I'm a TED addict (that's the nonprofit whose theme is "ideas worth spreading"), and this week Joanna Blakley landed in my inbox to talk about fashion's free culture and what we could learn from it. In the fashion industry, she argues, there is very little copyright protection, which forces a huge amount of innovation. In addition, the demographic for knockoffs was never the same as the demographic for the original anyway, so who cares if someone is paying $2 for a fake Louis Vuitton clutch purse on the streets of Manhattan?
Fashion isn't the only industry with minimal copyright laws: comedy, food, the sculptural shape of cars, furniture... not even magic tricks have the benefit of legal protection. In those industries, you have to focus on two things: moving so fast that nobody can keep up with you, and being so spectacular that any copies pale in comparison.
Everything is easy these days. It's easy to throw up a website with a nice design and a well-functioning content management system. It's easy to edit a movie and create special effects on your home computer. It's easy to start a blog or a social network. The ease of everything has stripped the value from merely doing something. You put up a website? Yawn. You started a blog? Big whoop. If everyone can do it, within moments and for free, why should I care?
Instead, those of us who operate in the realm of ideas -- and by "ideas" I mean "any creative industry" -- have to generate value in another way. We've started a blog; now we have to populate it with original, relevant, engaging content. Not only that, but we have to communicate with others, share it with the community, find a means of being found, and offer tools for others to take ownership of our content.
We also have to come up with new material, every day, because the stuff we put up yesterday has probably already been copied elsewhere. This is important. With limited resources, we can focus on protecting yesterday's content or producing tomorrow's. Which approach opens more opportunities for us? Which approach is more conducive to innovation?
I recently debated the issue of open distribution with one of the national television networks here in New Zealand, where I live. Please imagine, I begged them, if the subjects of every segment you ran worked as hard as possible to distribute your content -- and now imagine that, because you were enabling their distribution and therefore could control its appearance -- you had a 10 or 15-second preroll commercial preceding each video. Imagine how your viewer stats would jump if blog readers and Facebook friends didn't have to click through to your website, or if tens of thousands of otherwise loyal fans who can't make it to the TV at your designated time could instead consume your content via podcasts on their iPhones. Imagine the additional strength of your value proposition to advertisers, or the additional inventory you could offer them.
The fact is -- although I chose to not rub their faces in it -- people can and do steal their content already. Several friends watch stolen downloaded TV, advertising-free. Regardless of your feelings about whether or not content should be readily available, the horse has already bolted. Why, then, focus on the impossible proposition of getting it back in the barn?
Back to TED, which has built its entire brand on a culture of sharing everything. Every TED talk is freely available under the Creative Commons license, embeddable and downloadable - and often preceded by a BMW commercial. The group lets broadcasters (like my TV network) air any of their talks for free. Rather than cheapening its brand, the additional exposure has made TED -- and folks from all over the globe still pay $6,000 to attend the conference in person. Scarcity no longer increases the value of information; ubiquity does. How do you think copyright needs to change? Let me know, in the comments or via @kcolbin.