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A Creative Industry Thriving Without Copyright

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the 21st century Internet and 20th century IP laws (e.g. Copyright) have not been mixing too well. Many people in many creative industries have decried this erosion of Copyright protection as the death of their business.

To those on the opposite side of the fence (including ourselves), the fashion industry has long stood as a great example of why this just isn’t the case. It is an industry that doesn’t just survive without IP, it flourishes.

A lack of legal protection forces the players in the industry to get creative with their products, strategies and business models, which proves to be better for everyone in the long run.

We’ve always believed that this same attitude is badly needed in the music industry. If we took all the lawsuits, claims, notices and take-downs issued each year, and applied that same amount of creative energy to building fan relationships, thinking of new business models and trying out new ideas, then everyone -fans, musicians and industry folk- would be better off.

So we were delighted to see the most recent TED talk by Johanna Blakely on “Lessons from fashion’s free culture,” which you can watch below.

It’s a 15min talk and well worth the watch. If you don’t have the time we’ve summarised the key points and what they can teach those of us in the music industry:

Make Your Product Too Hard To Copy

One of the examples Johanna gives is Jazz legend Charlie Parker inventing Bebop, because he thought it would be too hard for white musicians too imitate!

But now that music is super easy to copy, you’ll need to start thinking of new ways to earn a living that are difficult to copy. Some great examples we’ve seen (and written about) include live shows, limited edition offerings, amazing physical products, access to artists and a strong emotional connection with a fanbase – all of which are impossible to upload to a torrent site!

Know The Difference Between A Fan And A Customer

One of the best parts of Johanna’s talk is a clip from Tom Ford of Gucci. He points out that, somewhat obviously, the people who buy knock off Gucci items are not also Gucci’s customers. You’re either into fashion, or you buy the knock offs.

The distinction is somewhat fuzzier when it comes to music (people who engage in “illegal downloading” actually purchase more music than others), but the broad point is the same – 9 times out of 10 this isn’t a lost sale because they weren’t going to buy from you anyway, it’s just free marketing.

One key element of the fashion industry that was overlooked here is the huge segmentation the copying culture creates. There is a reason that designer brands have become ridiculously expensive – when something is widely knocked off, copied and imitated, it makes the original more valuable. An Economist article last year described how bootleg copies of Louis Vuitton handbags became widely available in China and very popular with young Chinese women. The women they interviewed said that they would get a new, fake handbag every month but save up for a real one once a year. This gave Louis Vuitton access to a huge market where they had never sold product before, at zero cost, and still allowed them to sell at a high price.

Mp3 sharing, like radio play before it, opens doors and gets people familiar with your work. Like the knock off LV bags, it generates fame at no additional cost to you, which increases the value of real, scarce offerings.

The model shifts from having bucket loads of fans buying low ticket items (CDs & Singles) to a smaller tribe of dedicated fans buying high ticket items, leaving you with higher revenues and bigger margins.

It’s Good For Business

This culture of copying forces everyone in the industry to up their game, to be constantly creating and innovating – giving rise to fashion trends. We’ve discussed before how releasing more singles more often is proving to be the most successful online strategy for musicians too.

Industry executives often decry the rise of digital because people are buying more singles but less albums. Any business person worth their salt will tell you that if you want to maintain profits while revenues are falling (which they are not, by the way) then you need to reduce your costs. A culture of copying lets everyone do that too.

If you need any more proof that this culture is good for an industry, have a look at the chart Johanna includes in her talk:

Effect of IP on Sales

In summary, the lack of legal protection forces the fashion industry to say “people are going to steal, share, remix and replicate our product. How do we build a business model for the future that not only copes with this fact, but benefits from it?”

So imagine a music industry without copyright protection and ask yourself the same question. That’s what we do every day, and so far it’s working out quite well.

4 Comments

Eilish 9:38 am - 26th May:

What a great presentation – some good food for thought.

From a philosophical point of view I’m not pro the engineering of fashion trends because environmentally this has dire consequences in the 3rd world and emerging countries which the fashion industry has moved its production because of low cost. I’m glad the music industry and other digital technologies can adopt this approach while having low environmental impact.

Your point about the Louis Vuitton bags in China remind me of a friend of mine whom I visited the other night. He had just bought a turntable so that he could play his limited edition double vinyl version of The National’s recently released ‘High Violet’ album. He’d been one of the first people to download the music when it leaked (because he is a massive fan he was keeping his eye out for torrents) but that didn’t stop him making his way to Road Records and putting down €30 for the vinyl!

Frank 10:14 am - 5th June:

Great article. Thanks for flagging the presentation and the Economist article. Johanna’s killer graphic is less so, if she renames fashion as “clothes”. It’s not surprising that food, automobiles, furniture and clothing are bigger industries than films books and music. Still, she makes an great case that the industry would be more creative without the restrictions.

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