November 26, 2006

Piracy as promotion


A succinct analysis of how turning the other cheek when it comes to copyright infringement turned Japanese anime into a billion dollar business for the copyright holders. During the 1970s and 1980s, as interest in Japanese anime grew through samizdat distribution of pirated tapes, the Japanese media companies stood by and did nothing. Then beginning in the early 1990s,

large-scale anime conventions brought artists and distributors from Japan, who were astonished to see a thriving culture surrounding content they had never succeeded in marketing in the United States.

A similar path was followed with manga, as freely-distributed "scanlations" (translations of digitally scanned manga posted on websites) created a demand for graphic novels in the U.S. that has come to be dominated by Japanese titles. (The translation I contributed to a Whisper of the Heart scanlation is here.)

The Japanese media companies' tolerance of these efforts is consistent with their treatment of fan communities at home. The underground sale of fan-made comics (known as dojinshi), often highly derivative of the commercial product, occurs on a massive scale in Japan, with some comics markets attracting 150,000 visitors per day. Rarely taking legal action, the commercial producers sponsor such events, using them to publicize their releases, recruit new talent, and monitor shifts in audience tastes.

This concept gains greater traction from an unexpected quarter: the fashion industry. Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman points out in "The Piracy Paradox" that

Firms take steps to protect the value of trademarks, but appear to accept appropriation of designs as a fact of life. This diffidence about copying stands in striking contrast to the heated condemnation of piracy and associated legislative and litigation campaigns in other creative industries.

And further argue that "the fashion industry counter-intuitively operates within a low-IP equilibrium in which copying does not deter innovation and may actually promote it." John Perry Barlow, co-Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offers the example of the Grateful Dead (for whom he was a lyricist), drawing a direct correlation between the group's financial success and its condoning of bootlegging by its fans.

(Jump to 2:13 for Barlow's address in this RealAudio transcript.)

I believe there are lessons to be learned here in pushing niche products into mainstream markets. I'm not exactly sure what they are, though the counter-intuitive "strategy" of giving away the store for free may prove the crafty and capitalistic--not the goofily communistic--approach.

UPDATE:

Mark Cuban on turning Google Adwords into a local sales force. William Bulkeley on how traditional publishing "relied on forcing customers to buy things they didn't want," and why the Internet is changing all that. The Barenaked Ladies explain why they released their latest album in thumb drive (memory stick) format with no copy protection.

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