Rethinking Free Internet Content – We need to grow up

I keep thinking about an op-ed article I read in the NY Times while flying to Chicago this Thanksgiving. The article entitled Pay Me For My Content, written by Jaron Lanier, urges Internet developers to move away from the “content must be free” mantra and points towards designing systems that fairly compensate creators for use of their work on the web.

The impetus for the article is the ongoing strike by television writers which, among other things, is challenging the studios for a better portion of residual payments from use of movies and shows on the Internet.

“Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists”, Lanier writes. “Instead they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry ‘Google, Facebook, MySpace and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft’ are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users.”

“There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad.” says Lanier. In fact, Lanier once felt this way himself. Back when the Internet was new, he wrote an article titled “Piracy Is Your Friend”. Now he says he was wrong.

Should information be free on the web? Lanier says, “Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way. We could design information systems so that people can pay for content – so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.”

It’s an important turn. A web pioneer, once firmly behind the idea (the ideal) that information on the web should be free, now says “We need to grow up. Affordable turns out to be much harder than free when it comes to information technology, but we are smart enough to figure it out. We owe it to ourselves and to our creative friends to acknowledge the negative results of our old idealism.”

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An early Internet pioneer, Jaron Lanier is most known as the creator of the term “virtual reality” and for pioneering several early VR products. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

Here is a quote from Lanier’s wikipedia page.

“What’s to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It’s amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It’s time to think about that power on a moral basis.”

It’s a very inciteful statement. The damage done by music piracy comes to mind.

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