This is one of a series of posts; the last post was here.
So far, the Internet has meant different things to text, video and music. The Internet is the perfect device for copying a book. Stick the book into the Internet, press a button, and out comes a copy, just like a photocopying machine. That sentence probably didn’t seem to make much sense, but I think that it is right. Consider Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, book number six in J.K. Rowling’s planned seven-book series. Leading books like HP VI are usually released simultaneously in many formats: standard hard cover; audio (both CD and cassette); a large-print version; and more recently several ebook formats. Same text, but different readers can experience the work in the format that best matches them.
Rowling declined to release an electronic version of the text. Hard-core Harry Potter fans wanted a searchable version of the text. Rowling was thought to have left clues scattered throughout the text about Harry’s eventual fate, and the Potterphiles wanted to find them. Reading the text was one thing, searching it another. But without an electronic version of the text—all 652 pages of it—how could they do that?
By typing it in. For me, 652 pages would be a lot of work, but one page wouldn’t be so bad. Multiply one page by 652 readers and we have the book; heck, type it in twice and run comparisons between the pages to catch mistakes and increase the accuracy of the reproduction. The Internet dramatically lowers the costs of organizing a typing collective of this sort. That means finding others willing to participate, matching pages and participants, and collating the results. Pre-Internet, a hard problem, but the Internet lowers the cost of coordination sufficiently that, Internet in place, this is probably a twenty-four hour job.
But as good a job as the Internet can do in copying a book, all that gives you is an electronic file. That is one version of the work, but it isn’t a book. As the HP VI episode makes clear, for most of us, books and electronic versions of the work are complements, that is, are things that work better together. Few people want to read HP VI on a computer screen, but still fewer want to go through the book and manually count how often the word “horcrux” appears in the text. But you can curl up with a book, and you can search an electronic file. Better together.
But that means that authors can make their money out of selling books, even if they offer a free electronic version of the work or the Internet decides to make one on its own. Not too many readers who would otherwise buy the book will shift to just reading the free electronic version. For many works—academic monographs for example—it might be hard to find 652 volunteers to type in the work. Rowling is a victim of her success: both with regard to demand for the work in an electronic and searchable form and on the supply of ready typists with access to the work. And traditional paper books are distributed as text in an unencrypted, capturable form.
But switch from copying a popular book to copying a popular song, say a song at the top of the Billboard 100. For HP VI, we could organize a group easily and could divide up the work of copying the text. We could make a digital copy from the book itself. Try to do that for a 3 minute song. I suspect we are now talking about a much harder task, even if you are more musically-inclined than I am (and I am sure that you are). It isn’t the division that is so hard: we can define 18 ten-second segments pretty easily. The hard part is in reproducing the sounds from scratch. And as we jump from music to video the problem grows enormously.
But of course that isn’t how we use the Internet to copy and distribute music or video. Peer-to-peer music distribution—almost always of professionally-produced copyrighted content—makes clear the power of spontaneous scale. Music copying and sharing practices offline required shoe leather and shuffling around physical media, originally reel-to-reel tapes, audio cassettes and eight-track tapes and later CD-Rs. If you were 16-years old, you might know what music your friends owned, but you weren’t likely to do too much sharing with friends a continent away. This isn’t to say that that copying wasn’t substantial—it was and is—but just that technical limits controlled copying. Spontaneous scale has changed all of that.