Do it the way Charlie did

charles dickens by Smabs Sputzer

100 years of Big Content fearing technology—in its own words – Ars Technica

[Via Ars Technica]

It’s almost a truism in the tech world that copyright owners reflexively oppose new inventions that do (or might) disrupt existing business models. But how many techies actually know what rightsholders have said and written for the last hundred years on the subject?

The anxious rhetoric around new technology is really quite shocking in its vehemence, from claims that the player piano will destroy musical taste and the “national throat” to concerns that the VCR is like the “Boston strangler” to claims that only Hollywood’s premier content could make the DTV transition a success. Most of it turned out to be absurd hyperbole, but it’s interesting to see just how consistent the words and the fears remain across more than a century of innovation and a host of very different devices.

So here they are, in their own words—the copyright holders who demanded restrictions on player pianos, photocopiers, VCRs, home taping, DAT, MP3 players, Napster, the DVR, digital radio, and digital TV.

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A great article showing the Big Content always fears technology and always says that it is the end of the world, with Armageddon right around the corner if things change.

Well, it may be a big change for the people who make money off of content but not for the creators of such content. As I showed the other day, it is extremely easy for someone to create great content without the need for any Big Content companies.

As with previous technology changes, the really disruptive change is who makes money and how it is made. At one time, player piano roll companies were charged with copyright infringement. Just recently, MP3 players were viewed an inherent vehicles of infringement, simply for existing.

I think there should be a recognition that the best way to make money is on the things that can not be replicated digitally – the performer. At the moment, a novelist goes on a book tour to promote a book. A more likely scenario would be that the book is free for a PDF, cheap for a bound version but where the author makes money is from a tour where people pay to listen.

The article even makes a hint at this observation:

Content owners aren’t always wrong to say they’re being unfairly harmed (one thinks of writers like Dickens and Tolkien whose works were reprinted in the US without payment, though it did help fuel a lucrative lecture business for Dickens), and lobbyists and trade groups would be derelict if they didn’t conjure up worst-case scenarios and try to keep them from happening. Unfortunately, though, as we look over the statements above, the total result of this resistance to new technology is clear: it limits (or attempts to limit) innovation.

I have an old copy of the Times (from London) published on April 17, 1861. Right smack in the middle of the front page is this news item:

Mr. CHARLES DICKENS To-morrow, for the last time at St. James’s-hall, Piccadilly, will read the STORY of LITTLE DOMBEY and the TRIAL from PICKWICK. Stalls, 4s: balconies and areas, 5s: gallery, 1s : at Messrs. Chapman and Hall’s, 123, Piccadilly; and at Mr. Austin’s, ticket office, St. James’s Hall.

Quite a nice thing. This was right in the middle of his serialization of Great Expectations. His serials were probably driving his speaking engagements. Even if he was paid just a few hundred pounds for the stories, his personal appearances were bringing in the big bucks. You can see what the program would have looked like from a similar reading tour a few years earlier.

Now Dickens worked really hard at giving engaging readings. He developed a whole set of prompt copies to help him. By all accounts he was a real master, altering the presentation on the fly, creating an extemporaneous presentation more like a one man show than a simple reading.

Dickens continued to give quite a few of these at St. James’s Hall, ending in 1868, with his Farewell Readings for which he was paid 8000 shillings. This would be about £238,908.79 today.

And the cost of admission is not too different from today. 5 shillings then would be about £150 today. And the base price would be about £30. Whitney Houston’s 2010 tour of England has tickets ranging from £50 to £100. Not too different.

The St. James’s Hall held a little over 2000 seats. Say the average seat was 2 shillings. A sold out Hall would gross 4000 shillings which would be £200 or £118,954.40 today. For one date, and Dickens contracted for 100!

He had been doing readings since at least 1858 pulling in quite a bit of money. In 1859, he was clearing 500 shillings a week (about £16,829.91 today). I would wager that he was making substantially more from these readings than from the books themselves. And others who managed the tour were making quite a bit also.

Dickens had fought his whole life against people who stole his work outright to publish it.  America in particular would print and sell copies of his works without paying him any money at all. He tried to convince us to stop in his first visit in 1842. He did not succeed. He tried again to convince America to abide copyright when he visited again in 1867.

But this time, he got his revenge. He also spoke, netting £17,000 (which would be about £10,111,123.61 today). Not a bad haul. He also was a little more politic, selling exclusive access to early drafts of his works to the highest bidder, often getting publishing houses to pay a lot of money to become his ‘authorized’ publishers.

Giving readings could be a pretty lucrative business. Perhaps it will be again.