What does long tail mean for copyrights?

Copyright expires 70 years after the author's death. One of the big arguments against this long term is that it means that in order to protect the less-than-one-percent of works that actually make money throughout this extraordinarily long time, the 99% of the works that don't make money need to lie in oblivion throughout the entire period and possibly get lost forever. Long copyright period wastes a lot of culture.

Now, Chris Anderson, the author of "Long Tail", notes that Universal - a major record company - has been experimenting with the "Long Tail" theory by releasing online a number of songs which have not been in circulation for years due to the fact that the market is not big enough to justify CD/LP reprinting costs. And guess what? There turns out to be a market for this oldie music, just as predicted by the Long Tail theory.

"Online music fans have downloaded more than 250,000 tracks of previously out-of-print recordings by European artists since the launch of Universal Music’s pioneering digital catalogue reissue programme earlier this year....

Universal Music Group International launched its download-only reissue programme in February, as the first step in a multi-year drive to reinstate more than 100,000 European deleted recordings. The initial offering comprised more than 3,000 out-of-print tracks from the company’s vaults in the U.K., France and Germany. They were made available through online music services in 20 countries, mostly in Europe.

Overall, these results lend weight to author Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail theory. In his recently published book of that name, Anderson contends that given the growing choice and diversity of music that is legitimately available through the Internet consumers will be increasingly drawn to recordings beyond current hits. In this scenario, the total sales of this repertoire (the long tail) can match or exceed those of the hits.

Okay. So, now, suddenly, sitting on top of a song for a hundred years starts to make sense. Thanks to the online distribution, where distribution cost is practically zero, you can keep selling and making money off that record until eternity. In practice, this will probably mean that in the near future we'll see more cries to extend the copyright indefinitely, just so that "the poor artists, dead for a hundred year, won't starve."

So, Long Tail says "good bye, public domain".



Yle's Pekka Gronow wrote about little bit same thing at january, but the point was different and that with long tail it is more effecient (for society) to keep public domain because then there are other companies to commerialice stuff what owners aren't using. Text is mainly finnish, but there are long quatations in engish also. Very intresting entry.


--Zache, 20-Oct-2006

Actually, if you understand the argument about near-zero marginal costs and the whole paradigm shift in the economy which this means, you precisely want to eliminate copyrights. The whole point in Chris's long tail and other research (like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_tail#_note-6) is that physical and external reasons for limited selections in shops are disappearing with the digital economy, and this means that happiness and satisfaction for consumers comes more and more not from the amount of things they get, but from the diversity of things they get. Hence, even if the amount of songs and movies we get without copyright would be lesser, the increased selection and ease of availability more than compensates for that.

--Toni Heinonen, 20-Oct-2006

I'm not quite sure if the rights holders see it like that. Copyright equals monopoly to exploit a resource, and as long as there is even potential money in it, they don't want to give it away.

You see, big companies don't calculate how much they can gain in a new business; they primarily think how much they will loose their existing business.

--JanneJalkanen, 21-Oct-2006

I can't say I share your analysis of the effects of the Long Tail on copyright. Already, we live in a world subject to perpetual copyright and the long tail has nothing to do with it. Everytime Mickey Mouse nears the end of its commercial life, copyright term gets prolonged. It's already much too long, as you point out. It's my hope that many creators will keep their independance, keep their rights, and not sell out to the big conglomerats. Only then will we have a true Long Tail.

--Robin, 22-Oct-2006

The assumption here seems to be that the works are already under copyright and held in ownership by a business, and that they should be so. Of course a library of shelved works the size of Universal's (and all the others) has enormous value. But this benefits in no way new artists, new expressions, especially if these works are available only for purchase. And the argument that only music sanctioned by a record label is of value reversed in the early seventies. When was the last time you listened to commerical radio? Is Justin Timberlake on heavy rotation on your mobile device? The fight against this insanity is to free corporate ownership of culture, and not on any ideological tip; in an analogous way, imagine what happens to communication when every phrase in your language is TradeMarked.

--Boris, 22-Oct-2006

Well, the thing stopping perpetual copyright is the US Constitution, which says "copyright exists for a limited period of time". In order to get true perpetual copyright US would need to change their constitution, which is probably impossible.

You're right about Mickey Mouse - but it's not only that. There was already considerable opposition for the 50 years - 70 years change; a single company might not get lucky the next time. But the fact that Long Tail exists and has now demonstratable commercial value means that many companies will be more determined the next time the question comes up.

I think the Long Tail does not care who owns the stuff. The Long Tail is "ideologically pure" in the sense that it just demonstrates one of the hitherto undervalued effects of zero-cost distribution. Just pure maths ;-)

(BTW, if you are not a long-time reader of this blog, note that I absolutely hate the idea of copyright extension, think that it should last only a very limited time (like 50 years after publication), but I don't in general have foam-mouthed rants. I'm just trying to write my observations. Working for a large company means that I get to see their point, too.)

--JanneJalkanen, 22-Oct-2006

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