[Note: This is a follow-up post to one I wrote earlier this month]
For nearly a decade, I have espoused the view that every artificial scarcity shall be met, and ultimately overcome, by an appropriate abundance. I think it’s time to view this statement in the context of platforms and “leakage”. Let me explain what I mean.
By now many of you should have heard of Karen Murphy, the pub landlady from the Red, White and Blue pub down in Portsmouth. She did something very simple: she installed a decoder that let her pub regulars watch English Premier League soccer matches beamed over from Greece, paying a lot less for the service than she would have had to pay Sky for the privilege.
I quote from the article: “Juliane Kokott, one of the eight advocate generals of the European court of justice, advised that selling on a territory-by-territory basis represented a “serious impairment of freedom to provide services”, adding that the “economic exploitation of the [TV] rights is not is not undermined by the use of foreign decoder cards as the corresponding charges have been paid for those cards”.”
Selling on a territory-by-territory basis represented a serious impairment of freedom to provide services.
Hmmm. This is a serious point, and all that this post is about.
When you make something digital and connect it to the web, it becomes available everywhere, it becomes available immediately. That is the essence of the abundance that the web represents. Instant. Everywhere. An extreme nonrival good.
This was not the way business was done in the past: for analog goods, territorial rights and licences were normal and natural; exclusive rights were less common, but nevertheless could be found, acquired, exercised.
As we’ve moved from the physical world to the digital world, incumbents in many industries have sought to preserve the historical structures and ways of doing business. Which, in effect, were attempts to create and exploit artificial scarcities. When it comes to digital assets, there are four primary ways to try and create artificial scarcity:
1. Sell the rights to digital things on a territorial basis, and then sue those who seek to overcome those territorial barriers. The Karen Murphy case is just the example of the day…. the Bosman ruling in football was a similar case in point; every attempt to enforce gardening leave may also be seen as an attempt to restrict the freedom of the individual.
2. Encrypt the assets regionally, as done with DVDs and some classes of video games. [As I’ve stated so many times before, region coding on a DVD is the best example I know of a technological invention adding zero value to the customer or her experience].
3. Slice releases of digital assets not just over geographies but over time as well, drip-feed the releases into the world, again to protect a historical business model. I reviewed a Hugh Macleod book a couple of days ago, and a UK reader pointed out that the book will not be available here for a few months. Hugh, the author, saw the comment and confessed that the publishing world seemed to insist on working that way.
4. “Lock” the assets to a particular device, provider, connection type. If you want to watch Premiership football, you must buy from Sky Sports. Or for that matter iTunes and iPod. That kind of thing. Walled gardens.
All these have been attempted. All these have failed, and will continue to fail. You cannot make something that is essentially abundant artificially scarce.
Where the law is called upon to intervene, as in Karen Murphy’s case, the law may decide to fight back against the artificial scarcity. Even if Ms Murphy loses her case, there will be another. And another. The artificial scarcity cannot hold. Where new monopolies are created, as in Sky’s exclusive rights to Premiership coverage, there will be Ofcom-like rulings to wholesale the content.
Where encryption or walled gardens are used, the fearful power of the web will be unleashed; encryption algorithms will be cracked and made available to all, as happened with iTunes or iPhone. DVD players will be “chipped” to support multi-region play. Ways will be found to unlock walled gardens.
Where time-slicing is used, and releases are artificially suppressed from specific territories, outbreaks of piracy will be more common, pushing back against the “second-class citizen” implications of being made to wait in the queue.
All this becomes very interesting when it comes to the cloud. Some months ago I wrote about cloud principles; at a level of abstraction, many of the comments can be viewed as requesting abundance where the scarcity is artificial. Portability of data, metadata, code is a classic example.