The Brave New World of Content and Copyright: How a little British Piggy Wiped the floor with a French Shapeshifter

20 Feb

barbapigThis is a cautionary tale. If you are a content producer of any sort, and still operating under the archaic copyright presumptions and mindset of the distant past, then you’re well on your way to becoming extinct. Much sooner than you think, I’m afraid. Listen well and heed my advice if you are a writer, a film maker, or a musician, and anything in between. This applies to all of us.

I have a four year old daughter who doesn’t watch much television because we decided against outsourcing our parenting duties to the networks. But we do allow her to watch some DVDs and a few of her favorite shows on our tablets, under our supervision.

To simplify this story, let’s assume she started off watching two shows a couple of years ago. Because it’s the comparison between these two shows that will serve as the moral of my story.

The first is a French classic called Barbapapa, which started off as a series of children’s books written in the 1970s. The main characters are the Barbapapa family, who are most notable for their ability to shapeshift at will. The books evolved into a highly successful animated show, localized and licensed across the globe, along with a healthy merchandising system.

The second show is a more contemporary British creation called Peppa Pig, which revolves around a female pig, and her family and friends. Episodes feature day-to-day living with lighthearted flare, and a bit of signature British tongue-in-cheek for good measure. Innocuous things like attending playgroup, going swimming, visiting her grandparents, going to the playground or riding bikes.

A a parent, I love both shows equally. Barbapapa has a beautifully nostalgic and vintage quality to it, but was well ahead of its time with deep messages of ecological responsibility. Peppa Pig is hugely entertaining, moderately educational, but most importantly, it does no harm. For a modern animation, that’s a huge plus.

As a content creator myself, I respect the hard work of creative artists and purchased a few original DVDs of both shows when my daughter was two and still getting in them. But in due course and as a result of changing viewing habits, we discovered episodes of both shows  widely available on YouTube. So it was infinitely more convenient to watch them on our tablets, or even beam them from our mobile devices to our big screens, rather than the whole song and dance of finding the DVD, making sure it’s not scratched, wiping it clean—you get the picture.

About a year ago, every single episode of Barbapapa that was previously available on YouTube disappeared overnight. In its place was the infamous YouTube message that the “copyright holder of said content has requested that it be removed,” yadda, yadda, yadd.  At roughly the same time, more high quality episodes of Peppa Pig started mushrooming, including hour-long compilations of the latest seasons. And this has continued until this day.

Being the delightful parents that we are, we purchased whatever Barbapapa DVDs we could get our hands on to appease the little one.  I think you already know where this story is going.

Inevitably, my daughter lost interest in Barbapapa because it wasn’t readily available to watch on YouTube. Because mock it all you like, but the whole YouTube/mobile device marriage is really made in heaven for the modern family on the run.

And inversely proportionate to her loss of interest in Barbapapa, was her increased obsession with Peppa Pig – and the formidable merchandising empire that came with it.

Here’s the fuzzy math of this whole thing. We probably own one or two Peppa Pig DVDs, which have been sucked into some black hole around the house, never to be found again. In other words, our net contribution to the Astley Baker Davies animation studio that produces Peppa Pig is about $15 in DVD purchases. On the other hand, we’ve probably been “forced” to spend about five times as much on Barbapapa DVDs when they disappeared from YouTube.

Now this is where the story gets more cautionary. Despite our paltry spending on Peppa Pig DVDs, the amount we’ve shelled out on Peppa Pig merchandise—figures, coloring books, bags, water cups, pajamas, t-shrits, shoes, and you wouldn’t even begin to imagine what else—is probably fifty times more than what we would have spent if we had purchased the entire library of Peppa Pig DVDs. And the future library for the next five years.

And what have we spent on the Barbapapa brand name other than the DVDs? Nothing. Or practically nothing.

Peppa Pig: Game, set, match!

Two production companies targeting more or less the same age group. One operating with antiquated and aggressive philosophies to copyright as the linchpin of the financial engine of content, and the other one couldn’t care less about its content being pirated and distributed widely for free. If I was one of the makers of Peppa Pig, I’d be secretly satisfied that whoever is uploading my shows is doing my seeding for me and ensnaring generations of loyal fans and instilling in them a voracious appetite for anything and everything that can be pig-branded.  And this is not just rife in the English speaking world. Peppa pig is everywhere and in every language. The next time you see a child rushing to splash in muddy puddles, you now know where that came from.

The moral of the story is this: Stop trying to fight piracyIt’s a futile, expensive, and polarizing endeavor. A lost cause, really.

Technology and our changing viewing and consumption habits are decades ahead of the narrow minds of the geriatric suits at the media corporations who are still deluding themselves that copyright is the be all and end all of generating income from the content you create.

I take my hat off to the ingenious minds at Astley Baker Davies who were on the money with their strategy not to draw the copyright infringement card and alienate their fan base, and their parents’ who hold the checkbooks.

As the music business has discovered the hard way, and the publishing industry is quickly learning, the future of the business side of producing content is going to be far less about monetizing content, and much more about cashing in on the rich layers of experiencing said content, over and over again.

Which means that the unit price of any piece of content is invariably going to shrink until its negligible or zero. Look at full-length electronic books now selling at 99 cents. Heed the lesson of software which went from thousands of dollars per license to free, or almost free aps. Consider that the most successful newspapers in the UK are distributed gratis to commuters. And of course everything about the music industry is a testament to this trend. Musicians now make most of their money on merchandising and live events, and are practically giving away music. One of the biggest players in the industry is Live Nation Entertainment – formed from the merger of an events promoter and a ticket seller. The film industry is a tougher cookie to crack, but mark my word, the rebels are at the walls of Hollywood and sooner or later will bring the whole thing down.

For far too long now the creation, production and distribution of content has been in the monopolistic hands of large corporations that have set unrealistic and extortionate prices. Now the revolution is coming to democratize the creation and pricing of content. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that absolute earnings will plummet. In fact, if the music industry numbers are anything to go by, earnings under the new paradigm eventually start heading north. The pyramid is being turned on its head. Far more people are now connected to the commercial “grid” than decades ago. Which means that rather than make a bundle of money from a few people by overcharging them, the market has expanded to a point where you can viably earn microscopic amounts from a wider audience and end up at the same point.

The lesson here for any content creator is to sprint beyond our fixation and obsession as a society with copyright. In a world where massive technological advances have lowered the bar dramatically for anyone to operate as a content generator (repeat after me: crowdsourcing), we will need to think of more creative ways to make money and be rewarded for our hard work. The singularity of the ‘content for money’ paradigm is not just shifting, it’s crumbling.

As a writer, I’m committed to making my books available at the fairest price point possible. But I am taking it a step further: I am willing to give it away for free. But only if you ask. If you tell me, “Love your work, man, and would love to read one of your books. But I honestly can’t afford to spare the $2.99 at this point of my life,” I’ll straight up give it you for free.

Because just like Peppa Pig, I’d rather draw you into my muddy puddle for the long haul, than see you shapeshift away.


4 Responses to “The Brave New World of Content and Copyright: How a little British Piggy Wiped the floor with a French Shapeshifter”

  1. Jodie Renner February 21, 2014 at 12:22 am #

    Interesting! Cutting-edge analysis for the publishing industry!

    But I’d hold off giving away a full- length book until you have several more for your new fans to buy…

    Traveling so no time for more thoughts now.

    • amkwriter February 22, 2014 at 6:28 am #

      Thanks, Jodie. Bon voyage!

  2. tom combs February 21, 2014 at 1:33 am #

    Your assessment is provocative and compelling (and very cleverly written!). The future is very much unknown.
    Others have noted that in the print entertainment industry the pace of change we are seeing is likely slower than we will ever see again. Hold on to you hat – this looks like it’s going to be a hell of a ride!
    Hopefully, as wise and experienced authors/agents/editors have shared with me, if we keep our focus on creating the highest quality product we can, the rest will take care of itself.
    Thanks for sharing your keen perspective!

    • amkwriter February 22, 2014 at 6:30 am #

      Couldn’t have put it better myself Tom!

      “If we keep our focus on creating the highest quality product we can, the rest will take care of itself.”

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