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Youtube vs. GEMA & PRS, Kindle vs Book Authors, Google’s free Music in China: so what is the value of Content?

Future value of content gerd
I think 2009 will be a key year for the content industries, the creators, media companies, platforms, labels, publishers and other middle(wo)men.

In 2009, the value of content – starting with music and news – is being redefined for the Internet age. The gloves are off: the music rights societies want more money for each play, many journalists and writers are fearing a gloomy future as newspapers stop printing and shift to digital publishing around the world, and the book-authors guild is quarreling with Amazon about the Kindle2's robotic voice renditions of their works.

The bottom line is that the core logic and operating mantra that the 'Western' content industries have employed until now is becoming unstable and, economically speaking, increasingly unworkable. The Internet has severely disrupted  the traditional value chains, and the promised land of advertising-supported free content has not yet materialized.

Let me outline these shifts and challenges a bit more:

A) Controlling the distribution of content – whether by technical or via legal means – is increasingly becoming an utter 'mission impossible' unless you want to adopt a seriously totalitarian Internet regime (as seems to be proposed in France last week I fear…)

B) Closed systems and walled gardens (yes, those of the telecoms and mobile operators, too) are leaking everywhere. Closed and centralized ecosystems are becoming very expensive and thus hard to maintain, e.g. Microsoft Windows versus the ever-mushrooming Google Web OS (soon to include voice communications), Android and Symbian mobile OS vs Windows Mobile, free streaming vs paid subscriptions such as Rhapsody, open API-based platforms such as Twitter and (now) the Guardian's Open Platform versus proprietary offerings such as iTunes or the WSJ, and so on and on.

C) On the Net, just about every mode of content consumption -aka listening, watching, reading- does in fact create copies, too, so the traditional legal distinction of 'free use/listen/watch but paid copy' is… well, toast, I would say. This creates significant legal uncertainty and pulls out the rug under the value logic of the traditional publishing industries.

I like to refer to this tectonic shift as 'The challenge of 21st Century Content Economics' (see a related swf movie here); riffing off a similar phrase I picked-up at Umair Haque's very inspiring blog.

First, here are some of the most common questions I keep getting about the Future of Content:

  • If everyone gets to make use of content (music, video, news, images) 'for free' or for much cheaper than before the advent of the Net, if just about everything but my dinner can be shared and remixed and forwarded, won't we just see a 'rush towards the bottom', i.e. all content gets cheaper, all the time, until it stops making real $ altogether? And how will 'open' content make any money, anyway? Who will pay for something that can be gotten for free? How can you compete with free? And beyond that, if everyone thinks they can be a creator, producer or broadcaster, too, who will still pay for the 'professionals'?
  • When access finally replaces ownership on a large scale, e.g. printed newspaper-reading goes away and reading on mobile devices takes over, or streaming music on my iPod Touch overtakes buying single tracks on Amazon or iTunes (ps: I think it already does), who should pay for what, when, where and how? Is this kind of universal access monetizable like the 'copy' was?  How is the current law going to help us with this… or not? When the very definition of COPY becomes unworkable, what happens to Copyright?
  • If we agree that not making your content available online seems like an unrealistic option (as it indeed robs the creators of the most popular platforms and ways to present, market and promote themselves to their audiences) is the traditional right to refuse permission, based on the exclusive right of the author (or their representatives i.e. the publishers and labels, studios, rights organizations etc) still feasible and realistic?  Can the law as it is now still be used to monetize our creations, or will the insistence on these pre-Internet laws just render us irrelevant, attention-wise and dollar-wise?  And if we need to make our content more available, where will the new money come from? In other words, if not Control, then… what…how…when?

Here are some answers that I have been investigating (please bear with me for a few hours while I find the definitive solutions ;):

1) I think content can be both free or cheap, and very expensive. This sounds paradoxical, perhaps, but the reality is that in a system that is no longer based on selling units or copies (i.e. CDs, DVDs, books, single-track downloads, cable slots etc), the value of content is very likely to be constantly re-determined by a multitude of surrounding and incremental factors.

So the correct answer to that key question of 'what's the value of content' should probably be a solid: 'it depends'.  As much as that may make the job of getting remuneration so much harder, I think it is also potentially quite liberating that we will no longer need to worry about controlling distribution so that we can sell more copies. Instead, as would be the case with the flat rate for digital music that I have been pushing for for the past 7 years, we could then shift our entire focus to getting and keeping Attention and Trust – 2 factors which now are the very foundation of any commercial success. In fact, I would argue that because of the de-emphasis on copies most content marketing and promotion tasks will get a lot easier (and much less costly) since we can now use the content as a marketing tool, itself.

No longer own contentImage by gleonhard via Flickr

2) So what are those future value-determining factors? Here are a few from a long list that I have been compiling:

  • The best quality experience, at the perfect time. Compare listening to a low quality audio-stream on your mobile, in the train, to enjoying an HD recording on your living room (or car?) sound system. The first one could be feels-like-free or bundled, the other one could be a premium, paid-for service. The difference is just my particular use case, not the 0s and 1s.
  • A new, attractive and convenient package (or shall we say, alternate user interface?) A powerful and very recent example is  'The Presidents of The United States of America' iPhone app: the user pays a one-time fee of $3 for free, on-demand streams and videos from the last 4 albums, and lots of up-selling is built right into the app. iPhone users that are fans are very likely to shell out $3 to get this cool widget, and in a way I guess they are now actually paying for what they would otherwise have gotten for free, anyway (i.e. to listen to their favorite music, on-demand). Plus, the band now has a direct and totally unique path to their biggest fans – and that is the new gold, in my opinion. Sounds like a great deal to me: package it nicely and it will sell regardless of free alternatives.
  • Also note that this same phenomena is what still sells printed books. The words i.e. the content anyone can probably get for free, somewhere, but the feel and smell of the paper, the physical format, the touch, the familiar and comfortable user-interface (UI) is what I am actually paying for when I buy the good old, dead-tree version. In other words, I pay for the design, the printing and shipping, and only implicitly for the 'words'. It is important to note, though, that nice user interfaces will soon be available on electronic reading devices, as well, therefore leading us to that very same, original question: what will we pay for when we buy content, ultimately? We may soon enter the age of content-as-software-packages: many of us may soon no longer order the printed versions of books (last not least because of environmental concerns) but we may happily pay a few Euros a month for a digital book subscription, or add it in a bundle via our mobile phone bill, only to then buy the 20 Euro multimedia / virtual world edition of a book we really like – except that it won't be printed and shipped but also downloaded to my mobile device.
  • Authenticity and timeliness. I foresee a future where I will gladly pay a bit more to make sure that what I get is the bona-fide real thing, from the actual creator, in its correct version and without any shortcuts or changes. An authorized, paid-for English translation of the new Paulo Coelho book (digital or otherwise) would certainly be more enticing to me than 'free' copy that is not stamped with his approval. And if I can get it the moment that it's finished, even better (and I pay another premium).
  • Selection, expert curation, filtering, culling, context, annotation. In my experience, few people have time to find the best music for a specific occasion. Why would I bother looking for a great selection of ambient 'space music' for my yoga sessions when a true, bona-fide authority such as Stephen Hill (Producer of the superb Hearts of Space / HOS online radio show) has already done this for me?  My payment to HOS would therefore be not so much for the actual songs, it's more for the service of having them filtered and annotated by a real expert.

3) For the very same reason that content can be simultaneously worth a lot or very little (i.e. because of its disembodiment and the shift from selling copies to providing access), it follows that many rightsholders and their agencies may no longer be able to get fixed fees per copy, or even per use of a piece of content. Simply because if they continue to do that they will make it impossible-by-design to comply with their rules and legally use their content in all but the most highly subsidized cases, because mContent like water gerd leonhard futuristost of the time a fixed fee will not be obtained on the other end  (i.e. the users), either.

Youtube simply cannot pay a fixed 1 cent per stream – even with Google's deep pocket behind it – because the Youtube users will not pay 1 cent (or even a fraction thereof, for that matter) per stream, and advertising revenues that would support these kinds of license fees are not within reach yet (because, just like content, the web's advertising and marketing logic needs to be reinvented first, as well !). This new business needs to be build together, from the ground up.

We are seeing this hairy issue creep up everywhere: GEMA (the German copyright organization) reportedly wants up to 12.9 cents per music video that is played on Youtube in Germany; the reason being – and this is my personal guess – that they probably treat each video-play as an on-demand performance which would be charged almost as much as an actual copy (i.e. a download). And of course, the reality is that those digital natives  are in fact using Youtube as virtual jukebox – watching my 15-year old son hang out in his room I can certainly attest to that.

So GEMA's (and PRS') point is as correct as it is pointless: these on-demand plays are very much like a download, in terms of how the users are using the content. Access is replacing ownership.

But here is the tough part that cannot be avoided no matter what: it's not the users, or Youtube (or or Pandora or Hulu or Miro or Boxee etc) that are at fault here, it's how traditional content industry entities such as GEMA and PRS define the value of music (and other content). For them, a piece of content still has its fixed and minimum value, and if you want it, you'll need to pay up according to those rules.

As I am investigating more alternatives I will keep you posted so… stay tuned!

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