Sunday, February 01, 2009

Piracy and Fair Play

Humans are illogical creatures. We seem to have an in-built urge to enforce behaviour that creates a healthy society.

Researchers invented a game that demonstrates this: Person A is given a dollar, and they must offer some portion of it to Person B. Person B can accept the offer or decline it. If Person B accepts, both people come out of the deal with money. If Person B declines, the dollar is taken away and neither person gets any money.

Logically, Person B should always accept what is offered; some money is better than no money.

But humans are not logical. The researchers found if Person A demonstrated greed by offering too small a portion of the dollar to Person B, then Person B usually got offended and refused the offer. Punishing Person A became more important to them than the money.

This is society-preserving behaviour. We exert peer pressure on each other to encourage fair play.

I believe part of the reason why music piracy got out of hand was because people knew the music industry was ripping them off. Blank CDs cost 10 cents each if you buy them in bulk, and once you have the hardware, you can burn a lot of them easily and cheaply. So why did CDs cost twice as much as cassette tapes of the same music?

When people see obvious greed and injustice, they get the urge to punish the perpetrator. Thus, people didn't feel guilty breaking the law by pirating music because they believed they were punishing the truly guilty party. Humans are not logical.

The Consumerist recently had an article noting that ebooks for the Kindle are creeping up over $10 a book. In some cases, this is more than the cost of a hardcopy of the same book.

The Smart Bitches Who Read Trashy Books are living up to their name with a great discussion of that article in the comments of this post, where they consider the real costs of producing an ebook.

It's an important consideration; the publishing house employs the same number of editors, artists and publicity staff to create an ebook. The only element missing is paper, and people's time generally costs much more than even large quantities of paper.

However, the publishing industry also keeps crying that the returns system is killing them, and ebooks aren't subject to returns. Ebooks don't have shipping costs, or storage costs, or pulping costs. There is no such thing as printing too many ebooks.

That's a concrete savings for the company, just as CDs were a concrete savings for the music industry. So why do ebooks cost the same as hardcopies? If the company provides me with less product (I can't resell an ebook to a second-hand shop), then it isn't fair for them to charge me the same price.

We're only human--which means we're capable of breath-taking malevolence when we decide someone's acting like a scumbag. If the publishing industry doesn't play fair with its customers, I think that can only come back to hurt them. I would argue the music industry already demonstrated this.


What do you think? Should ebooks be cheaper than hardcopy books because a file has less value than an object?

Should they be the same price because the content of the book is what really has value, not the paper?

Or is it fine for ebooks to cost more than hardcopy books, because people who can afford a Kindle are affluent enough to afford more expensive books, and a company should charge what the market will bear?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: