Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Of Goblins and DRM

I recently finished reading the seventh and final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows. A great read, but this is not a review. I just had to comment on a short exchange between Harry and Bill Weasley on the subject of goblin concepts of ownership. Griphook , the goblin, will help Harry with a task but only if Harry promises to give him a certain goblin-made weapon. Bill senses Harry has made a deal with the goblin and endeavours to explain to Harry goblin concepts of ownership. Bill explains that "To a goblin, the rightful and true master of any object is the maker, not the purchaser. All goblin made objects are, in goblin eyes, rightfully theirs." When Harry protests "But it was bought ---", Bill goes on to explain that to a goblin the item is rented by the payor for life, but upon the death of that person it ought to return to goblin possession. The wizard habit of passing goblin-made items from wizard to wizard is viewed by the goblins as thievery.

Wow! Goblins invented digital rights management (DRM) and run the RIAA! Who knew? Considering that J. K. Rowling is a billionaire thanks to copyright, this position strikes me as odd. This exchange between Bill and Harry is not essential to the narrative. In fact, it ends up not really having much to do with the story at all. So I can only conclude that Rowling stuck it in as a commentary on copyright and DRM. Given that the wizards are the sympathetic characters and goblins are generally not sympathetically portrayed, it is difficult to see this as an endorsement of the goblin view of property rights. Rowling's publishers go to great lengths to protect her books from being leaked in advance, as they should. And Rowling has deservedly made a fortune from her books. All of this is made possible by copyright.

However, as an author, Rowling knows that once purchased her books will be lent by libraries and passed from reader to reader. My wife and I shared one book. We don't buy two books and no one would expect us to, but when I buy a recording subject to DRM the music industry does everything it can to make it difficult for me to share even within my own family. The easiest way for me to share music with my wife is to hand her my iPod. Despite the fact that books can be, and are, easily passed around, shared, and lent by libraries, Rowling and other authors still reap handsome rewards from their labors. Perhaps there are some lessons here for the RIAA and the music industry about making money without suing your fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment