Online newspapers, publications and books... are the developing countries in a position to get anything out of the digital revolution? Will the drop in production and distribution costs afforded by the new technology allow them to catch up with the developed-country firms that are monopolizing the market? The E-commerce and Development Report 2002, released today by UNCTAD(1), surveys current trends and suggests future strategies.
On the plus side, digital publishing technology offers fresh opportunities for developing countries, many of which produce little in the way of artistic and literary output due to lack of resources. New technology could transform the situation. Online publishing gives small businesses the opportunity to establish a presence in a market dominated by the developed-country giants of the culture industry. By lowering production costs and cutting out middlemen, it generates new markets and enables authors who would not otherwise be well known to expand their readerships. A Jamaican company, Overdrive, has set up a virtual publishing centre allowing over 200 publishers to produce and distribute their books electronically.
In press and university publishing, a quick glance at websites listing online libraries and media shows that even the poorest -- the least developed -- countries have been won over to electronic distribution, which radically alters relations between publishers, the media and consumers. And although the volume and quality of content, the level of sophistication and the functions available through search tools vary considerably from one newspaper to the next, an online presence now appears essential. For the time being, the important thing is to "stake out a claim" and respond to growing user demand, as it is far from certain whether online newspapers will prove profitable.
Growing awareness of the potential of online publishing is driving a number of new initiatives, both national and international. They range from the promotion of African publications in the United States to the establishment of a digital scientific library in Brazil, which is now a beacon for the whole of Latin America. UNCTAD believes that developing-country governments should make more use of this form of distributing information, encourage educational institutions to provide education online and support libraries financially so that they can computerize their publications and enable the entire world to benefit.
On the down side, the same inequalities to be found in the publishing world between developed and developing countries are reflected in online publishing. Then there are technical and practical obstacles, such as the paucity and high cost of Internet connections and the lack of training among potential users.
Since the new technology allows virtually anything to be copied to perfection, copyright is threatened by digital piracy. Such piracy is becoming exorbitantly expensive, both for the developed countries that produce most inTlectual property and for developing countries as well. Commercial losses in the United States in 2001 due to book piracy are estimated by the International InTlectual Property Alliance (IIPA) at over $650 million. Profits from the "informal" book industry in Peru are higher than those from publishing.
The international agreements governing inTlectual property rights were extended in 1995 and 1996 to encompass digital technology. In order to comply with them, developing countries have to pass legislation and find the means to enforce it. But they have a lot to gain from the process, as developing and protecting their creations is very much in their interest. Thanks to copyright, publishing in the United States was a $4 billion industry in 2001. In Brazil, one of the world´s largest markets for inTlectual property, 70% of pirated music is locally produced - representing a loss of over $300 million in 2001, according to the IIPA. The country passed suitable legislation that same year.
Copyright issues aside, online publishing could become a formidable vehicle for development, not just allowing businesses to stake out positions in markets formerly closed to them but also providing wider access to information, especially for academia and research, while at the same time promoting the country. Now all that remains is to make the political decision makers aware of what is at stake.