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Polluting the Stream of Creativity

By 19 July 2010 No Comment

Last week’s Financial Times had a series on Internet search that was chock full of interesting tidbits.

One of them was about a new business model – a firm tracks what users are searching for, and then commissions a starving free lance writer to bang out an article incorporating the appropriate terms, lifting any actual information from more original pieces, with the aim of siphoning off the searchers and thus getting a share of the crucial click market.

To repeat one of the most common current observations about the state of the nation’s society and economy, “This can’t go on.”

Two basic models for fostering creativity exist: the producers can sell directly to appreciative customers, or the producers can give the material to readers/viewers/listeners sell the eyeballs, ears, and attention to advertisers. Hybrids are also possible, of course, viz., the news and magazine business of the 20th century. But either model requires that the originator have a monopoly over the creative product that enables him to monetize it. (A third model is the patronage of the nobility, but who wants to return to the 18th Century?)

Unfortunately, the Internet has created incentives for competitive parasitism, whereby numerous firms watch like hawks for anything original to which they can link. While either business model supporting creativity can tolerate a lot of leakage, neither can survive systematic leakage of the kind enabled by the automated Internet. Like some Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”), eventually parasitism drives out creativity.

This rock of reality makes me impatient with both the free culture and libertarian movements, each of which dwells in its own abstract world without asking the basic question: “What is needed to make a society work?”  This is really the question at the heart of the Flyonethewall case, and it is interesting to look at the briefs of some of the amici, such as Google, as they frantically try to distract the court from asking this question.

Similarly, the ICE program Operation In Our Sites, targeted at taking down Internet sites that make movie piracy a business, does indeed arouse a certain anxiety over having the government meddling with the Internet. Given our druthers, we would prefer that this not happen. On the other hand, we would prefer not to need to take steps to prevent physical theft either, or, in the Internet context, to need to worry about identity theft and illicit hacking. But these are not the choices that the world gives us.

So, to return to a constant theme of Digital Society, some way must be found to enable creators to monetize their efforts, whether by direct sales or by selling advertising. There is room in this model for search and aggregators, of course, which are valuable services in themselves, but there is also a need for ways of walling out as well as walling in.

One law in which I do not believe is Metcalf’s Law, which states that the value of a network rises with the square of the devices connected to it. The problem is, all of those devices have wills, and some of those wills are evil-intentioned, so adding them to the network decreases rather than increases its value. Add enough of the parasites, and the value is negative. Provide incentives for the value-subtracting at the expense of the value-adding, and the system collapses.

For those who like historical analogies, take medieval Britain, where good communications in the form of proximity to the seacoast meant death from Viking raiders. Safety lay in isolation. (Unfortunately, isolation had its own costs, in the form of decline of civilization and economic loss. A Dark Ages peasant probably had a vocabulary of 600 words.)

So I predict that that the Internet business of the future will lie in searches that exclude junk, and in closed networks that are the equivalent of gated communities, where you get tossed out for excessive parasitism. Bring it on.

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