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Gunning for the Copyright Reformers

Going after copyright reformers is risky business. To digital zealots, defending copyright is like advocating the return to the typewriter. (I personally like typewriters; I own several and I recommend a wonderful 1997 Atlantic piece on them at Longform.org). Going after sworn copyright opponents is what Robert Levine does in his just-published  book Free Ride — How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back.

The pitch: Digital corporations are conspiring to promote the free ideology that has been plaguing the internet over the last decade. With their immense financial firepower, the Googles and the Apples and the Silicon Valley venture capital firms that funded Napster did whatever it took to undermine the concept of copyright. From lobbying the United States Congress to funding free-culture advocates, they created a groundswell for rip-and-burn products that would sell their MP3 devices. They got lawmakers and pundits to pave the way for a general ransacking of intellectual property — from music to journalistic content. Once Levine makes his point, he explores possible solutions to restore value to creativity (We’ll address these in a future column).

Needless to say, Robert Levine has produced a non-politically correct opus. And that’s what makes his book fascinating.

To start, the author reframes the famous quote, “Information wants to be free.” Free Ride recalls the complete sentence as far more nuanced. This is actually what tech writer Stewart Brand said at an 1984 a hacker conference:

“One one hand information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Few quotes in recent history have been more twisted and misinterpreted than this one. Everyone jumped on Stewart Brand’s distinction between collecting information and making it available to the audience. While the cost of the former remains high — at least for those producing original information, or content — the marginal cost of broadcasting it fell dramatically, and that is what sparked the idea of a zero-cost culture. Yet, “media products have never been priced according to their marginal cost,” Levine says, and therefore, free is an idea that’s hard to defend.

As described in Free Ride, US lawmakers played a critical role in opening the floodgates of piracy and copyright violation on the internet. On October 28, 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That law, says Levine, gave a “safe harbor” to internet service providers and some online companies. No longer liable for copyright infringement based on the actions of users,  Levine writes that the “safe harbor made it easier for sites like YouTube to become valuable forums for amateur creativity. But it also let them build big businesses out of professional content they didn’t pay for.” That, he says, is how Congress created YouTube. (Google purchased it in 2006 for $1.65 billon).

The book’s most spectacular deconstruction involves Lawrence Lessig. The Harvard law professor is one of the most outspoken opponents of tough copyright. For years, he’s been criss-crossing the world delivering well-crafted, compelling presentations about the need to overhaul copyright. When, in 2007, Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, seeking more than a billion dollars in damages, Lessig accused Viacom of trying to overturn the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was a de facto defense of Google by Lessig who at the time was head of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. What Lessig failed to disclose is that two weeks after closing the deal to acquire YouTube, Google made a $2-million donation to the Stanford Center, and a year later gave another $1.5 million to Creative Commons, Lessig’s most famous intellectual baby. To be fair, Levine told me he didn’t believe Lessig’s positions on copyright were influenced by the grants from Google. Moreover, Google set aside $100 million to fight the Viacom lawsuit. Numerous examples throughout Free Ride show how technology companies are committed to influence public policy. Ironically, Lawrence Lessig’s newest crusade at Harvard is about corruption in Washington.

Robert Levine’s book could be disputed on a few items.

- One, he’s too kind to the music industry. (His view may have been influenced by his tenure as executive editor of Billboard magazine where he witnessed first-hand the self-inflicted deterioration of the music industry.) The music business missed all the trains: (a) it defended the physical model up to the last minute even as its annihilation seemed unavoidable; (b) it extended as long as it could the double screwing of consumers and artists alike (sadly, poor analog artists have been replaced by poor digital ones).

- Two, he tends to forget the general complacency of content creators toward all forms of digital looting. I’ve often described in the Monday Note how publishers – blinded by the short-term appeal of the eyeball count – became consenting victims of all sorts of aggregators (see my Lenin’s Rope series).

- Three, the advent of free content has in fact unleashed talent. Unknown authors have been able to rise from obscurity thanks to direct access to the audience. And some have found alternative ways to make money (more on this in another future column).

Lastly, the unfolding of technology made the relaxing of copyright unavoidable. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act may have accelerated the transition but it didn’t cause the upheaval. Today, BitTorrent file transfer for music and movies accounts for about 10-12% of the internet bandwidth consumption, and YouTube accounts for 11%. Pirated content represents almost 100% of the former and about a third of the latter. Huge numbers, indeed, and huge losses for the music and movie industries. But Netflix with its legitimate content now accounts for 30% of the entire internet traffic (Hulu has less than 2%) and iTunes is growing faster than ever. And some economists do consider that giving up a large quantity of content for free is the price that must be paid to preserve a marketable share.

The music industry paid a terrible price during the digital transition, with a drop of 50% of its sales in one decade. But it would be unfair to make lenient lawmakers and internet pirates the main culprits. Unbundling played a critical role as well, just as in the newspaper industry. Being able to buy a single song on iTunes (instead of an album), or hoping that a single article on a web page will generate enough viewers to pay for itself (instead or purchasing an entire bundled newspaper) caused a great deal of damage.

As plagued as it is by piracy, the movie industry is immune to the notion of unbundling, which partly explains why box office revenue between 2006 and 2010 rose by 30% outside the United States and by 15% in the US/Canada market. Although the number of moviegoers is slipping, the industry has been able to find its way into the digital world.

Robert Levine’s book is a must-read that reframes the debate on the evolution of copyright. In an unusual way, it encompasses a European view on the issue (Levine lives part-time in Berlin). That makes the book even more interesting as countries explore ways for content creators to finance their work while not killing the formidable creative freedom unleashed by the digital world.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Free Ride, By Robert Levine is published by Bodley Head in the UK (available now on Amazon UK)and by Doubleday in the US (available oct 25 on Amazon US) and is also available the iTunes iBook Store.

Read, Share and Destroy

The social web’s economics are paradoxical: The more it blossoms, the more it destroys value. In recent months, we’ve seen a flurry of innovative tools for reading and sharing contents. Or, even better, for basing one’s readings on other people’s shared contents. In Web 2.5 parlance, this is called Social Reading. For this, the obvious vector of choice is the iPad: it possesses a (so far) unparalleled ability to transform online reading into a cozy lean-back experience.

A year after the iPad’s launch, the app store is filled with a swarm of forcefully competitive offerings. Like everyone else in the business, I stuffed my device with about ten (and counting) such apps, gathered in a “Daily Me” folder.

Last week, I dissected Flipboard, one my favorites because of its simplicity, neat look and speed. But I’m also enjoying News360, a Russian crawler that scans more 100,000 sources (“200,000 in the next few months…”). News 360 adds a semantic layer whose purported goal, in short, is to increase relevancy.  Zite carries spectacular personalization features as well as Cease and Desists Letters from publishers (see Zite Response here).
Taptu is a more recent one. It takes a further step in customization by using the most advanced graphical features found in iOS. Many of these mobile aggregators are available on Android as well.

All of theses apps start with the same raw material. They collect and rearrange RSS feeds, they crawl Twitter or Facebook streams.  Unfortunately, from a news publisher vantage point, all these aggregating apps kill value by removing ads from the articles they assemble for our reading pleasure. In order to fit their elegant and efficient layout, these apps remove “visual noise”, that is all these “annoying” ads.

The paradoxical beauty of today’s web contents is this: On the one hand, 95% of all revenues are still ad-related. On the other, that same content becomes easier to read it without commercial distractions. Publishers didn’t merely accept it, they encouraged it. I already mentioned the negative effect of generous RSS feeds on the business: see RSS Lenin’s Rope. At first, the hijacking of RSS feeds by a new breed of apps was seen as an unfortunate consequence of publishers’ naïveté. After all, when the RSS mechanism was invented more than ten years ago, the idea of repurposing it into a bespoke e-journal wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Now, the media industry faces a completely different picture. Publishers of expensive contents can’t even console themselves by fantasizing their promiscuous supply of RSS links will bring back traffic. RSS super-readers are mostly self-contained and do not send any traffic to anyone else. More

Flipboard: Threat and Opportunity

Every media company should be afraid of Flipboard. The Palo Alto startup epitomizes the best and the worst of the internet. The best is for the user. The worst is for the content providers that feed its stunning expansion without getting a dime in return. According to Kara Swisher ‘s AllThingsD, nine months after launching its first version, Flipboard’s new $50m financing round gives the company a €200m valuation.

Many newspapers or magazines carrying hundreds of journalists can’t get a €200m valuation today. Last year, for the Groupe Le Monde, an investment bank memo set a valuation of approximately $100m (net of its $86m debt at the time, to be precise). That was for a 644 journalists multimedia company – OK, one that had been badly managed for years. Still, Flipboard is a 32-people startup with a single product and no revenue yet.

So, what’s the fuss about?

The answer is a simple one: Flipboard is THE product any big media company or, better, any group of media companies should have invented. It’s an iPad application (soon to be supplemented by an iPhone version), it allows readers to aggregate any sources they want: social medias such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or any combination of RSS feeds. No need to remember the feed’s often-complicated URL, Flipboard searches it for you and puts the result in a neat eBook-like layout. A striking example: the Google Reader it connects you to suddenly morphs from its Icelandic look into a cozy and elegant set of pages that you actually flip. Flipboard most visible feature is an interface that transform this:

Into this:

All implemented with near perfection. No flickering, no hiccups when a page resizes or layouts adjust. More

RSS Lenin’s Rope

As I write this column, I wonder: Am I slipping into schizophrenia? My right brain is frying, overloaded by a never ending whirlwind of new digital tools, from hardware to internet applications. My left brain, which powers both my current daily job and this Monday Note, is cooler, skeptical. Both sides look on as the digital wave devastates professional journalism, shredding all value previously associated to it.

Take RSS feeds.

From a right brain perspective, RSS is an extraordinary invention. It provides all the ingredients of modern news consumption: unlimited choices, free access (including to otherwise paid-for sources), easy setup, inherently up-to-date, etc.

The first RSS iterations were rather crude. “Readers” (RSS client software) were spartan but extremely efficient. Now, we’re entering a new phase: RSS “arrangers” or “organizers” transform raw feeds into a rich reading experience, much closer to a newspaper or a magazine. The introductions of Flipboard and, last week, of Zite make Google Reader look like a Finnish psychiatric ward being replaced by a Norman Foster design.

Zite has generated a great deal of reviews (see Fast Company’s ). It’s a marked improvement over Flipboard. The latter is better designed, but offers not hierarchy to help arrange RSS feeds and other sources (such as Twitter, Flickr of Facebook feeds). Zite creates a magazine-like table of contents and, using a recommendation engine, appears to learn from your reading patterns. Further dissection is left to learned tech bloggers debating the pros and cons of the latest iterations of these multi-sources readers.

No matter how perfectible these personal readers are, they undoubtedly gestate the news publishing industry’s future. They successfully address two key factors in today’s media consumption:

- time allocation — I’ll tend to pick the service that helps me to be more productive
- the interface dimension, i.e. the increasing appetence for sleek and fluid designs.(Something Google still doesn’t get: instead of sticking to their Blue Cross Blue Shield-like, data-centric color code, they ought to go get their own Jonathan Ive).

Now, the left brain speaks up and asks two questions:

- what business model for the apps developers?
- how does this way of reading the news impact (positively or negatively) the business models of existing medias?

Advertising is the most likely answer to the first query. In theory, huge readership should yield nice revenue streams. At some point, B2B licensing could become feasible; large firms could fill bespoke versions of Flipboard with internal information, catalogs, manuals, etc.

The second issue is more tricky. Here are some examples.

Below is the Business home page in Zite. No ads, no nothing. In the red rectangle, a headline from Business Week:

Next is the Business Week article as it appears in Zite:

Look, Ma: No ads! No money!

Now, the original story as it appears on the BusinessWeek site:

As you can see, there are ads. Expensive ones, actually. According their official rate cards,  Bloomberg Business Week expects to charge a CPM (Cost Per Thousand) of respectively $115 for the banner and $144 for the square in the right column. OK. These are before-negotiation rates. But even after a 50% rebate, this is still huge: in Europe, rates for business sites are more likely to net a CPM in the $20-$30 range. Bloomberg Business week supports this price with its 12.9m unique visitors audience and its enviable  demographics. BBW brags it reaches 638,000 millionaires, which is half the Wall Street Journal’s purported score of 1.38m millionaires.

The wall Street Journal, precisely. As it appears in the Zite business page:

….Then, in a Zite full story page:

… and the original story, as you can see full loaded with ads (but, for some reason, not behind the paywall):

You get my point: by reinserting a story from an external source in its interface, Zite strips it of any value to the original publisher. Here, I refer to the ads sold in this particular editorial environment. And Zite isn’t even substituting its own value — thank God…

This could be fine for a Twitter feed, Facebook babbling, or any kind of user generated gruel. But it is not fine at all for professional publishers such as The Wall Street Journal Gigaom or Business Insider (I performed the test above for all three.) To a varying extent, these organizations line up writers and editors in order to produce their content. For them, this is the perfect lose-lose situation since their news material leaks into Zite, resulting into content they won’t be able to monetize. In return, they get nothing: no fee, no revenue share, zip.

The agent responsible of this economic absurdity is the RSS system. Medias are profusely generous with their RSS feeds. The New York Time offers no less than 167 streams of various natures. You can reconstruct an entire digital newspaper with those. In doing so, you remove all the value that was sold with this content by the NY Times ad sales people. And if you add feeds provided by great newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist (50 feeds!), The New York Review of Books and some good pure players and professional blogs like Slate, Poltico or TechCrunch…. You’ll end up making the best digital daily you can think of, because, you will end up to be the ultimate editor.

I cant’ help but consider the RSS  generosity shown by all medias (main street traditional as well as digital natives) as another iteration of Lenin’s rope: “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”…

At the risk of repeating myself, from a user’s perspective, I find this abundance of great content just fantastic. And as a journalism freak, I carry no nostalgia for the good old days. My concern is simply for the news business, for its ecosystem’s sustainability — i.e. the ability to collect and produce original information. That’ll be the subject for a next column.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com