Writer's Blog

Rupert Goodwins: Making money from the Net is proving hard for the media, but a better way is there for the taking.

Tim Berners-Lee has long been less than happy. The inventor of the Web isn't ashamed of what he wrought, but it's not really what he wanted. What he envisioned was a collaborative medium, not a device for hoovering clean the shelves of record shops, pornographers and software companies. But with the advent of the blog, it looks as if he's got his wish at last. The whole world in conversation with itself: the fundamental atomic particles of news -- things happening to people -- released from the machinery of the media.

There are endless debates about what blogs are. Journalism? Ego boosting? A window into society? The outpourings of atypical, dysfunctional nerds? All of the above? But that's missing the point. Blogs are there, and blogs are free. As are press releases, advertising and propaganda. As is anything anywhere that anyone wants to say.

Ah yes, Free. Nobody who's been awake online for more than five minutes can have missed Stewart Brand's famous aphorism, "information wants to be free". What he said next is just as important, for all it gets forgotten: "Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine -- too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new (technological) devices makes the tension worse, not better"

For journalists and publishers, this tension has been palpable for years. It's now unbearable. Not only does information want to be free, there's so much of it out there that by the laws of the market it can't be anything else. Media companies have stopped talking about 'educating' readers to pay for online content that used to cost real money on real pages: they've even realised that microbilling, where you pay a fraction of a penny many times over as you read a site, is never going to fly. The raw material of publishing used to lie deep underground. Now it's scattered all over the surface. Who'd be a miner?

There is one model where value is generated from vast amounts of freely available online stuff, and that's Linux. It's a real industry, with people competing with each other and sometimes making money, sometimes going bust. There's not one thing on a Red Hat CD that you couldn't get for nothing except your own time and trouble -- but you're worth more than that. Yes, you can run large chunks of your business on software that's not only costless but entirely without secrets, so you can learn all about how it works and maintain it yourself. Or you could pay an expert a few thousand dollars and have all that sorted out. Not mining, but smelting.

The media is not going away. For as long as we've been able to talk to each other about more than 'Give me that gazelle leg or I'll hit you', we've told each other stories about heroes, gods, the past and the future. It's intrinsic to our survival, and those who told stories well were rewarded with status, forbearance and not having to catch their own gazelles. Some bloggers are natural writers and will become famous. Some press releases are truthful. And then there's the other 99.9 percent. Publishing is as much about editing as writing, and therein the gold still lies.

But there's something missing. What I need is a textual counterpart of the Gnu licence. I can't set out as an editor of the online world, pulling together the good stuff from blogs and other free information sources to provide a one-stop top-quality read for which you'd pay good money. I can paraphrase, I can extract small amounts of text, but unless I have explicit agreement from each and every writer, I can't really go to town and ship something substantial. Copyright law forbids it, but only by default.

All we need to unlock this brave new world is a waiver saying "Take this text and do what you will," stuck to the top of each site. You can be sure that Tim would approve. And besides, I'm hopeless with gazelles.

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