Monday, August 06, 2007

Digital content wants to be free...

Martin has been postulating:

"Through the various projects I've been involved in recently (openlearn, broadcast strategy review, Flosscom), I've come to the realisation that something very significant has happened to the nature of content. It can be summarised thus:

"Digital content wants to be free, and will seek the path to maximum access."

Let's call it the content law...

The content law may seem simple, but it has enormous implications. Let's try a thought experiment: imagine a matter transporter has been invented. The implications for transport industries, car manufacturers, holidays, property prices, retail etc would be enormous. The physical (including people) becomes digital content as it were, so there is no need to live near your place of work (or even to have a 'place of work').

The internet is a matter transporter for digital content. If you are working in any sector where the content can be digitised (broadcast, music, newspapers, movies, and er, education) then you should repeat the content law to yourself everyday, because it means you have to find alternative revenue streams for when your content achieves its nirvanic state of free and available to everyone. There may be some content which can survive this law, but you are probably going to do your organisation a bigger service if you assume the content law is true for you also and instead of trying to find ways to combat it, you seek ways to build new models around it."

This deserves a much more thoughtful response than I currently have the time to [virtually] pen because I think Martin is partly though not totally right. I say only partly right because digital content is never 'free as in free beer' and no less an authority than Larry Lessig has just completed a 10-year world lecture tour and a couple of books articulating the opposite point of view - that digital content is and will become the most controlled form of content ever. There will always be energy costs, technology/gadget/s costs and utility/connection costs and the trick for the commercial and public sectors, as Martin says, is to work out the business models to support the profit making ventures as well as the public goods infrastructure to sustain the production, hosting and universal access to the digital content. There is definitely an enrichment of the Gartner technology boom-bust-mainstream integration cycle

to be worked out here on the basis of Martin's proposed law but we shouldn't underestimate the potential of the existing money/political power brokers to distort the process. Then again maybe this should be the central theme of Martin's next book?


Martin said...

Thanks for the insightful comments Ray. I take a deep breath before writing the next sentence. I don't agree with Lessig here. I think it is due to where Lessig is coming from, he is concerned about rights and abuses of those rights by corporations. He therefore sees the potential in digital content to restrict usage. Why I don't think this will occur is partly because pioneers such as Lessig help prevent it, but also because my view is more determined by markets.
The photo example I gave is a good one here. Initially they were expensive, even digital ones, but now with Flickr, and perhaps more tellingly, iStock photo the costs are very low. They are moving as close to zero as they can, and there will soon be a free (yes, as in free beer) version of iStock I'd predict that will operate on a different model.
As for a whole book - not sure I've got much more to say...

Ray said...

Pity about the book Martin! I reckon your law opens up a whole world of market and digital ecology issues already party explored by Benkler... and though I take your point about photos and iStock, we'll have to agree to disagree about free as in free beer, since someone will always have to pay for the energy juice to run the computing machinery.