IP, technology, human rights

Social Publishing

Posted by Lea on March 30, 2015

I’ve enjoyed being at the Innovation Law Beyond IP 2 Conference at Yale Law School this weekend. My presentation focused on the emerging phenomenon of social publishing.

In “Copyright and Inequality,” I explored the ways in which copyright protection often – perhaps inevitably – fails to incentivize books for certain audiences, because they are too poor, speak the “wrong” languages, or require niche content or formats. The project I will present at the Beyond IP 2 conference examines a possible solution to copyright’s inequality problem, one which holds the potential to finally bring books to billions of readers long neglected by the mainstream publishing industry.

In India, Pratham Books pursues the mission of “A book in every child’s hand,” producing more than 1000 titles in over 15 languages, and reaching 52 million children. The African Storybook Project distributes openly licensed stories on a digital platform that facilitates translation to help young children develop a love of reading. First Book provides low-cost new books to over 160,000 schools and community programs, and leverages its buying power to demand more diverse books.

Social publishers are defined by the centrality of a social mission rather than the pursuit of profit. For this reason, they often rely heavily on social subsidies and treat their product as a social good to be distributed free or at cost. Often, but not always, social publishers also engage in social production. These alternative content-production models leverage intrinsic motivations, social networks, and peer production enabled by digital platforms.

My project analyzes this emerging phenomenon to understand how law and policy can help social publishers reach their fullest potential, and to derive broader lessons from this example of intellectual production without IP.

Like open access journals, social publishers often favor Creative Commons licenses to maximize readership and impact. This suggests that the potential of open access publishing is not unique to academic scholarship, but can work across many genres.

To me, the most fascinating part of this study is the emergence of new business models in book publishing. When you speak to organizations in the social publishing space, they emphasize experimentation and innovation. They are trying to figure out what works. They not only need to figure out the content origination, but new methods of marketing, distribution, and funding.
A third emerging insight is that social mission can be a powerful driver of innovation. To reach readers at the bottom of the pyramid, social publishers have had to develop radically different business models for content production, marketing, and distribution. As a result, social publishers find themselves on the leading edge of digital production and distribution. As books follow music through the digital transition, the path that social publishers are paving may represent the future of the industry.

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