In a land where the content is free (yeah, Vietnam) by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2008, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

Mike Masnick on Techdirt responds to a post almost a week ago by David Pogue on his NYTimes blog arguing that free distribution is a crock of hooey and a lose-lose proposition for content creators. Masnick says it’s not about just giving stuff away; it’s about having a coherent strategy to give away the “infinite content” — stuff that by its nature is impossible to make scarce, like easily reproduced audio, etc. — while using that to draw in clients for for-pay limited content — like live performances for musicians, services and support for RedHat LINUX companies, etc. Then Tim Lee on Megan McArdle’s blog piles on agreeing with Masnick.

I’ve spent the past 8 years living in countries where almost all electronic content is virtually free, by virtue of the fact that copyright laws are unenforced by primitive or dilapidated legal systems. In Togo (West Africa) and Vietnam, the default option for obtaining software, music, and movies is BitTorrent or buying pirate DVDs on the street at a dollar a pop. Since Vietnam joined the WTO and world copyright regimes over the past couple of years, larger companies have begun to go legit with their installed software, for convenience’s sake; but well over 90% of all software on private computers is pirated. And the Vietnamese music industry has never known a time when you could make a significant amount of money off of recorded music; by the time communism gave way to capitalism in the mid-’90s, ripping and burning CDs were already ubiquitous. So CDs as a loss leader for performance revenues has always been the business model here.

It doesn’t work very well. Vietnam’s music and film industries are weak and derivative, preying off of the stronger industries of Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, which got started in the age when copyright actually meant something. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s movie production has fallen dramatically in this decade.

But one thing that’s seldom mentioned in discussions of copyright, digital reproduction and the future of culture industries is the role played by global inequality. Even if the US decided to try to make a serious go of prosecuting people for file-sharing and reasserting copyright regimes, it would be a quixotic quest in the face of global income disparity: people in Vietnam will never pay the prices which record labels or software companies would want to charge their American customers. On average incomes just reaching towards $1000, you’re not going to find many people who would pay even $5 for an album. Some, but not many. And those companies that are offering legit product at cut-rate prices in East Asian markets — Sony is now offering legit DVDs here for I think $3, and Microsoft also sells at lower rates in Vietnam — will have terrible problems with reimportation to the US. It’s hard enough for drug companies to price-discriminate in Canada; how is Sony going to be able to price-discriminate on the internet? It’s implausible.

Anyway. Another reason why global inequality kills capitalism. File sharers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your keys. Or something.


2 Comments so far
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Ah yeah, pick a random example of a content industry failing and blame it on copyright. Unfortunately, there are many different variables at play as to why the Vietnamese content industry may suck — and to pin it all on the lack of respect of copyright seems like a stretch. I could just as easily whip out examples of other extremely poor countries that ignored copyright but which have thriving, creative music scenes (Brazil and Jamaica are two examples I’ve written about recently).

So, the fact that there’s not much of a content industry in Vietnam is hardly proof that it’s the fault of a lack of copyright. It would appear that other cultural issues may be more to blame.

Comment by Mike Masnick

I’ll read your stuff on Brazil and Jamaica, but what immediately strikes me is that they’re building on an installed base that dates from extraordinary success in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Similarly, I think the popular and indie music being produced in the US and Europe today is better than ever before in my lifetime. But the question is whether this is sustainable in the long term without some simpler and more easily scalable way to get money flowing to content providers. I am sure that ways will be found to get that money flowing in the end, but I still find your dismissal of the severity of the problem to be flip.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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