Michael Arrington published another hum-dinger of an essay this morning, this one on the future of blogging and journalism in a world of rampant theft: one writer takes another writer’s story, hardly bothering to rewrite it, and posts it somewhere else, with the Internet portal and search engines richly rewarding the copycat rather than the creator. “The rise of fast-food content is upon us,” Mike writes, “and it’s going to get ugly.”
Mike blames everyone for it, including the New York Times, citing a conversation he and NYT editor Damon Darlin had before last summer’s Naked Truth, when Damon said he reads Michael’s writing every day. Mike appreciated the compliment, but in today’s essay he worried that it easily leads to the New York Times’ taking a TechCrunch story and re-writing it for the NYT’s broader audience. I am not sure this is theft — when an article appears in the New England Journal of Medicine or in TechCrunch, the New York Times can reasonably conclude that my mother didn’t see it — but we can all agree with Mike that theft is wrong.
A few moments later on that day last summer, I asked Mike why stolen music, stolen images, stolen television didn’t bother him when presumably theft from TechCrunch would. Mike didn’t miss a beat. He said stealing from TechCrunch was fine so long as there was attribution: spammers often take TechCrunch content word-for-word and re-post it under their own name, as if they had written it. I smiled, because it was an argument based on pride, not money: sometimes I think Mike is an artist posing as an entrepreneur. Even when you steal U2, Mike argued, you know it’s U2. It was a good point, but I still wondered if artists less wealthy than Bono would agree that this is the main point.
Now it seems that Mike, one of the most influential thinkers in technology and media, has broadened the scope of his concerns, to journalists who re-write his essays, not just those who re-post them. The problem, Mike now says in this morning’s essay, is that quality and originality are irrelevant when the “portals and search engines” “force feed” people whatever content is most profitable to display.
The argument that these Internet portals and search engines hold all the power has been dismissed as so much whining, even by TechCrunch earlier this month. In this morning’s essay, Mike cites AOL for linking to its own sub-par content, often re-written based on original reporting from TechCrunch and elsewhere. But he may as well talk about Google too, which only links to content that drives Google’s content-must-be-free business model (in Google’s defense, it’s algorithm rewards quality whereas AOL does not). In both cases, Mike can’t afford to opt out of AOL or Google, and bravely says he would rather use the Internet’s fire than fight it.
Hear, hear! But just noting that we should use that fire for good — and not cheer as it burns down everything in sight — is a huge step in the right direction. For years, artists, photographers, film-makers, writers and musicians have made less money so YouTube, EZNews, Napster & Boxee can make more. Sometimes we have been distracted by debates about whether once-bloated newspapers deserved to live or die, which allowed us to avoid the fundamental question of whose side we’re on: the creators or the distributors.
Theoretically, when Blogger eliminates the printing press and YouTube eliminates the movie studio, writers and directors should make more money, directly from their audience. It can still work out that way, and I believe it will, but the first step is to admit that it’s a problem that those who create are getting fleeced — to a greater degree than the publisher, record producer or studio executive ever could fleece them — by the technologies that distribute their creations.
Another way of saying this is that if AOL keeps screwing Mike, he’ll eventually stop taking the time to write such good stuff. And when he does that, the world will be a much poorer place… not just for Mike, but for all of us readers and for AOL too. My guess is that before that process is complete, the best and brightest in tech will start working for the artists, and not just the aggregators and distributors. A little balance in this regard will do us all a world of good.
(Photo credit: Randy Stewart, blog.stewtopia.com)