“Legacy”: the use and abuse of a term

The word “legacy” crops up a lot in discussions about innovation in cyberspace, so it was good to find thoughtful essay about it by Stephen Page, current CEO of Faber & Faber, the eminent publishing house of which TS Eliot was famously a Director.

In any revolution, language matters. One powerful word in the digital revolution is “legacy”. There is a conscious attempt to employ the word pejoratively, to suggest that existing media businesses – publishers, in the case of books – are going to fail to make the leap to a new world.In common usage, the first meaning of legacy is an inheritance, or something handed down from the past. A second meaning, more specific and recent, denotes technological obsolescence, or dramatic business-model shift. These two meanings have been fused to imply inevitable irrelevance for those with history, especially in media. This is a sleight of hand that would be sloppy if it wasn’t so considered.

Let’s deal with technological obsolescence. Media businesses are not technology businesses, but they can be particularly affected by technology shifts. I run a so-called legacy publishing house, Faber & Faber. Most of our business is based on licensing copyrights from writers and pursuing every avenue to find readers and create value for those writers. We are agnostic about how we do this. For our first 80 years, we could only do it through print formats (books); now we can do it through books, ebooks, online learning (through our Academy courses), digital publishing (such as the Waste Land app) and the web. Technology shifts have tended to result in greater opportunity, not less.

Implicit, I suppose, in the pejorative use of the term legacy is that we at Faber, like other publishers, don’t get it – “it” being the new economy, the new rules. There is something in this, of course. It’s harder to transform an existing business into one with a new culture and cost structure than to start afresh. Any existing business, no matter what old-world strength it has, will fail if it is not bold enough to attack its own DNA where necessary. The ailing photography firm Eastman Kodak is widely cited as a recent example of this phenomenon. But this is business failure due to cultural stasis. There is nothing inevitable in failure for existing businesses, but they have particular issues to figure out: simply adhering to old business practices will lead to failure. Failure will not be because of technology, but through failure to react to technology. In fact, it could be regarded as squandering the opportunity of a beneficial legacy.

He’s right about the two meanings. A legacy can be a source of mindless complacency — the kind of mindset one finds in the trust-fund Sloanes who hang out in Belgravia and Chelsea. But it can also be a source of strength — as in the case of Faber, who seem to me to be approaching the challenges of digital technology with imagination and vision. For example, the wonderful Waste Land App produced by my friend Max Whitby and his colleagues at TouchPress required access to the Eliot papers and rights held by Faber. So they used their ‘legacy’ to add value to a digital product in a distinctive and valuable way.

But others legatees in the publishing (and other content industries) have viewed their inheritances in different and less imaginative ways. Think, for example, of the way Stephen Joyce has relentlessly used his control of the Joyce estate to prevent imaginative uses of his grandfather’s works. (Mercifully, Ulysses is now finally out of copyright and therefore beyond Stephen’s baleful reach, which is what has enabled TouchPress to embark on an imaginative App based around a new translation that will come out later this year.). Or of the way some legatees have viewed their inheritances as guarantees that the digital revolution will never threaten their hold on a market.

Still, Mr Page is right: “legacy” is too often used as a term of patronising abuse by tech evangelists who think that they have “the future in their bones” (as C.P. Snow put it in his famous Rede Lecture all those years ago.)