“You’re no more buying paper when you buy a book than you are buying electrons when you buy an e-book.”
by: Patrick Anderson | October 13, 2017
T.J. Stiles (prize winning author of Custer’s Trials and The First Tycoon) delivered the Keynote Address at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (“CPIP”) Fifth Annual Fall Conference today, October 13th. As a creator whose living is literally made (or not) based on his ability to monetize his intellectual property, Stiles delivered sobering practical knowledge to the academics and practitioners in attendance. Unlike academics—who tend to write for the purpose of closed, professional discussion—Stiles explained his purpose and premise very succinctly, saying “I wrote these books for money.”
Like the pages of his latest biography, Stiles (pictured left) laid open the very real struggles of a professional author. He revealed very personal information regarding the—sometimes quite small—income streams produced by royalties for various rights to his works. Many of the amounts, frankly, are inconsequential to lawyers who spend their time and energy arguing over million-dollar licensing deals, but Stiles’ discussion served to undercut a typical argument made in furtherance of policies that tend to undercut these revenues.
When Amazon proposes to instantly, and without compensation, turn any book into an audio-book, or if Alphabet’s Google decides to digitize works (without permission) to deliver to libraries, supporters of these actions point to the “slight” harms to authors due to loss of only “small amounts” of royalties.
However, Stiles pointed out in his remarks that even a few thousand dollars per year would cover multiple mortgage payments, car payments, or even medical insurance premiums. These basic expenses are generally taken for granted by the public, but authors must budget for them. Cutting off even small income streams has a tremendous effect on an author’s basic quality of life.
Compounding this problem are industry giants like Google and Amazon. Unlike creators, which sell their work, a company like Google sells “eyeballs.” Their objective is to drive prices down to zero because their value depends on aggregating and collating large amounts of content. Thus, their work drives down price expectations on the part of the public, commoditizing creative work and negating the substantial time and research that goes into different forms of writing.
In addition, Stiles very quickly took down the growing argument that the advent of digital media eliminates scarcity, allegedly justifying the devaluing of IP. Calling this idea “garbage,” Stiles noted that scarcity has never been a requirement for the value of IP. Thus, whether it is in print or digital, it is the creative work that has value, not the medium it’s printed on. You’re no more buying paper when you buy a book than you are buying electrons when you buy an e-book.
Finally, Stiles reminded everyone that the policing of IP infringement and piracy is largely, and primarily, privatized. He asked the audience to imagine if shopkeepers were required to chase down, investigate, and imprison shoplifters. Obviously, that would be a ludicrous system, yet it’s what we expect of IP owners every day. Stiles’ remarks should serve as a sobering reminder of the very real impacts and struggles facing creative people, and is one of the many reasons why I am proud of my role in advising with respect to privatized enforcement.