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Wither copyrights?

The digital music genie is out of the bottle, and other media are waiting for their lamps to fall in their laps.

I have long held that the music industry has no clue about the dynamics of digital content. Once Napster let the genie out of the bottle, they can’t put it back in, no matter how hard they try. I’m not saying that my view is in any way original. Every digerati I have ever read says the same thing. But it continues to amaze me how little tolerance the industry shows in light of the fact that it has all but lost the war, despite winning a battle or two.

If there was any doubt about these facts, a recent report from a Forrester Research conference repurposed on our site today should dispel any uncertainty. The conference featured several experts in copyright law and digital protection technology, and the near unanimous message is that the music industry must change its business model rather than demanding tighter restrictions on digital copyrights than exist in other media.

A couple of interesting side notes to the main point of the conference are worth highlighting here. First, the participants pointed to AOL Time Warner–parent of Warner Music–as the prototype for the kind of successful online business model other music industry giants must adopt in the new order. That is, AOL will give away a lot of music to drive up traffic on its many content venues. In light of the study’s prediction, it will be interesting to watch how AOL’s NetMusic model fares against paying versions such as Sony’s Duet.

Second, the music industry’s struggles can be instructive for other content media. TV will probably not be able to stem the copyright tide brought on by devices like TiVo. Ditto for magazines like CU–it just doesn’t pay to track down all the pirates of our content, especially in India, where dozens of our articles are republished each month in the major tech journals without our approval. But book publishers can respond with innovative e-book business models that give users a taste of what they are used to in the music realm while still making a decent living for themselves and their authors. And software is well on its way with the open-source movement, despite Microsoft’s missives.

We are in the first stages of the most radical change in content rights since copyright was introduced. In 10 years, we will experience a much more drastic open access to content than we ever have. It will result in lots of media businesses dying out and others springing up in the fertile soil of their decomposing bodies. The innovative companies like AOL and, to some extent CU (we have always given all our content for one-time use) will survive, while those that charge too much will likely perish.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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