We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

More unintended consequences

More unintended consequences

Here is another example of the law of unintended consequences (see the post from 10 December). The National Library of Norway has announced that it intends to digitise all the books in its collection and make them available for free online, regardless of copyright. The aim of this project, apparently, is to ensure that Norwegians (and others who can read Norwegian) have free access to literature and scholarship.

This is on one level a noble aim, and readers of the TechDirt website (where I first read about this) have queued up to argue in support of the Norwegian initiative. An article in Atlantic Monthly has also offered a positive view. Many observers have criticised the ‘excessive’ attention to copyright in other countries like the US, and expressed the hope that other countries will follow Norway’s example.

But what would happen if every country made all books free to read on-line? People who were not willing to pay for books might well rush to read them if they were free (or they might not, the evidence is not clear). But would writers be willing to continue to publish, if they could not receive any income for their work?

Most writers – myself included – need to earn money from their writing. We have mortgages or rent to pay; we need to buy clothes and food; we need to pay utilities bills and put petrol in our cars. And if we cannot make money from writing, we will need to stop writing and do something else to make a living. It is as simple as that.

If all books are available for free and writers can no longer earn money, then the number of writers will dwindle until three groups remain: academics who receive a salary from their universities, people with private incomes, and people who are able to attract sponsorship and patronage.

There will be an impact on quality, too. Academics are already under pressure to avoid popular writing; I know of universities where academics are forbidden to write for any venue except scholarly journals. And sponsors and patrons are notorious for wanting the writers they support to write about what interests them, and reflect their point of view. Some writers will be instructed to write to order.

In other words, an initiative intended to broaden access to literature and scholarship and make it free for all, may instead result in fewer books of lower quality being published.

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Adi Gaskell commented on
Management Consultancy

Pradee commented on
Oh, no, not another book on management!

Laurie commented on
Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures