Designing an affordable content ecosystem

Peter Jones

Jaron Lanier speaks up in the (now free Opinion section of the) NY Times about the problematic evolution of free content on the Web. Ten years ago, we all envisioned a brave new world that would open up opportunities for creative people to originate and innovate their work for a fair price. I thought this would happen as well – but the Web has devolved into a consumerist ecosystem paid for by infinite advertising. Jaron asks: “what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated?” The guts of the piece follows:

There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated.

How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results.

To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.

We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.

The current and ongoing media writer’s strike has some roots in the same fundamental problem. As media companies move content to the web, and have show snippets moved to YouTube for them, the authors behind the newly mobile content are left out of all negotiations. Whatever content owners can derive from writer’s works they retain, and author rights have not been extended to the repurposed content. While DRM schemes are a heavy-handed control mechanism, they have been designed with “owners” in mind, not originators or inventors. Authors and musicians are largely left out of the deals, and have less motive, not more, to spend their time participating for free. Producing that content takes time and production skill, but also the intangible wonder of talent and inspiration. A libertarian web culture of “information wants to be free – of charge” will be hard to roll back.