Tagged: publishing


Is this really a copyright problem?

Modeling costs and revenues

In the comments to my last post, the skeptical Matt Lister asked a great question…

Say we agree there’s very little being translated into languages like Zulu and we agree that’s a problem. Is the problem that copyright makes it too expensive? Or is the real problem that translation or publication is inherently too expensive, given the limited size of these audiences and low ability to pay?

A theoretical model and some examples

It’s clear that the potential profits from Zulu translations aren’t sufficient to cover the costs. But those costs fall into lots of different categories: copyright licensing fees, the translator’s labor, distribution costs… etc. Would merely eliminating the copyright barrier be enough to tip the equation?

Let’s build a theoretical model first and then my research can look for data points…

P = potential income from book sales
C = costs of copyright compliance (including fees to the copyright owner, transaction costs of negotiating the license, and lawyer’s fees to handle copyright compliance and disputes)
T = costs of performing the translation (translator’s labor)
D = distribution costs (printing costs, shipping costs, overhead, leaving a profit margin for retailers, etc.)

For translated works to be produced, we would need to see that potential sales outweigh the copyright, translation, and distribution costs.

P > C + T + D

We can think about this equation as applying generally to works in a particular language market. Or more accurately, we can think about it applying to any specific work. If potential sales appear to be greater than costs, then the market should produce the work. So, let’s look at some specific works that the market is producing in Zulu right now…

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How do you say “copyright” in Zulu?

Woman reading Zulu newspaper

South African woman reading a newspaper in Zulu

Are the costs and benefits of copyright protection roughly the same in English and in Zulu? Or is copyright law’s impact radically different from one language to another?

Copyright protection gives authors the exclusive right to market their works. This has the benefit of channeling profits back to authors, enhancing the financial incentives to create new works. But it also has the cost of limiting competition, inflating prices for consumers, and restricting public access to existing works.

Copyright scholars have extensively debated these costs and benefits. But we have not yet done much thinking about how the cost-benefit calculus might play out for different languages.

That project lies at the heart of my current work-in-progress, which advocates targeted copyright reforms to promote publishing in lesser-spoken languages.

From an economic perspective, the publishing market is fundamentally different from one language to another. English books can be marketed to an enormous and wealthy global audience. The audience for Zulu works, however, is 1% as large and has significantly less disposable income.

Scholars continue to debate the relative effectiveness of financial versus nonfinancial incentives for authorship. But there is no doubt that the incentives are powerfully present for English-language works. That does not appear to be true for works in Zulu.

According to recent data, 77% of books sold within South Africa are in English, though only one in ten South Africans speaks English at home. The vast majority of South Africans speak African languages such as Zulu. Yet books in all African languages combined account for only 11% of the South African publishing market. Of African language book sales, 89% are textbooks, subsidized by government purchasing.

The copyright system that has so effectively incentivized the production and distribution of works in English has not produced equivalent benefits in Zulu. The costs of copyright protection – including higher prices and barriers to translation – are also particularly burdensome for the Zulu-speaking community.

In theory, the costs of copyright protection may outweigh the benefits in many linguistic communities characterized by small size and low wealth. I’m working now on some case studies to see whether facts on the ground support that prediction.

If so, my suggestion is not to change copyright law generally, but to adjust the rules for certain languages. There are thousands of different linguistic communities in the world, each as unique as the various expressive works that copyright law protects. A one-size-fits-all regime is unlikely to be ideal.

Reforms to strike the right balance could be implemented at the level of national policy making. By treating different languages differently, countries may be able to improve publishing in languages such as Zulu without prejudicing the interests of authors and publishers in the dominant markets.

In a series of posts during my month as a Co-Op guest blogger, I’ll explore how we might structure such reforms and other issues raised by this project.