Free Culture

Suw Charman has written a long and informative post about the explosion of innovative ways that people have found to spread the message of Lawrence Lessig‘s Free Culture, making use of the Creative Commons some rights reserved licence.

The article quotes Lessig

“Economists, of course, will tell you that this is the efficient way to sell, to make the content available, because where a marginal cost is zero the price is zero, where the marginal cost is positive you should charge a positive price.”

and describes how the new models of information-sharing, constrained to non-commercial use in this case by the Creative Commons licence, drive a word-of-mouth market for the (paid-for) physical product that is probably far in excess of that which would otherwise exist.

Suw, a professional writer, goes on to describe her frustrating experience of trying to discuss the issues raised by Lessig’s book on screenwriters’ home – a general lack of interest broken only by intractable opposition.

It’s at this point that I have to admit to a lingering element of confusion in my mind about Lessig’s message. I find the ideas of the Creative Commons intellectually interesting at a personal level, but in my professional life at the overlap of media and technology I am involved in a world where we take the concepts of (the value of) intellectual property and licenses very seriously indeed.

As yet I have not been able to draw a scenario for deploying the CC approach in that world that convinces me, let alone others. My hunch (and it would take more economics knowledge than I possess to develop this argument) is that a key difference between the areas where CC is taking off and those where it has yet to make it’s mark relates to the relationships between:

  • cost of original production of “the work” and cost of distributed product;

  • the differences in value between different formats or versions of the distributed product;

  • the possible value to the originator of “word of mouth”;

  • perceived control of the means of distribution

In the arena where most attention seems to have been paid to CC, let’s say the general case of the written word, as in the Lessig example, the cost of production of “the work” is moderate as is the cost of distributing the “paid for” article. (i.e. a physical book). However the paid-for article has (in most people’s eyes) a value somewhat above the free version (e.g. a PDF). The value to the originator of “word-of-mouth” is two-fold as it potentially drives both direct reward (greater sales of the book) and indirect reward (higher profile and professional esteem potentially leading to more interesting and/or financially rewarding work).

More extreme still are the current rifts in academic publishing, where the reward to the originator is almost entirely indirect through advanced professional standing (and thus advanced by the widest possible dissemination of ideas) and is in almost direct conflict with the interests of the journal publishers.

By contrast, consider movies or high-end TV. In this case the cost of original production and distribution are very high, yet to the end-user the value of a cheaply copied DVD is almost as high as the “authentic” product. Combine this mismatch with a selection of commercial models that are almost entirely built around controlling access to the product (e.g. pay-per-view, selecting what is on a specific channel, advertising interspersed with the content etc.) and it is little surprise that most media companies take a similar view to the RIAA.

What might change this? The key commercial factors are probably:

  • increased viewer choice due to massively increased numbers of ways of accessing content;

  • leading to reduced audiences for each item; and

  • decreased relevance of the “channel brand”

  • together (perhaps) with sociological changes leading to increased consumer resistance to direct advertising models

all of which directly attack the revenue models of commercial broadcasters and film distributors.

What steps might they take?

One obvious answer is the approach some of them are taking – “writs at dawn” for anything or anyone who they perceive as threatening their business. For a while that will work but I suggest that in the limit it is a zero sum game – as more and more choices appear for accessing content then fewer and fewer people will be prepared to pay the prices asked for material that is less and less imaginative and entertaining.

Perhaps though the more imaginative might begin to think generatively and realise that in a world of choice where you are competing for attention then it helps to focus on creativity and originality – making sure that you have informative, imaginative and entertaining content on offer, lots of ways for people to “spread the word” and lots of ways for people to get to you. Once you’ve got people’s attention then you are halfway towards finding a way to generate money to sustain the process…

And this I think is where the commercial logic of the media business might actually join up with the aspirations of Creative Commmons.

Lots more to be worked out, not least how a viable business model is created with proper protections, and I haven’t even begun to touch on the debate about the role of publically-funded high quality content in the digital world.

If you’re an economist and can help turn this into a tighter argument please stop by and leave a comment!

Standard disclaimer: my opinion, no-one else’s. YMMV.

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change