Jun 29

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Web Content By and For the Masses

John Markoff interviewed me for his NY Times story Web Content by and for the Masses, for which the Times provides the following synopsis: "The abundance of user-generated Internet content - which includes online games, desktop video and citizen journalism sites - is reshaping the debate over file sharing."

I was quoted at the end of the article. But the interview was by email, and of course my comments were much more extensive than the few lines quoted. The entire exchange with John went as follows: John wrote: " I was wondering about your thoughts about innovation happening on the fringe, in light of the Grokster decision. I wonder if you believe that the balance of power is shifting away from proprietary content and toward freely shareable?Any comment would be appreciated for something I'm working on as a follow to the Grokster news."

First off: this question shows why John is such a great tech reporter. If you read the story, it doesn't appear to be about Grokster at all. But John is pursuing the deep trends that are at play in the Grokster decision, not the obvious legal angles. For real insight, you often need to tie together things that don't appear to be connected.

My reply:

You're asking two separate questions here.

As to innovation happening on the fringe, the grokster decision is a textbook example of the process that I see repeat again and again. Some "hacker", exploring the bounds of what's possible with computers, upsets the balance of power in the industry. The outsider thinks the unthinkable, tries something that has no obvious business model or that transgresses against the business models of entrenched companies, and it's a stunning hit with users. Sometimes this new innovation even pushes the boundaries of the law. As Shakespeare said, "the hot blood leaps over the cold decree."

There follows a period of turmoil, in which the industry seeks new balance. Established companies try to minimize the impact of the new invention, either ignoring it until too late, then fighting it. This is the stage described in the Gandhi quote that Eric Raymond famously used to describe what was going to happen with open source software: "First they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs build business models that take advantage of the new technology, making the original hacker innovations more robust, easier to use, with a business model (and if necessary, appropriate legal limitations.)

We saw this with the web. It's version of hypertext was decried as technically inferior to the state of the art in CD Rom hypermedia or even more so to desktop applications, the lack of a business model made existing players stick to their walled gardens. Meanwhile, new media giants such as eBay, Amazon, Yahoo! and Google grew up by doing what poet Wallace Stevens' prescribed: "searching the possible for its possibleness."

We're seeing it now with P2P file sharing. Napster is gone. Now, maybe grokster is gone. But music is now an established networked application, and the entrepreneurs are hard at work reshaping the landscape, with great new businesses yet to emerge. More than that, the fundamental principles of P2P -- that the network is the computer, and that the most efficient ways of sharing the resources of that global network computer are all on the table when designing networked applications -- are now a part of every application and system designer's toolkit. BitTorrent, for example, or its equivalent, will be a fundamental system service in the internet OS of the future. Will there be non-infringing uses? No doubt. But eventually, the legitimate uses will predominate.

Meanwhile, hackers are continuing to innovate from the fringe in new areas. You have only to look at the hacker activity around google maps mashups, or what's happening with greasemonkey and firefox, or the hardware hacking celebrated in the pages of Make, to see the continuation of the process.

(Incidentally, I have a somewhat different view of the grokster decision than someone like Cory. I haven't had time to study it, but from what I've heard, it was interestingly nuanced. I tend to agree with the court's position that while there are substantial non-infringing uses, grokster was actually *marketing* the service for infringing uses. That's not a bad position for the court to take. There may be bad points in the decision, but the high level takeaway sounds fairly thoughtful to me.) [Later note, not in the email to John: Mike Godwin's column in Reason, calling the ruling a "mixed bag", summarizes the various reasons that both sides are likely to be unhappy with the ruling, including the big worry that it blurs "the bright line" of the original Sony betamax ruling.]

That leads me to the second part of your question: are we shifting away from proprietary content to freely shareable content. Yes and no. Certain types of proprietary content are being displaced by freely shareable content (see Wikipedia for an obvious example). Yet ultimately, this is a more complex situation too. New ways of monetizing content are emerging. It's even possible to monetize completely free content (Yahoo! and Google demonstrated this for the web, building multi-billion dollar businesses on free content within a single decade -- and now, via AdSense and similar models, they are building a commercial ecosystem around that class of free content. Do you really think that process is over?)

Meanwhile, consider also paid online content. Safari (subscription access to online copies of O'Reilly and Pearson books) is the fastest growing part of our business. Lots of other online content businesses are growing under the radar as well.

I have to say that it's all coming out pretty much as I predicted in my 1995 paper: Publishing Models for Internet Commerce. We're building a rich ecosystem of business models for online content, just as we have in print.

As Larry Wall, in his twist on Stewart Brand's dictum, wrote: "Information doesn't want to be free. Information wants to be valuable." Sometimes making it free is how you make it more valuable, sometimes making it scarce is how you make it more valuable. For more on this topic, see the piece I wrote for Nature in 2001, Information Wants to Be Valuable.

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