Genie, Bottle, Out

Jaron Lanier writes an op-ed in the New York Times disavowing his “Piracy is Your Friend” days, and announces that he now believes content creators should be paid for their work.

Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry — Google, Facebook, MySpace and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft — are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users.

Oddly, Lanier believes that the solution lies with “software engineers and Internet evangelists [who] need to exercise the power they hold as designers.” He goes on to note that people are quite willing to pay for virtual goods online in Second Life, as well as music “within the ecosystem of the iPod.” Although many would like to believe that “We could design information systems so that people can pay for content” and voila, people would, it’s hard to see that actually happening. People can also drive 55mph, exercise regularly, and floss between their teeth, but that doesn’t mean they do. The problem is the abundance and digital nature of content. No popular movement will ever result in paid content, only a change in the underlying economics can do that. As for Second Life and the iPod, there have always been people willing to pay for games, and the iPod became so popular because it provided a portable platform for everyone’s pirated music. iTunes wasn’t even launched until two years after the iPod came out.

When it comes to free content, the genie is out of the bottle, although it’s not clear that the bottle was ever strong enough for the genie. Content aggregators and content consumers delight in criticising the creators (aka MSM) for not understanding the new world, but none of them have exactly stepped up to show everyone how it’s done; how to produce high quality, original content in exchange for online advertising revenue. Until someone does, it seems that the fate of the internet as a vehicle for communicating information is dependent on the success of those creaky old mainstream media companies in finding a solution.

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