Sep 242012
 
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The Guardian is looking for ingenious ways to support its journalism, in a world where “freeconomics” are driving traditional publishers absolutely spare.  And I can fully understand and appreciate the quandary – even as I do not entirely agree with the tools this newspaper has used.

The latest suggestion to come out of the Guardian‘s marketing department was something I suggested years ago on my now dormant publishing blog, Zebra Red.  You can find two of the pieces in question here and here.  In essence, we could argue that the content producers have lost out to the distributors – those who make the money these days, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sell access to generally free content which newspapers, writers, film-makers and musicians various are finding it incredibly difficult to live off.

The solution then?  Cream off some of the money which the ISPs currently keep for their lonesomes – and redistribute it through some ingeniously automated system in terms, presumably, of usage and page impressions.

This is Mr Greenslade blogging on the suggestion this morning:

Has David Leigh cracked it? We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net (see here and here and here). One obvious model is the funding of the BBC through its licence fee.

Objectors to such an idea – including current commercial proprietors – have argued, unsurprisingly, on press freedom lines. Any connection to the state is to be avoided.

But Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, has come up with a very clever quasi alternative: charge a levy of, say, £2 a month on the bills of subscribers to UK broadband providers. Then distribute the money to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership.

You can see his reasoning and consider his sums in his article today – in print, page 32, or online here.

Now I can fully appreciate that content producers which add considerable value to society – whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum – may feel rather abused by the cut latterday distributors are taking from the equation.  In many cases, I can imagine it’s not even the forty percent of traditional book publishing but, rather, closer to a destructive hundred percent of all incomes generated.

So I’m sympathetic to the suggestion, especially as I am myself struggling to make a professional living out of my writing.  But I would ask four questions of those who would jump on the bandwagon – just in case they’re able to think twice before doing so:

  1. If the principle of levies on what are essentially 21st century utilities is to spread to other areas, who’s to say Jeremy Hunt won’t one day argue we need to bill our electricity users to keep the recently privatised NHS lights burning?  This levy, after all, proposes to charge a public like myself in order to support private industries which may very well choose not to publish or disseminate my political views in the least.  Why, under any constitutional arrangement, should I be obliged to pay for opinions and news-gathering positions I do not want to see spread around, when I use something like the Internet: as ubiquitous and essential a utility for the functioning of a 21st century state as water, gas and other basic services before it?
  2. If we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband, and this does help to landgrab more of our evermore limited discretional spending for private journalism (whether we care to read papers or not), and – in the end – this succeeds in rebuilding a battered industry so that traditional newspaper journalism enters a brave new online world with its head held finally and remarkably high (on, it has to be said, the backs of the workers), who is to guarantee that they won’t recreate themselves as wasteful, expansionary and world-dominating media empires?  For if working people’s cash is going to be recycled into corporate pockets without democratic oversight, I really don’t see the difference here between the Guardian‘s suggestion for publishing – and what Lansley first, and Hunt now, have been doing over at the NHS.
  3. Penultimately, why does the Guardian suggest an extra levy on top of existing broadband prices?  Why doesn’t it fight bravely – Robin-Hoodedly even – to extricate some of the cash already swilling around ISPs as the grand evil distributors of our time?  Is it that the paper and its executives have calculated it’s safer to antagonise its readers for a bit than fight the technology corporations tooth and nail for a piece of the existing action?
  4. Finally, if we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband access so that private industries can continue to push the sometimes marvellous, occasionally twisted, content they produce, wouldn’t in some subtle and inconvenient way the content thus produced begin to belong to us?  That is to say, to be reused and appropriated at will perhaps?  Now who’d really like to provoke – and then sort out – a copyright mess like that?

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Apr 182012
 
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A tweet which this morning was directed at my innermost open-source leanings led me to wonder if Wikipedia has a symbiotic or parasitical relationship with knowledge.  The tweet went thus:

@eiohel like the wonderful open source voluntarism-driven marvel that is Wikipedia. It’s foundation is well-funded publications 4 citation

I answered with a perhaps too flippant reply that just as many journalists working for paid publications would be taking advantage of Wikipedia’s millions of pages as any of the alleged “free-loaders” out there.  I say flippant because this of course wouldn’t necessarily make the situation any better: quite the reverse in fact, as paid-for organisations could arguably free-load on the back of other paid-fors via the intermediary actions and paraphrasing skills of Wikipedia itself.

It also led me, however, to tweet back the following resulting thought (the bold is mine):

@Paul0Evans1 We could of course equally say the same of blogging since the beginning of time … symbiotic rather than parasitic?

Which leads to me to my final occurrence and the very point of this post: does blogging – has blogging ever – added real value to anything at all?  Dependent as it is on much of paid-for media’s output to spark off its over-the-garden-fence discourses, it would probably not exist if there weren’t a close interface between the blogosphere and MSM.  Yet surely even those most in favour of traditional copyright models could not argue that the blogosphere taken in its entirety had not added anything useful to the sum of human thought.

Or, in their irascible and fanatical mindsets, might they be tempted to assert that it manifestly hadn’t?

My opinion is, of course, quite different.  I believe we need deniable outriders in thought – just as much as we need them in politics.  They are the proving-ground of new and bright ideas – and such ideas need the freedoms of open and unrestricted places if the future is to be dealt with under any kind of intelligence at all.  The shutdowns of traditional copyright models probably do have their place in some form: but blogging, and the kind of open access to general knowledge which Wikipedia and social media in general tend to provide, are a necessary adjunct to the intellectually sustainable – and directly fundable – stuff traditional copyright seems to want to continue inscribing.

In any case, there have been notable calls recently for open access to publicly-funded research: if the debate is now getting as far ahead as the cutting-edge of such research, surely that cutting-edge shouldn’t any longer be causing us to bleed?


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Apr 162012
 
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Sergey Brin, of Google fame, argues the following:

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

There are other things in this interview which I do agree wholeheartedly with.  This for example:

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet […].

To that list, in fact, we might care one day to add the UK.

Especially in the light of other news from yesterday which indicates that the Russians may be planning to embrace similar controls on their Internet in the future.

But when Brin talks about the carve-up of the free and open Internet, I am inclined to want to take the position that Google itself is not entirely without blame.  Brin is clear that some of the forces ranged against his – and our – baby include the following:

[…] the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Whilst I agree that the entertainment industry wishes to have its cake and eat it – for I might argue that if an existing structure isn’t appropriate for your distribution needs, why take the decision to distribute on it in the first place? – the walled gardens of Facebook in particular are surely a reaction to Google’s monopolistic dominance of the aforementioned freedoms it avows it is in favour of.  As I wrote some time ago on the subject of pernicious paywalls, the worldwide web in its native form is a truly beautiful thing:

To date, the Internet can be characterised and defined by two things: firstly, it has been more a space of discourse, more a flat hierarchy of multiple communication impulses, than a controlled business channel of traditional producer-consumer relationships.  Anatomically speaking, more like a global brain with its extensive network of redundant neurones sparking off each other than an intestinal system which helps process a beginning, a middle and an end.

Secondly, its fundamental tool – the hyperlink – has changed how we read information quite profoundly: the promiscuity of search has taken over from the power of a previously framed narrative.  Through that promiscuity, we look for answers to questions which tumble out of thoughts we must – over and over again – addictively pursue.  Neither is that beginning, middle and end predestined any longer – nor, often, repeatable.  The uniqueness of the narrative experience that each user of hyperlinks brings to the often very private storytelling they engage in as they surf the Web keeps millions of people obsessively tied to their PCs at the end of a multitude of long working days.

These two defining concepts – space and linkage – are what have made the Internet the force that it is today.  And for the vast majority of publishers who currently connect to the Web, this Internet is exactly the Internet they need.  They’re not looking for a mass-market reach to publish their content; instead, they have friends, colleagues and interest groups who actually choose to read what they are publishing, and do so night after night without prompting – quite without the seduction of competitions, bingo, free CDs or tickets to the cinema.

Google, however, has built an advertising empire on a set of hidden search algorithms which it allows to be massaged quite blatantly.  From sponsored ads which sit at the very top of its search results to websites and their URLs which creep up the rankings via carefully lodged supporting links from key sites across the web, the industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) is to Google what, in its heyday, the concept of third-party ecosystem was to Microsoft.  It sells the basic idea and principle to eager paying customers; it supports the legitimacy of the search model in question; and, finally, it helps keep other players firmly out of the market – essentially in order that Google, quite paradoxically, might convince a whole planet that when it monopolises the open Internet it is actually making all of us as free as could be.

No mention, for example, of all the data it has collected on us in order that its model of a “free” Internet might be better monetised on behalf of its shareholders.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I like Apple’s business model either.  Nor is Facebook quite what I thought it might be even a couple of years ago.  But I do get the impression that whilst Google’s landgrab did take place on a relatively open Internet, its ways and methods since then have only served to create a simulacrum of openness – a simulacrum where in reality those in power can move their favourite souls up and down the popularity stakes almost at will.

That original dream of Google’s, to make useful information available to anyone, has been gamed, distorted and messed around with – even, I might suggest, and quite arguably, by the company itself.

On such an open Internet, who wouldn’t want to create parallel universes?

Facebook and Apple aren’t the reason we’ve lost that dream.

Facebook and Apple are simply the symptom of Google’s greed.


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Jun 062011
 
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Aiming to add value by repackaging products and services is a dangerous game.  It can even lead you to the unconscionable crimes of plagiarism – crimes which no one is ever happy to commit, even when by accident (and the Lord only knows, in our multidimensional and hyperlinked worlds, how these are accidents just waiting to happen).

Some recent examples I think would be useful now.  Firstly, Fifa’s latest wheeze: employing “politicians, celebrities and former footballers” to clean up the mess that currently reigns (at which point I am minded to remember MPs’ expenses, irrelevant buckets of tittle-tattle galore and superinjunctions not a million miles away from the British Isles).  I’ve already discussed how salespeople and environments can prejudice bodies such as world football’s highest.  This is just another example of how those predisposed to melodramatic gestures run their businesses on the basis of inflating expectations, in the hope that future promises become concrete through the sleight-of-hand of marketing spiels.  As the Guardian report in question points out:

Fifa’s sponsors may have brought about the corporate governance rerforms. Adidas, which lavishes more than $40m a year on Fifa as its sportswear partner, was the first to speak out last week. Later Coca-Cola, Emirates and Visa also expressed their dismay.

“You live by the sword, you die by the sword” is the phrase that comes to my mind.

Meanwhile, another example of how the desire to make money out of repackaging what already exists can lead to unfortunate results has just reared its ugliest of heads once again:

A new private university college founded by the philosopher AC Grayling and staffed by celebrity professors will teach exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London, which charges half the price, it has emerged.

Students of the New College of the Humanities will pay £18,000 a year to take courses in history, English literature and philosophy that are already on offer at Birkbeck, Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway for £9,000 or less.

Academics complained that syllabuses listed on the New College website appeared to have been copied from the University of London’s own web pages in a move some said amounted to plagiarism.

And I can see quite plainly what is operating here.

And it’s not a million miles away from Fifa.

I was once contracted to give ESL classes in a private university someone who claimed to be my friend set up with a group of individuals I later refused to touch with a bargepole.  This business proposition had little to do with wanting to educate people – rather, what fascinated the group of businesspeople I mention was the following very simple idea: heavy start-up costs in the first year, double the number of students for the same infrastructure in the second, captive markets in the third, exponential growth in the fourth – the sky, indeed, would then be the limit they promised to anyone who cared to listen.

It seems to me that the New College of Humility (not) is making the same foolish assumptions.  And committing the same mistakes I describe above.

Incidentally, the private university I worked at for a while eventually closed down under the weight of its own contradictions.  As this tweet pointed out yesterday:

A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students :).

Repackaging is all well and good – but when it leads to plagiarism (and, as I have already pointed out, this now so easily takes place) it is hubris clearly squared. 

A final thought – and we come back to Internet freedoms.  Charlie Booker has a piece going the rounds at the moment, also on the Guardian, which seems to berate us for not wanting to pay for anything we stumble across through our PCs.  Thus he argues:

Anyhow. I’m not claiming five quid a month is insignificant: it’s more than many can afford. But in this case it’s bloody cheap for what it gets you. The problem for Spotify is that no one wants to pay for anything they access via a computer – and when they do, there’s a permanent level of resentment bubbling just under the surface. Hence the anger about “only” getting 10 hours of free music.

Look at the App Store. Read the reviews of novelty games costing 59p. Lots of slaggings – which is fair enough when you’re actively warning other users not to bother shelling out for something substandard. But they often don’t stop there. In some cases, people insist the developers should be jailed for fraud, just because there weren’t enough levels for their liking. I once read an absolutely scathing one-star review in which the author bitterly complained that a game had only kept them entertained for four hours.

FOUR HOURS? FOR 59P? AND YOU’RE ANGRY ENOUGH TO WRITE AN ESSAY ABOUT IT? ON YOUR EXPENSIVE IPHONE? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?

And so we see, as is often the case, that a commenter provides a far more succinct explanation than the original post of why Internet monetisation is fraught with so many pitfalls:

 @muggwhump Actually the internet already sits behind a paywall, it’s called your ISP.

It’s not that we’re not prepared to pay for anything on the Internet, Charlie.  It’s that we’re not prepared to pay any more.

As I pointed out a while ago at a different place:

Distribution was always the key to making money in publishing – always will be. In a world where the content is neither printed nor physically moved from one place to another but replicates itself as if by magic through downloads that allow access from virtually anywhere to virtually anywhere, there will always be money to be made somewhere along the process. It just so happens that this place will shift from time to time, as technology evolves, as consumer habits change, as the hierarchy between consumers and producers modulates. Amazon’s Kindle shows us that the wonder of sitting in a neighbourhood coffee bar and downloading – on impulse – a book you’d really love to get your hands on actually works. Translate this opportunistic way of purchasing content to the field of newspapers and I’m sure we’d see an about-face in the world of journalism.

I’m paying not for the content itself but for the communication channel that allows me to access it. That’s the mad thing about this. We perceive an added value we are prepared to pay for in a multi-product provider like Sky or the phone operators; an added value we no longer perceive in the content itself that they piggyback off. I’m happily paying £20 a month for 600 minutes and free Internet on my mobile. I know plenty of people who pay £40 or more for their cable and satellite television.

These days we’re absolutely used to paying for the access; we’re not looking any more to pay for the films or articles themselves.

So it all depends on how you bill it. Bill your online subscription to all the major newspapers as part of your Internet deal and no one will notice the difference. The papers will then have a business to business relationship with their distributors. Direct customers will be kept at an arm’s length.

It has to be in the interest of the service providers to keep the content providers on their feet – without decent content, people will simply move on to other, greener, pastures.

If people get greedy, if the distributors insist on taking a greater percentage of the (now available) cake than is their due, which is what is happening at the moment (all that money flooding into the coffers of the ISPs, all that money flooding out of the war chests of the big newspaper and magazine publishers), the authors and editors will simply disappear.

This relationship, often hard-nosed and bordering on the pig-headed, has been true of publishing throughout its history.

It’s not going to change now, not even in a digital world.

Digital worlds, for all their differences, are still analogous worlds – even where they are not analogical.

In conclusion, then: those of you who wish to add a potentially spurious value through a simple repackaging of existing tools, services and products should be very careful of savvy producer-consumers who know the true cost of all things these days.


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Aug 242010
 
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There’s a fascinating retweet from Paul Evans here:

Paul0Evans1RT @AlbertoNardelli: RT @tweetminster: “Did Weak Copyright Laws Help Germany Outpace The British Empire?” http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/08/copyright-germany-britain/ <- interesting POV.

The Wired article in question is well worth reading.  I suppose my only comment would be that I would far rather that something along the lines of “environment conducive to invention and innovation” be used to describe the thesis instead of the culturally loaded and corporately brainwashed “weak copyright laws”.

Copyright is not a question of weakness or strength but adequacy to its function and place in the chain of thought processes that make up and foment a technological civilisation.  Meanwhile, and quite incidentally, it does also occur to me that if Germany outpaced the British Empire because its population was flooded with intelligent thought, what better argument do we need to combat the insidious growth of paywalls than this?  Over the past decade, we have fashioned and acquired a porous and osmotic web of communication and social intercourse.  We deserve no less than this for the next ten years.

One simple exhortation only before I finish this post: please, please, please let us not couch the debate in terms of a greater or lesser exertion of power.  Big copyright owners would have you believe theirs are inalienable rights which require the weight of heavy fines and prison sentences to back up such inalienability. But this is simply not so.  Inalienable rights are things like roofs over people’s heads, water, a job, education and access to healthcare.

Most certainly, however, there is nothing inalienable about the act of taking public domain stories such as “A Christmas Carol”, “Snow White” or “Beauty and the Beast”, making millions of dollars out of their retelling and then refusing to return content to and re-enrich in turn the common store of human thought that is the glory of this domain.

If I have already criticised latterday capitalism for its inefficiency in administering and circulating wealth around a shared economy by sanctioning a concentration of such wealth to the clear detriment of its maximisation, it is equally true that the fundamental legacy industrial art such as cinema, TV and popular music has had on the 21st century is the massively gaping 20th century hole in shareable and retellable art that should now be in our hands but is not.

Just think about it.  Charles Dickens, an original artist if there ever was one, has had his work retold and republished more times than anyone alive has had hot dinners.  Yet when was the last time you saw a re-interpretation of Mickey Mouse that didn’t include either a payment of cash cow rights or – more likely – a lawyer’s injunction?

Just think about it and ask yourself: where is the natural justice in that?


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