Copying is Good
In this age of Napster, book technologists and digital rights providers often suggest (incorrectly) that the electronic publishing industry requires more sophisticated copy protection and that consumers be taught that copying is illegal.
Did I mention that this idea is wrong? Copying is not illegal. Unauthorized copying is illegal And though it may surprise some, authorized copying of digital goods can be an e-publisher's best friend. My company, Digital Goods (formerly SoftLock.com), has a mission to foster an e-publishing ecology in which rights-protected digital content sells, and sells again. In order to do that best, book publishers should not focus on preventing copying, they should encourage redistribution.
Rights-protected digital goods can be (and should be) copyright-protected, so that while for-pay content may be formatted in such a way that it is not easily pirated, freely browseable preview content can remain accessible and inviting to its recipient. We call this viral-marketing approach "pass-along," while others call it superdistribution. It works, and it proves that the sale and marketing of digital goods is fundamentally (and wonderfully) different from that of conventional print products.
The mechanics of the pass-along
At Digital Goods, we've been promoting and perfecting pass-along technology since we patented our system in 1992, and we've learned a lot about making it work. Here's what we've discovered:
1. Usability really matters, but it's hard to do right.
If a redistributed document merely informs the recipient that "valuable content is locked within," the recipient will rarely bother to download a plug-in and evaluate the offer, let alone buy it. However, if the content is in PDF format, and previewable by anyone with Acrobat Reader an evaluation can be made with or without a security plug-in. The plug-in can be seamlessly installed during the purchase process, after the consumer has decided to buy the content.
2. Friendly advice prompts sales.
We tend to take our friends' recommendations because we know and trust them. When someone passes along information and suggests you may find it interesting or valuable, chances are, you'll check it out. Is it any wonder that conversion rates are substantially higher than other forms of electronic marketing?
3. Redistribution should be encouraged.
For the content to be redistributed, it myst be formatted correctly. Our technology, for example, serves up previewable content complemented with a toolbar, on which customers will find a button labeled, "Send to a friend." Clicking the button triggers mail copies to the customer's friends and ultimately helps content providers learn more about the flow if content through the information ecology.
4. Industry miseducation must stop!
During Digital Goods' historic e-marketing campaign for Stephen King's e-novella "Riding the Bullet," we surveyed some of our customers. We asked: "What would encourage you to forward Riding the Bullet to others?" Despite our question's pro-redistribution stance, most of our the respondents indicated that they believed redistribution to be wrong. Typical answers included:
"If they paid, too."
"Why would I forward it to someone who didn't pay for it?"
"Only if Stephen King got his royalty."
"Let them buy their own copies."
I'd like to stress that we thought that redistribution would actually increase King's royalty potential, by making it easy for his fans to buy the novella. The lesson is simple and, I hope, clear: "Make copying your friend. Make your friends copy."
Jonathan Schull is a founder and chief scientist of Digital Goods (formerly SoftLock.com), and the author of the company's seminal "passalong patent." A behavioral scientist and pioneer in the field of intellectual property rights management, he studies and promotes the propagation of digital goods.