There is no analogy in fashion–the brand is the designer is the producer, all one company working in concert.  In publishing, the author writes but doesn’t (often) self produce–the publisher gains control of the work and holds the copyright (depending on the contract) and the $ is filtered through the publisher.

While it’s possible that the book counterfeiter might write a whole fake book or try to fop off one work for another, it’s more likely, if it were legal, that he’d just print copies of the real thing (or let you download the ebook).

Illegally copying books isn’t a big deal nowadays since there isn’t much $ in it, but to get back to how books aren’t like fashion, perhaps publishers have done a fairly poor job of marketing their houses and imprints, in creating the fiction that a “Penguin” edition is any better than “Dover,” or free copies on Project Gutenberg.  Sure, as an avid consumer of books, I might be looking for a specific edition to follow exactly with a course, or to get a specific forward/afterward, or really good footnotes, but for the most part I look for a cheap, readable version, regardless of brand, and regardless of the authenticity of the work or my awareness of the author’s payment on the book contract.  I have no idea when I buy a book if the author is getting any money from my purchase, if they get their own copyright back, or if they’ve gotten a flat fee and the publisher is soaking up the rest of the profits with no guarantee of future publishing deals.  One publisher could very well be much more abusive to authors than others, but does anyone know about it or take this into consideration when they purchase a book?  Nope, at least no one I know, and perhaps this is because a publisher largely (unless the book is out of copyright) has the exclusive rights on a book—if I want the latest Stephen King, there’s no choice but to buy a particular publisher.

(I wonder if the growing popularity of Kindle and other e-book readers further dematerializes and de-brands books in this way…?)

Also, I think the tradition of pirated copies of written material is much more accepted in society–getting “stripped” copies through secondhand dealers (whereas secondhand clothing stores are perhaps less accepted due to possible hygiene and physical-wear concerns), copied material on the web, self-publishing ‘zines and just the ease of photocopying material as opposed to the difficulty of making clothing not to mention making clothing that actually looks good.

So, pirated books, unlike pirated designs, I suspect, have the same customer base.

Blakley ends her presentation with a really unfortunate graph showing a comparison of the gross sales of industries that have copyright protections to those that do not.

(Screen capture of Blakley’s presentation which shows, in order, food, automobiles, fashion, and furniture as the “Low IP” categories, and films, books, music as “High IP” industries.)

I say “unfortunate” because why does Blakley show this graph?  To support a very thin implication that copyright is harmful writ large, either damaging the gross sales of some industries, or that the lack of copyright helps others.  This argument does not follow and neither of these conclusions is proven through this graph.   This is a classic “correlation not causation” fallacy.  I could have a graph of industries with highest gross sales and group the top five saying these have the highest paid CEOs THEREFORE they must have the highest gross sales BECAUSE they pay their CEOs so well.

As far as books go, books do not have relatively low sales BECAUSE of copyright protections,   copyright protections are so necessary BECAUSE the market is so limited.  And putting food and books on the same graph to compare gross sales is just ridiculous.  People aren’t going to buy books like they buy food and this has nothing to do with copyright.  Take away copyright, and I don’t this this graph would change all that much, but what would change is that individual authors and artists would get a lot less money and less protection over the distribution and manipulation of their works.

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