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Would Shakespeare tweet?

February 15, 2011
by seth godin

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Scott Turow, beloved novelist and now head of the Authors Guild, argues in the Times that Shakespeare might have had trouble surviving in the world of the web, a place of “speedy, secret transmission of stolen goods.” Apparently, once you start working with the Author’s Guild, something changes in your outlook. In the past, the Guild has spoken out against Amazon selling used books, against public libraries and against devices that allow people to have devices that enable the books they own to be digitally read to them.

The irony is thick here. First, Shakespeare never got a royalty check. Second, the only reason most people have even heard of the bard is that his plays can be produced for free, his plays are easily and cheaply found in many forms and editions and people can turn his work into movies without asking first. Shakespeare made a living based on people paying to come to his shows, live. Sort of the way a new breed of successful musicians are doing it today.

The music industry has been transformed by the spread of music online. The industry is reeling, but there’s more music than ever before, listened to more often by more people. No, I don’t expect the folks at Motown and BMG to like that, but it’s true.

The freelance writing industry has been transformed by the rise of blogs as well. No longer can writers expect to earn a living getting paid by the word to write for magazines that were the only way to reach people. I think we can agree that there isn’t a shortage of non-fiction expository writing, even though the industry has changed. Writers don’t have to like that, but it’s true.

Scott and his peers, arguing to maintain the status quo, are repeating the failed strategy of the RIAA and the record business instead of realizing what an opportunity the connectivity of the internet creates. All these readers! All these opportunities to build direct connections with them. All these chances to have your ideas spread…

Scott writes, [progress is] “… the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.” He’s a much better writer than I will ever be. But he’s a lousy student of history. There are plenty of practices that were invented in the shadow of the Dark Ages that we’re much better off without. Bloodletting, for example.

In a world where attention is the scarce resource, the enemy as Tim O’Reilly put it, is obscurity, not piracy. Particularly for the vast majority of the membership of the Author’s Guild. You can’t sue your way to attention, and we shouldn’t legislate writing back to a world of scarcity.

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