The Content Wars
An author creates a work, a book perhaps, or a movie or recorded music. The point at which the author grants access to the work and how the author grants access to the work is a critical juncture in the life of content. And how content is created and distributed is changing rapidly. We have said that before, indeed have said that with each revolution in communications. The telegraph was the wonder of its day and radio exploded. Television and cable grew into the dominant media of the late 20th century. Now the emergence of the Internet and a broadband infrastructure have radically decentralized the opportunities to create and distribute content.
This change in distribution technology has powerful consequences for the transition point between private content and taking the content public (publication in a word). For most of the history of content, built-in technological limitations of the media of distribution meant that publication brought with it certain control over content. For a consumer, books, movies and recorded music were hard to copy and even harder to distribute in large numbers. The Internet has changed this. To possess a copy of a work is to have the power of distribution in your hands. For a creator, to sell a single copy of a work is to sell the practical ability to distribute content for free. Sold once, free everywhere.
We pay for content directly—cash forked over for a copy of a book—or by watching commercials (television) or at least accepting the risk of being exposed to the ads. Some content is supported by a mix of payments and ads (newspapers, magazines, cable TV). If content will be available for free everywhere, we are running an honor system for content. Pay if you want to or if you feel the need. The same show or song is available for a fee on DVD or a CD or as a pay download from iTunes and is simultaneously available for free on a peer-to-peer system. Click on iTunes and pay, click on the current hot p2p system and get the content for free. The wonder is that anyone pays at all.
If we really live in a world in which only a single copy can be sold and then it will be free everywhere, we will need to abandon sales of content. We will be relegated to a world of free, advertising-supported content. For ad-supported content, we don’t need to figure out a way to get consumers to hand over cash for a copy of the content. Ad-supported content carries with it its own payment and sharing the content on p2p systems doesn’t change that. Advertising-supported content may be given away for free—sheet music years ago and broadcast TV and radio today—and that reduces the need to control what happens to copies. Making another copy just spreads the advertising to another potential buyer (though the history of cable TV shows that this is much more complicated). So if sold once, free everywhere means that no one will pay for content, we will need to add advertising to that content.
But that will change content itself, plus it isn’t so easy to guarantee that the ads actually stay with the content. Take those points one by one. Ad-supported content is sold, but the purchasers aren’t the users, the purchasers are the advertisers. Content that the advertisers don’t like—often controversial, edgy content—won’t get purchased. Advertisers also don’t care about reaching all consumers; they only want to reach the consumers who can afford to plunk down money for their products. The content that they will pay for will be tailored to the demographics that the advertisers want to reach.
The sold copy has represented a simple way of organizing consumers to pay for content. When consumers pay for content, they are the patrons served by content producers. If consumers don’t pay for content, the advertisers are the patrons and it is their interests that will be served. Sold once, free everywhere is a world in which volunteers pay for content and we may find it quite difficult to organize users to pay for content. Organize is the operative word. The copy, sold and paid for, has served as that organizing device, but in a world of instantaneous free distribution, consumers/users will lose voice, as a group, and advertisers will be heard instead.
Assuming of course, that their messages are heard at all. Advertising-supported content depends on exposing enough consumers to the ads so that the advertisers remain willing to pay to reach those consumers. They can’t actually make us watch the ads, of course, but they can hope to seduce us into paying attention. But with copying technologies that make it possible for consumers to unbundle advertising and content, we have a problem. We will all just watch the show but not watch the ads—TiVo and fast-forward—and the number of viewers exposed to the ads will drop. If no one watches the ads, how will we pay for television? We all want the other guy to watch the ads, but we don’t want to watch ourselves.
These powerful abilities to manipulate content—to copy it and distribute it and to copy it and unbundle the ads from the content—put at risk the ways in which we pay for content. Free or fee: you decide. Pay it you want to. Faced with these powerful technologies, content makers have understandably looked to technology for help. They hope that technology will help them control copying or how content is used. They hope that this control will vindicate the exclusive right of a copyright holder over copies. But many fear that when content producers can reach into your house and control how many times you play a song or whether you can fast-forward over commercials, we will have shifted control over content in a dramatic way.
The emergence of the Internet has created enormous opportunities—and posed particular challenges—for content and content rules. By content rules, I mean the rules that we use to regulate how content is created and distributed. These rules are a mix of copyright and communications policy, with antitrust and constitutional law thrown in for good measure. This clash of law and technology gives us the content wars.