The Future of Copyright

We’re all familiar with what copyright is supposed to do: protect intellectual property. The web is introducing a new arena for artistic exposure but, at the same time, is opening a chasm in the safe terrain that copyright ownership should afford creators.

I’m thinking particularly about the music industry. You might feel inclined to scoff at the effect unauthorized copying and publication have on multinational music corporations. But a musician’s livelihood is compromised when his or her copyright is violated.

The well-publicized Napster managed to turn the whole business on its head when, almost a year ago, it circulated an offer among university students: access to the world’s largest music library free of charge. The library was available to anyone with Internet access who had downloaded a piece of software from Napster.

Napster lost the first round only a few weeks ago when one of the key players in the music industry sued Napster for breaching copyright law. But will this be the end of a process in which consumers test their new power? Or was the episode the first battle in an endless war?

I think the latter. It is hard for me to imagine that the term “copyright” can survive when so many other terms have been redefined by the web a couple of times during the past decade. So, where will copyright move? Or let me rephrase the question in Valley language: What will the future business model be for the future business model?

You guessed right: branding!

Over the years, music and entertainment industries have established parallel businesses that, in some cases, have grown bigger than their respective parent businesses. Merchandising, which is what I’m referring to, has bigger intentions than adorning cups, T-shirts and postcards with licensed images. Merchandising enhances the product, the music, the musician, the actor. Merchandising is true brand extension.

Pokimon began life with games. Its story ended with collectable cards, films, toys, paintings, CDs, cups, food, candy and even telephones. The brand extension was incredible and a superb example of the creation of a brand that is totally independent of a product. Pokimon could be anything a cell phone, for instance and you wouldn’t be surprised.

But let’s think about Pokimon and marketing. Pokimon started life in a copyright-aware business. The character is similar to whatever new starlets you can think of. Most new stars are presented with as much brand extension wrapped around their core product as Pokimon. And like Pokimon, their product lives through their merchandising, which, in turn, carries the entity through a number of reinventions: from actor to singer, and vice versa, to talk-show hosts and charity leaders. Again, the product is independent of the brand, which is transferable from medium to medium and from business to business.

So where does all this take me? Back to the music industry. Its core product the song, for example has historically been difficult to protect. The notion of copyright doesn’t prevent people from abusing it either in innocence or otherwise. But the fact is that everything around the song the merchandising of the personality, for example isn’t digital, so it’s difficult to copy. Digital material, on the other hand, is very easy to replicate. Could what is now the core product, because it is so easily copied, end up as a good promotional tool for the rest of the brand’s merchandising?

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, music will come free of charge. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the same became true for movies. The first people to listen to the music or watch the film will pay a premium for the premiere. But the rest of us will have free access to the entertainment as the promotional tool for the merchandising that will follow: branded T-shirts, cameras, mobile phones, postcards, posters, stickers… ad infinitum.

It all comes down to the fact that stars are now handled like brands, and they exist in the public perception as distinct from their products (songs, movies, etc). Their brand platform carries their persona to the target market, which is then captive for the merchandising onslaught. So, if what I’m saying turns out to be true, Napster will actually become the music industry’s best friend. By distributing the industry’s promotional materials the music Napster will be giving to stars’ brands publicity of value beyond price.

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