Thursday, May 23, 2019

Monopolies, Publishing, and Online Media

Cory Doctorow's latest column briefly surveys the history of antitrust enforcement, considers the effect on creative artists of the concentration of market share in a few mega-organizations, and analyzes a provision of the European Union's new Copyright Directive. Spoiler: He's against it (that one clause, anyway).

Steering with the Windshield Wipers

I must admit my initial reaction to the first paragraph was amusement at a tangential thought. Doctorow illustrates the monopolizing of an industry by a few corporations or only one with this suggestion: "Take off your glasses for a sec (you’re a Locus reader, so I’m guessing that you, like me, are currently wearing prescription eyewear) and have a look at the manufacturer’s name on the temples." If you need glasses to read text on a screen, how are you supposed to read the brand name on them when you take them off? I tried, and as I expected, the print is way too small. LOL. Anyway, Doctorow reveals that most eyeglass frames and lenses are made by the same company that owns the major retailers in the field. (So my personal choice, Lenscrafters, isn't really independent of its alleged competitors such as Pearle Vision. We live in a weird world, all right.) From that point, he asks how we got into this situation and proceeds to discuss Facebook and other Internet social media engines. He offers examples of "overconcentration blues" in film and TV, the music industry, publishing, and social media sites (with particular emphasis on Facebook's privacy problems).

He strenuously objects to the EU Copyright Directive's clause that requires online providers to "block anything that might be unlicensed, using automated filters." In Doctorow's opinion, "This is a plan of almost unfathomable foolishness." One of his primary objections is that the policy won't stop infringement, because filters are susceptible to abuse, "imperfect and prone to catching false positives," and "cheap and easy to subvert." He also believes the rule will be so expensive to comply with that smaller companies will be squeezed out, to the benefit of the mega-conglomerates.

In near-apocalyptic language, he works up to the conclusion that "monopolies are strangling the possibility of a pluralistic, egalitarian society." This article, however, doesn't answer the logical next question: What must we do to be saved? As for the publishing industry, it doesn't seem to me that the dominance of the Big Five (possibly soon to become four) is quite so dire for authors as it used to be. We now have alternative outlets that didn't exist in the past, in the form of a multitude of small presses and e-publishers, as well as inexpensive self-publishing.

Some services, in my opinion, SHOULD be provided by monopolies. Maintaining utility infrastructure such as the electrical grid or the sewer system, for instance. But not publishing.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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