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Proposal for a "Digital Second Harvest" to Help the Poor and End Piracy

harvest.jpgIt seems like every day I'm reading a new article about the battle between corporations and individuals over copyright and piracy, and it gets old. The problem is that both sides have lost the moral high ground in the debate. Here is a proposal to put both sides on the moral high ground and end the wars over copyright.

The Problem with Corporations

Corporations have lost the moral high ground because they have promoted monopolistic practices and have abused the poor in the processes. Some of the issues include:

1. Out of control media consolidation. In the past 25 years big media has consolidated from hundreds of companies to eight major companies. Mother Jones did an article on this, and provided an excellent picture of this consolidation (see below).  This creates an inbalance of power where corporations can force whatever price and content they want on individuals, that have little alternativesHere are some of the problems with this:

  • It gives corporations monopoly-like power enabling them to increase their prices while decreasing the selection and creativity of their offering
  • 5 companies control 80% of television in the USA
  • People of color make up 34% of the US population, but own 3.15% of television and 7.7% of radio
  • Women make up 51% of the population, but own 5.9% of television.
  • The top 10 Christian publishers represent 78.5% of the market and over half are owned by secular companies (see below Source)

2. Unjust copyright laws.  The original copyright act of 1790 gave copyright protection for 28 years. It has since been increased 5 times. The most recent extension of copyright was due to Disney not wanting to lose revenue for the copyright expiring for Mickey Mouse, so they lobbied Congress to pass what was called the Mickey Mouse Copyright Act, by its detractors. The net effect of these laws is that income is transferred from the poor to the hands of the rich that own these companies.The results of these laws have been epitimized by stories of the RIAA suing single mothers for hundreds of thousands of dollars because their child was downloading illegal music.

3. Corporations do not provide pricing for the poor.  The pricing of software is almost entirely targeted at businesses or upper-middle class clients.  The pricing of music is also targeted toward the upper-middle class.  The advent of digital media players has dramatically increased the demand, which makes current pricing of music impossibly high for most users.  This was epitimized by a recent ad by Microsoft saying that it would cost $30,000 to fill up an iPod with music.  Pricing models need to adjust to this.

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The Problem with Pirates

The result of unjust laws and inbalance of power (and compromised morality), many individuals have chosed the revolutionary route to defy unjust laws and pirate digital media.

1. Most Pirates are not Robin Hood. The pirates like to promote the "Robin Hood" image of robbing the rich to give to the poor.  The problem is that this simply isn't true for the vast majority of pirates.  Most music and software pirates are middle class with broadband Internet connections.  They can afford to pay for music, but they would rather not. 

2. There is no equivalent ethic of "civil disobedience" related to grossly unjust intellectual property laws.  This would be needed among pirates to give them the moral high ground.  Robin Hood had high ethics, which is what made him an attractive character.  Once you enter the world of pirates by visiting a pirate website, you are immediately immersed into a virtual underworld where every other link is an advertisement offering pornography, anonymous sex, scams, spyware and drugs along with pirated goods. Pirates that operate in this domain are kidding themselves if they act like they are a modern day Robin Hood.

An alternative to this "war" would be to promote a just system through a vision of a "Digital Second Harvest".

Proposal for a Digital Second Harvest

The concept of a digital second harvest comes from the concept of "gleaning" in scriptures. This concept of gleaning is a shared heritage of most major world religions (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews) representing over  75% of the global population.  One example comes from:

Deuteronomy 24:19-20: When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.

One of the issues with digital content is that most of it goes "stale" very quickly if it isn't used.  Most software designed 20 years ago has almost no value today.  The situation is similar to grocery stores that have produce or other food that they have to throw away before it goes bad.  In response to this need there is a consortium of food banks called the "Second Harvest" that takes donated food before it goes bad. Here is how it translates in a digital environment.

  1. In most cases, 95% of the profit from digital media is generated in the first 10 years of its release.
  2. Providing digital copies to the poor would only result in a very small loss of revenue (1-2%) as most of the poor cannot afford it.
  3. The value of digital media to the poor can be enormous. As non-tangible products become the majority of global GDP, providing “gleaning” of digital media to the poor could be transformative.

Based on this, we are promoting an advocacy campaign for the concept of a “Digital Second Harvest” license category under Creative Commons. The basic principles are:

  1. A key strategy of any socially responsible business should be to evaluate their digital assets and make most of their assets that have either (a) lost most of their revenue generating potential or (b) are not affordable to the majority of the world’s poor
  2. They would license these under a new type of Creative Commons license that limits the distribution of the materials to the poor.
  3. Only registered non-governmental organizations (NGOs)/nonprofits and governmental organization could distribute these items.
  4. These distribution centers would need to ensure that the license does not get abused by ensuring it only gets distributed to the poor or organizations serving the poor.

An example of this in action is http://www.techsoup.org/stock/ which provides hundreds of millions worth of free and discounted software from over 40 companies. Their model needs the legal framework so that it could be generalized to apply to more media formats and companies, and spread in the same way that Creative Commons has spread.

This will be critical as wireless data to cell phones globally enables a level of content access to the poor not seen before in history. We believe that the majority of the world’s content could be made available to the poor for free while only affecting revenue of for-profit companies by less than 1%. This loss of revenue would be justifiable to these companies both because they would be seeding the market for their future customers (who will pay once they get out of poverty) and from the PR generated by being a socially responsible business.

As Creative Commons licensing has demonstrated, there is a great opportunity for having legal licenses that are more flexible than the bipolar options of copyright where it is either "all rights reserved" or no rights for the public domain.

The concept of a digital second harvet is especially important when it comes to educational content. We propose that the following categories of content be targeted.

  1. Nonfiction, educational books and textbooks.  Google's initiative scanning in books is a good start, but is limited largely to public domain books.  What is needed is an initiative like Google's that would cover copyrighted books, but provide them digitally and limit access only to the poor (like TechSoup Stock for books).
  2. Educational Digital Audio, Video and Curriculum. Major universities should provide podcasts and audio/video downloads for most of their classes that would be integrated with free curriculum.  The Open Courseware initiative of MIT is a good start.
  3. Online Advertising.  There are so many markets for online advertising, that much of it goes unsold (or severely underpriced). This is very similar to food that goes bad at the grocery store. There are many nonprofits (like TechMission) that have shown that they can easily provide more that a 10 to 1 social return on investment for any free advertising.  We propose that all companies providing online advertising provide donated advertising.  A good model of this is the Google Grants program, which has provided over $300 million in free advertising.

Christians and the Digital Second Harvest

Unfortunately, Christians are much farther behind the secular world in allowing for "digital gleaning" and a digital second harvest.  There are no comparable intiatives within the Christian community to Google Books, TechSoup Stock, Open Courseware, Google Grants, etc. We propose the following actions to address this

  1. Christian publishers make all their materials that are currently out of print available in digital format online, like Google Books. Either the publishers could fund the scanning of the materials, or a third-party nonprofit or even turn them over to Google.
  2. Christian websites make a portion of their advertising available to ministries serving the poor. This is the purest analogy of "digital gleaning" because in many cases it can turn into a 10 to 1 return on investment to the poor. These companies could create a "grants" program similar to Google grants that would then provide great public relations.
  3. Christian Universities join the Open Courseware Consortium and provide their course materials for free online (audio, video and curriculum). This would help spread the gospel by making training freely available.
  4. Christian Software Companies provide software at dramatically reduced prices to ministries that are serving the poor (similar to TechSoup Stock that provides 90% off or more).
  5. Christian Music provide dramatically reduced pricing to Christians in the developing world. This will have the effect of "seeding the market" with the poor for this generation, so that later when their children can afford the products, they will be familiar with them.  This is especially important considering that 90% of the growth of Christianity is expected to be in developing countries in the next century.

I have talked with many of the leaders of these Christian companies, and they want to help the poor, but the problem is that the structures to do so are not yet well known in the Christian community.  Most Christian Executives are afraid of becoming victims of the pirates, and want to avoid anything that looks at all like giving things away because of that. They are not aware that there have been major developments in the industry that enable companies to help the poor with digital media, while also providing a profit. 

Thoughts?  Leave them below in the comment section.  If you would like to partner with TechMission to start an initiative at your company in one of these areas, please contact us using our contact form.