"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Becoming Digital

Ever since property — or valuable property, anyway — became intellectual, it's been a bitch having your revenue stream tied up in atoms instead of electrons. The high-margin physical world is so much easier to control than the whooshing back-and-forth of ones and zeros, but all the real action is now digitized. And while it's enormous fun watching giant media companies thrashing around like bathers set upon by hungry piranha, they won't stay stupid forever.

In fact, Old Media content producers — record companies, movie studios, book publishers — are already following in the footsteps of another industry that has managed to successfully trade purely digital content for every dollar its customers have. Ruthless as the RIAA, mean as the MPAA, the software industry provides a near perfect model for anyone who wants to turn infinitely reproducible silver discs into endless buckets of cash. And without all the awkwardness of actually providing a product or service, too.

Information may want to be free, but that doesn't mean that it won't cost you. Having failed spectacularly to make a dime off our own intellectual property, we've got a few suggestions for the people who market products people might actually want to buy.

The First Step: Admit you have a problem

The first stop for any entrenched bureaucracy trying desperately to defend its turf is the courts. This is old news in the software industry, of course, and the lesson to be learned is that it doesn't work, or doesn't work for very long. While the RIAA can rightly gloat that "Napster is over," they would do well to remember that Apple managed to sue Digital Research's GEM out of existence, too — right before being crushed by Windows.

Next: Bring in the bundles!

Once they realize that there's no way to stop the proliferation of digital content through legal means, media companies will begin to find other avenues to get their customers, those thieving bastards, to pay for what they will inevitably steal. Case in point: Until the government intervened, Microsoft billed PC manufacturers for every machine they sold, whether Windows was installed or not. Expect the same the next time you step into an electronics store.

Develop "relationships"

Of course, back-end potential exists, too — just because a customer has walked out the door is no reason for him to stop paying. Per-minute tech support and company-certified consultants — long the bane of software buyers — will soon become familiar figures in digital entertainment as well. Extensive user-testing on DVD interfaces will turn the simple act of starting a movie — legal copy or not — into an enormous profit center.

License to shill

The software industry has also held sway over its users with complicated and draconian end-user license agreements. Simply running an application often constitutes the happy abandonment of all manner of rights, to the point where buying a copy of a program doesn't mean anything as quaintly old-fashioned as actually owning it. Software is licensed, not sold, and the license is revocable, nontransferable and probably toxic somehow. Why should e-books be any different?

Stamp out the amateurs!

Of course, simply being part of a wildly successful omnivorous colossus doesn't leave the titans of the software industry feeling warm and fuzzy inside, so they have begun to claim the moral high ground as well. They're not underhanded, ethically ambiguous, high pressure business tactics — they're efforts in service of a higher purpose. It may take the producers of traditional content a while to scale these dizzying rhetorical heights, but you can be sure that they'll get there eventually. It's just a matter of time before some music industry big-wig gives a speech defining non-professional content creation as immoral. "He may look like a slacker strumming a guitar, but he's actually a terrorist, out to destroy America, Western concepts of property, and the species at large. Kill him! Kiiiill him!"

Pass the hat

But just because media companies have yet to achieve the kind of pure digital profitability — and general customer loathing — that the software industry has earned doesn't mean that the road ahead doesn't have a ways to go. When claims of moral superiority start getting tossed around, the next step is inevitable. Our ethical responsibility to support professional content creation should really encourage us to keep the collection basket full. In the church of Blockbuster, the sermons will be as terse and pointed as the pitch for Blockbuster Rewards: "Dig deep, brothers and sisters. The tithe is five percent for audio, five percent for video and two and a half for text. Hallelujah!"

Courtesy of Greg Knauss

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