Tag Archives: publishing

Tim O’Reilly on Piracy

This excerpt is from a broader interview by Forbes on Piracy, Tinkering and the Future of the Book. I’d encourage you to read the whole article, but I just wanted to pick out the bit about piracy as it’s particularly insightful.

For background: Tim O’Reilly is founder of the publishing company bearing his name, which is very well known in the IT/tech sphere – they’ve published a huge range of books over several decades now. They also organise conferences.

O’Reilly has removed DRM restrictions from its ebooks. And he explains why:

Q: On all your titles you’ve dropped digital rights management (DRM), which limits file sharing and copying. Aren’t you worried about piracy?

TO: No. And so what? Let’s say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

People who don’t pay you generally wouldn’t have paid you anyway. We’re delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.

I think having faith in that basic logic of the market is important. Besides, DRM interferes with the user experience. It makes it much harder to have people adopt your product.

Software company Borland actually used a similar approach over 25 years ago. They sold their software quite cheap (compared to competitors) and lots of it was copied. However, aided by the awareness from the copying and the low price, the adoption was huge and thus they captured a huge share of the paid market.

Contrast this with companies that spend a lot of time and effort in to copy-protecting their software which mainly hinders their legal clients, and pursuing illegal users – an effort which, while legally valid, does not score any PR points. Since the actual cost of copying is 0, it makes much more sense to use this to your advantage. As Tim writes… he doesn’t mind if there are a 100,000 copies out there, he’s still sold his 10,000 copies – or more! And that’s the point: by taking this approach, he maintains and grows his business in a positive way, and doesn’t have the overhead of development or legal funds for copy-prevention. What applied to software has now moved on to ebooks (and of course, audio and video).

All this may initially feel a bit icky if you come from a traditional “physical item” perspective which makes “theft=theft”, and I appreciate that, but the context is completely different. Of course you want to reap the rewards for your effort. The cost of copying bits is essentially zero. Fact is that people do (want to) pay for good stuff, even if it’s not everybody. If you focus on that, you don’t really lose out if others also get a copy “for free”. Mindshare is valuable too.

How my book structure got temporarily derailed

One longer-term objective of Upstarta has been to bring out a book. Having done previous analysis of the publishing industry and its effective benefits to authors (or the lack thereof – I might do a post on that some time!) I decided to self-publish. After all, shelf space is rare anyway but you can get your Lulu book to Amazon without hassle. What an expiring writer also needs is some project management to keep an eye on time, progress and structure: in summary, a good editor!

In April I had a rare opportunity to meet face-to-face with an editor-friend (we literally live on opposite sides of the planet), and while reviewing content is easy to do online, discussing structure is much easier in-person. We came up with this rough section layout:

  1. product development
  2. funding
  3. sales
  4. physical environment / ecology… people: clients & staff
  5. case studies

This looked entirely sensible. But then somehow I got stuck fitting the content in to there, and worked out only months later that the above had something to do with it. This is not how disruptive non-funded businesses start! Instead it follows the flow of traditional businesses; and it’s exactly that process causing problems which Upstarta addresses…

The actual Upstarta process is not quite linear, but it can be described in chunks and some concepts should be dealt with before others. So while I love my wiki (it’s the visual-spatial thinker in me), it can be molded into a book.

The lesson is that it’s very easy to fall back in to “classic” thinking patterns, and you may not realise for quite a while that you actually did – meanwhile several layers of decisions get built on top. It can really mess with things, and in essence waste valuable time and often also money. In some cases, it might not even be fixable any more. The “getting stuck” was a pattern I should have questioned in more detail straight when it occurred. In this case it’ll be ok, just cost some time.