Owning Bits

  • It is difficult, and likely impossible to technologically restrict the duplication and redistribution of digital resources. In other-words, digitally accessible resources will never be scarce.
  • Creators of content (music, literature, software) should be reimbursed for their work, and there should be business models that support these kinds of pursuits. In other words people should be compensated for the creation of content in a viable and sustainable manner.
  • Information probably does want to be free. Creators of information, should want their information to be "free" because the information that has the most power and influence is that which is most accessible.
  • The conveyance of physical objects (books, etc.) is a source of concrete value. Physicality is not the only basis for economic exchange, of course, but it's a good place to start.

Questions and Answers:

  • What is the "content problem?"

    I suppose the core of the problem with content these days is that we don't have a good set of business models that can support the creation of new content in an ongoing sort of way. The industry around content is unstable and in flux: newspapers are hemorrhaging money and it doesn't seem likely that they're going to be able to do anything other than (maybe) prolonging the amount of time between now and when they collapse. Some paper companies might surrivive, but the consolidation and "flufification" of a great many newspapers, doesn't seem to have a great deal of long term potential.

    Same thing with the book publishers. There are some that seem to be doing interesting things. Tor.com seems to be a good example of a step in the right direction. And maybe there will be an ebook platform that makes sense, or maybe we'll see some sort of revival in niche-booksellers that will revive an interest in book collection.

    But the bottom line seems to be that we need to find some better way to support the creation of content. Because what we have now doesn't seem to fit the bill. And whats on the horizon, doesn't seem to be much better.

  • Isn't content a horrible word for this?

    I confess that the word "content" makes me a bit sick from time to time. Not only is it awkward to lump the concerns of musicians, academics, writers, journalists, and perhaps even software developers all in one label. I'm not even sure if the concerns of content producers as a whole, if we can address these folks as a group, are particularly aligned.

    Some academics use the term "knowledge production," to refer to the core output of their work, and I'm using content in a similarly broad context. Writing/Literature/Music, "Art," and even thought this might be a tad bit unconventional I think there's not much that separates the consumption of software and the consumption of essays (for example.)

    There are also a number of different dimensions upon which we can think about content and the future of content: the experience of consumption; the process of generation; and the business models which support the creation and consumption of content.

  • Owning Bits? What do you mean?

    I said, a few weeks ago of the whole DRM issue, that I thought "we needed to get away from the whole 'owning bits' metaphor for content distribution." The whole DRM thing that so many of us find so onerous would be mostly become a non issue if we dropped the pretense that when you download a song or a book or a movie that you're "buying them." If you're just watching the bits for a while, who cares what the digital restrictions are? If prices are reasonable for content, who cares if you can only "have" a half dozen books at once? I think it would all work out. But maybe that's just me.

    The questions that result, however are much more interesting: What does it mean, socially and politically, if we don't own information? What is reasonable and sustainable pricing? What kinds of distribution schemes make sense?

  • Besides the general "fear of copying" that has heretofore plagued the content industry, what new technological challenges might the content industry face in the mid-to-short term future?

    One of the major issues that I think we're going to have to deal with is the fact that digital information systems are too mutable.

    While this flexibility gives us lots of very powerful information resources, like Wikipedia and the ability to correct flaws in digital versions, it also means that Amazon can remove books from the Kindle at will. Furthermore, it means that creators and publishers can (attempt) to "take back" content if they have second thoughts about it. The mutability issue is obviously a mixed bag, but I think the most useful information and the most free information will have some sort of versioning information.

  • What are the business models that will support content in the in the future?

    The one downfall of Project Xanadu is that it pushed forward an idea of "micropayments," and the idea if we charge a la carte for content and have the per unit cost for content low enough that somehow it'll all work out. The problem with this, however, is that the psychological border between "free" and "not-free" is much larger than the border between "a few cents" and "a few dollars." The end result: micropayments keep failing.

    It's a shame that this idea was the most successful idea to proliferate from Xanadu.

    My current bet is that some sort of subscription model is likely to win out. Pay a few dollars a month, and get access to some reasonable quantity of content. Have different levels of subscription to meet different needs and demands, and I think there's potential there.

    The other prevailing model is the "rockstar" model, where the content creator goes on a tour and uses honoraria and merchandise sales to offset the cost of content creation. We see this both for authors who tour to support books as well as the musicians for whom I've named the model. It works, it focuses the transaction of physical objects.

  • You seem to like subscription models. What are the implications of a shift toward subscription models in terms of the way people relate to the information (music, writing, etc.) that they consume?

    I'm not sure. I think creating a technological limitation which stores version information in some sort of immutable index. I don't think publishers will really go for this.

    I think subscription models may also revive (in part) the interest and power of the physical-object-market. In the way that Libraries don't cannibalize booksales (and may encourage and support the sale of real books,) I think digital content subscriptions could have the same effect on content.

As always I look forward to your thoughts and responses to these questions. See you in comments!

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