Scott Adams: The Economic Value Of Content Is Going To Zero, But Maybe It's Okay
from the dilbert-calculations? dept
Regular readers may recall a few years ago that I got into a short debate with Dilbert creator Scott Adams, on the issue of copyright. I usually find Adams’ musings on various subjects to be interesting and insightful, but I thought he was pretty confused when it came to copyright. It kicked off with Adams trying to create an analogy for infringement, while (thankfully!) first admitting that it was different than “stealing” a physical good, the best analogy he could come up with was that it was like someone wearing your underwear all day and then putting it back in your drawer at the end of the day (cleaned and in the same condition he took it). I found that analogy to be severely lacking, and felt he assumed certain rights for creators that don’t actually exist — including the right to certain revenue. Adams shot back, in a mocking tone, again insisting that there were real economic losses in cases where a content creator failed to live up to his or her own marketing plan. Once again, I disagreed. Since then, I hadn’t noticed Adams tackling this subject again.
Reader Bluejay alerts us to the news that Adams is exploring the topic again, in a slightly tangential manner. In a blog post highlighting his “theory on content value,” where it seems he’s reached something like the “acceptance” stage of navigating this particular topic — though, he’s doing so somewhat grudgingly. He kicks it off by noting that unauthorized copies of music represent a huge percentage of the music that people listen to these days (something that I’m not really sure is true) and that as devices like the iPad become more popular, the same thing is likely to happen for books. He’s not focused on the locked down nature of the iPad, or its book store, but the fact that it has a browser, and you can find all sorts of unauthorized digital copies of books with little trouble.
From there, he’s convinced (accurately) that there’s little that can be done to stop this:
Every kid understands that stealing is wrong. But ask the average ten-year old about copyright law and watch for the blank stare. Students are taught to freely download copyrighted content from the Internet for school reports, which I understand is legal in the context of education. And at the same time, every school kid is learning from friends that downloading music and movies from the Internet is common practice. Paying for content on the Internet is strictly a generational thing, and it will pass.
Those of you reading this blog are already savvy enough to find and download any content you want for free. But I’ll bet the average 40-something user of the Internet still wouldn’t know how to search the Internet for criminally free content. At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page. When that happens, Amazon.com will primarily be selling electronics, household products, and clothes.
That sounds about right. But what does it mean? Well, Adams has a sort of good news/bad news conclusion that I partly agree with:
I predict that the profession known as “author” will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books – and good ones – for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won’t exist.
As an author, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the media content of the future will suck because there will be no true professionals producing it. But I think suckiness is solved by better search capabilities. Somewhere out in the big old world are artists who are more talented than we can imagine, and willing to create content for free, for a variety of reasons. And so, as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.
I’m not sure that the job of “author” will go away. “Best selling author” is a description of a type of author, so, sure, that might go away if people aren’t selling books, but I’m not at all convinced the profession of “author” goes away. It’s just that the nature of the job changes. I also think his final statement is just wrong. The economic value of that content doesn’t go to zero. The price of that content may approach zero, but as we’ve pointed out over and over again price and value are not the same thing. In fact, there may be tremendous economic value in that content — it’s just that the economic value is realized elsewhere, by making something else gain a higher price. Adams mentions that authors may write books to help promote themselves, and that’s an example of how that economic value is realized elsewhere, in boosting the price people may pay for authors who are also consultants, lecturers or something else entirely.
That said, however, it is nice that Adams admits that, even if his gut reaction is not to like this, he realizes that better tools may actually make sure that the results aren’t bad at all (and might even be better). Going back to his earlier posts on copyright and content sharing, he’s realizing that what he once thought of as a “loss,” might really just be a changing market. That’s good to see.