Thursday, May 01, 2008

Intellectual property and dumb business models

My wife and I attended a charity auction a few weeks ago, and they had a photographer there capturing the well-dressed couples. We posed for a picture, and a few days ago went online to view them. Liking them, we decided to order some, and we requested to purchase the images electronically, since we mostly view images on the computer these days rather than on a wall.

No dice. The photographer will sell us low resolution digital images for the price of a print, or a print, but will not part with the high resolution images that we want. His reasoning is that if he sells us the high-resolution images, we can go to Costco (or use our own photo printer) to make our own prints.

While he's absolutely correct about this, he is showing the same short-sightedness that the recording industry has displayed with regard to copyright protection. In the same way that the recording industry incorrectly views its business as selling CDs rather than as selling music, this photographer views his business as selling prints, not selling images. So instead of selling to customers what they want to buy, he restricts them from that very thing.

If he were smart, he would offer two options: sell the print or low-resolution digital image for the $20 or so he would charge. Or, for something more - say, $25 or $30 - sell the high-resolution image, including a license to reproduce for personal use.

In other words, his copyright has value. He's currently using the copyright in a restrictive capacity, when he could instead be monetizing the value he holds in it. If he sold a version of the digital images with a license to reproduce, he'd continue to hold his copyright to the work, but he'd be making money from the value of the copyright. And most importantly, he'd be selling to his customers what they want to buy.

A few short years ago, this was not practical - photographers were in fact in the print business. Besides the fact that digital images were not possible or desired, photographers typically had high expenses as they had to print out every picture even though they would only sell a fraction of those prints. Today, however, these costs have dropped to zero as the only images they need to print are the ones that they sell. This particular photographer is using an antiquated model; he is using 21st technology to take the pictures, he should bring his business into the 21st century as well.

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