Thursday, March 11, 2021

Problems with Monopolies

Cory Doctorow's LOCUS article for this month delves into a lot of background about markets and monopolies that's new to me:

Free Markets

He begins by explaining that the classic threat to the free market wasn't considered to be government control, but corporate monopoly. Adam Smith in THE WEALTH OF NATIONS warns of the power of rentiers, which Doctorow defines as follows: "A rentier is someone who derives their income from 'economic rents': revenues derived from merely owning something" -- for example, a landlord. Doctorow extends this concept to companies such as Amazon and Google, "Big Tech" in general, with the power to control "access to the marketplace." A monopolist, in this view, isn't simply a corporate monolith with limited competition; it's an entity "who can set prices without regard to the market"

The primary example Doctorow focuses on is, not surprisingly, DRM. In addition to the alleged purpose of preventing copyright infringement (at which he maintains DRM utterly fails), the relevant law "felonizes removing or tampering with or bypassing DRM, even when no copyright infringement takes place." Therefore, a buyer of an e-book (such as a Kindle novel) can't read it on any device not authorized by the seller. As a result, Big Tech, not the author who owns the copyright, gets "permanent veto over how my books can be used: which devices can display them, and on what terms." However, since all e-book platforms (so far) make DRM optional, Doctorow and his publisher have the power to sell his work DRM-free.

He discusses at length the very different status of audiobooks. Amazon requires all audiobooks released through its Audible program, whether produced by Amazon itself or some other publisher, to be "wrapped in its proprietary lockware." That's something I didn't know, since I don't have any audiobooks on the market and never buy books in that medium. In response to that policy, Doctorow turned to Kickstarter to release his books in audio format, and he analyzes in detail how that project worked out. He also explains how much more complicated it is to download and play an audiobook with an independent app than to buy it through Audible. I previously had little or no awareness of the hard line the Big Tech companies take toward "noncompliant apps."

I have an ambivalent reaction toward Doctorow's stance on Amazon. In principle, I acknowledge that dominance of a market by one company isn't desirable. In practice, as a reader I love knowing I can find almost any book I've ever heard of on a single website. It's a vanishingly rare occurence when I can't find a book listed there, no matter how long out of print. I also turn to Amazon first for many items other than books, music, and visual media. I like buying from it because of its reliable, usually fast delivery and because it already has our credit card on file, so I don't have to enter the information on unfamiliar sites. As a writer, for my "orphaned" works I like the ease of self-publishing through Kindle and the fact that the vast majority of e-book buyers are likely to read the Kindle format. At least one of my publishers feels the same way, having pulled their products from all other outlets because those sales were negligible compared to Amazon sales. Yet I do understand having qualms about being at the mercy of one powerful commercial entity's whims.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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