Profiting Without Copyright: JK Rowling scenario

Imagine someone like JK Rowling.

She writes a Harry Potter novel. She sells copies on her site and makes a bit of money, but then it gets popular so pirated copies start circulating too. She then becomes wildly popular, in part due to piracy. And probably 90% of the people who got bootleg copies would not have bought the book anyway. So she loses some sales, but now she is very popular.

So she has book 2 written. She posts a note on her site to her fans saying that she has book 2 ready to go, and she’ll release it as soon as she gets a million pre-orders for $5 each. In a month she has $5M in the bank and so she releases the book. And then she makes another couple million more, and then sales taper off because of piracy and normal attenuation. Then she repeats this with the next 5 books. Soon she is worth $100M.

Meanwhile three different movie studios begin making a movie version of her first novel–without her permission. She gets no payment but on the other hand this drives more sales of her earlier and upcoming books–it acts as advertising for her. But one of the three movie studios, realizing it has competition from the other two, seeks a way to distinguish its movie. It approaches Rowling and asks her to consult on the movie and to promote the movie as the “best” and “authorized” version. They pay her $1M plus 2% of box office receipts, and she consults, helps improve it, and makes sure they don’t adulterate her plot too much etc. Or maybe she helps with the screenplay. In any case the “authorized” movie does way better at the box office than the unauthorized versions–if you were a Harry Potter fan which of the 3 would you want to see? Maybe all 3. but if you could only see one…. the one the author authorized of course.

And let’s say all this was on a lower scale. The money might not be as much, … but maybe the author is famous enough to get a job offer teaching in an English literature department. Or writing or polishing screenplays. Or copyediting others’ draft novels for a fee.