Which four companies are pulling down our creative efforts?

Irony is sometimes funny and sometimes painful.

The most ironic thing I’ve heard recently is this: Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has written a book. Is it being made available for free amongst the millions of books in the Google Book Scan project? Nope. It’s being published by Random House, in both print and digital formats, for US$26.95 and US$15.20 respectively. Amazon has discounted the print copy to US$16.

Welcome to the creative world, Mr Schmidt, where the technology company has decided just how much – or rather, how little – your creativity is worth!

The book publishing world is full of acronyms. One of the newest refers to the technology companies who are leading the race to the bottom in devaluing creative content. The acronym is GAFA and the four companies involved are Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. In their own way, each of these tech companies has participated in driving down the value of music, books, photographs and other creative content, and for what purpose? To deliver value to a very small group of people – their shareholders. But what about the value to the New Zealand economy and to the people working in the value chain that produces this material?

If you’re a brave person, I dare you to start a conversation with a book author and use the word Google. You’ll be lucky to survive the resulting ear-bashing. The Google book scan project resulted in millions of books being scanned and made available on the internet under the proviso of the US copyright doctrine of fair use. It was only after publishers and authors got wind of what Google was up to that a form of payment for the books still in copyright was offered.

We all know what Apple thinks the value of music is: US$0.99 per song. And how much of that 99 cents actually goes to the artist? If the contract split for eBooks is anything to go by, it’s less than 70 cents. In addition to that, Apple controls how a musician’s work is able to be released by dictating that all songs from an album have to be able to be made available as individual tracks. They have also used their (let’s be nice) ‘buying power’, to set iTunes prices for games, eBooks, movies and more.

Facebook is probably not as negatively regarded as the others on the list in terms of impacting on the value of creative content, but a recent experience in New Zealand demonstrated how the social network can be used to distribute creative content. A student enrolled in a New Zealand tertiary institution was a member of a Facebook group for a particular course they were studying. Using the study group’s Facebook page, digital copies of the text books for the course were offered to anyone who provided a USB device to copy them on to. Other Facebook pages are set up exclusively to link visitors to websites hosting illegal copies of creative content.

The last of the four is probably the one the causes the most conflict in the book publishing world: Amazon. Amazon is to books what Apple is to music. A few years ago, when true eBook versions of new release fiction were becoming mainstream, the default price of these books suddenly became US$9.99. The same book in print could retail for US$29.95. While there are obvious cost differences in the production of digital versus print content, it is the constantly reducing value to the creator, in this case an author, that is of concern.

Why is it a concern? Why should we worry that the balance between who benefits from the distribution of creative content is already well and truly in favour of the technology companies and seemingly heading even further in their direction as they drive prices down while their own share values only go up? Well, New Zealanders should worry. We are a country of book readers, music lovers and movie watchers – not to mention interactive game players. All of these forms of entertainment start with someone who is creative – whether they write words, write music, write scripts or write code – you don’t get to read, to listen, to watch or to play without them doing what they do best.

And what about the serial technologist in our own backyard? The operations of GAFA are relatively removed from New Zealand but Kim Dotcom and MEGA are not. Dotcom was recently quoted as saying, “I think copyright has a right to exist. If you create something, you don’t want someone else to go and profit from it”. Amen to that! But this hardly reflects the way in which he has chosen to operate his businesses in the past. I wonder how MEGA would react if the unique coding of their systems was ripped off and duplicated online to make money for someone else? No doubt there would be an awful lot of legal action aimed at protecting MEGA’s rights. So why is it so wrong for people who are creative rather than technologists to want to have their work valued and protected?

Paula Browning is chief executive of Copyright Licensing NZ and chair of the Copyright Council of NZ. Follow her @PaulaJBrowning.