17 March 2011

Berlin Declaration: More Than They Think

So the publishing dinosaurs have got together and produced an egg: The Berlin Declaration on the Future of the Digital Press.

Unfortunately, as you probably guessed, this is backward- rather than forward-looking. Try this, for example:

It is recognition of copyright which fundamentally underpins investment in editorial content. It enables publishers to make quality works available, whilst providing a framework to secure remuneration for their investment and the sustainable delivery of creative content. Providing new exceptions in this field would therefore represent a direct threat to publishers’ economic sustainability and their ability to respond adequately to digital challenges. Digitization has not reduced but increased the need for the protection of copyright.

Do you detect a sense of desperation here? The idea that there might be the teensiest rolling back of the copyright ratchet through "new exceptions"? Because, of course, the current copyright framework is working so well online, as is the increasingly deranged enforcement legislation designed to "support" it, that we shouldn't dare tinker with it. The idea that it is precisely because copyright is dysfunctional online that publishers are finding themselves in trouble obviously never entered their minds.

The next bit is fun, too:

The different possibilities to utilize content on the internet and via tablets make it very easy for third parties, like aggregators, search engines and pirate sites, to use publishing houses’ creative content for free, without authorization and remuneration of the publisher. It is thereby one of the most important tasks of copyright to draw the line between the widely permitted reference to content of third parties and the unauthorized re-use of such content, which is prohibited.

It's interesting to see the flip-side of publishers' ridiculous obsession with tablets. Alongside the hope that they will be the salvation of the industry (newsflash: they won't) there is also a fear that somehow they will make things worse (well, no, not really.) Again, this is indicative of the fact that the publishers don't really have a clue when it comes to the digital world, and over-emphasise surface details like the tablet while overlooking key trends like the arrival of digital abundance.

To be fair, there is one point in their declaration that is absolutely right:

The future of the European press strongly depends on the ability of publishers to monetize their digital editions. Therefore the EU should allow Member States to extend their reduced - including the possibility of zero % - VAT rates to the digital press.

One of the things that I learned when I went along to a roundtable discussion of the UK Independent Review of "IP" and Growth was that ebooks are subject to VAT, whereas physical books aren't. That's partly - but only partly - why ebooks are more expensive than you would expect.

I think the publishing industry is spot on here: VAT rates should match those for physical books, and ideally be set at zero. As for the other points of the declaration, they certainly do declare the publishers' positions, but probably not in the way that was intended.

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