Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Unpaid Digital Content Providers--You and Me

Reading or even listening to a book can be a dangerous activity. Dangerous? How can a book or listening to a book (those lovely little e-books) be dangerous in any way? Think about it. When you read you begin to open your mind to the possibilities of things you hadn't considered before and once you do that you have placed your foot on the path where there is no going back. Once you've read something, you are no longer ignorant of it and the slate cannot be cleared. You have entered the world of the informed and that world may see you as a dangerous individual because now you will question, you will carefully consider, and you may even form opinions that are contrary to the interests of some others. Allow me to provide an example.

Today, I began listening to the book, "Who Owns the Future?" By Jaron Lanier.  I hadn't gotten more than five minutes into this book than I began to realize I was a dupe in the digital world and I was providing valuable content that could make others wealthy and provide me nothing more than a platform to share information or provide my opinions and insights. Just what are my opinions and insights worth? Some people may feel they are worth nothing and I should be happy to have any opportunity to express them to the digital world at large, but now I would deign to differ with that opinion.

What have you done today on the Internet in a digital fashion? Did you post anything anywhere? I don't care if it was just to congratulate a friend on a job promotion or to say you really love something like Amazon Prime Video or even your new computer. All of that seemingly worthless material is worth a heck of a lot of money to just a small minority that is out there scrubbing the Internet for all the data that is freely available to them, thanks to you and me. Some on-line magazines take great advantage of this type of free material and even tell writers that they should be glad they have an opportunity to write for such prestigious publications.

Ah, pardon me, I really thought that writers would like to be paid for their contributions to anything and, certainly, when it comes to "prestigious" publications they would expect more than just an additional line in their resumes. The people who run these publications, of course, do not do it for the love of providing content to you and me the eager readers of such material. They want real dollars and cents (forget the cents, I really don’t think they want that) paychecks, stock options, seats on boards of directors, etc. for their efforts. Nope, another line on their resumes isn't really going to cut it for them.

You and I are dupes of a sort and we didn't even know it. Sure, we know all about the bots that crawl all over the Internet to put all of our seemingly worthless information into huge database server farms  built in poorer parts of the world where people are paid poorly also. Then, they use this free information that we have provided and they sell it to others. 

This isn't very different from the way magazines and other periodicals used to collect your name and address and personal info so that they could rent lists to people (never sell them, remember), so this is just pushing the boundary out into newly charted territory. You don't suppose that Facebook does it because they just want to give you an opportunity to keep in touch with your friends. Please, if you believe that I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would be glad to sell you.

Shouldn’t there be some reasonable exchange, of course in terms of real money, to all of us who provide this trove of endless information? Why not? Oh, are they saying that just being able to freely express ourselves over the Internet should be sufficient reward for us? Then why aren't they as charitable to provide their services without selling our information to someone else or, if they do, share the wealth? Where in all of this does our right of copyright fall?

There is the rub and you probably don't even know that. Once you place something on Facebook or one of their associated sites, you have given up all of your copyright privileges to them and, technically, they can sell anything you put there. Attention to all attorneys: please check out the digital copyright of these providers. What about when you post a photo on a site owned by one of these huge digital companies? Read the fine print and you may discover that, especially in the news area, you do not retain copyright for the photo. Now you are providing the equivalent of reporting services (iSquad or something like that?) for nothing. How does that strike you? Oh, you still just enjoy seeing your photos online and you really don't want any money for them? Well, that won't get you into the movies and it won't buy you a burger.

The emergence of the Internet and the digital world have already created an enormous number of new legal and personal considerations. The personal considerations, of course, will come in the future when, at your leisure, you may live to regret something you posted and which will live in perpetuity on multiple servers all over the world. There is no going back, there is no erasing, and there are no rewards for your efforts. You are just another grunt in someone's corporate structure and, fellow grunt, you will have to learn to live with it or stop providing any type of content. Oh, you think things may change and the digital overlords will begin to see that they should be paying you something? I go back to my remark about that bridge I have for sale.

Now, am I beginning to regret reading this book? No, because the door has been opened and I am going to step through and see what the author is going to offer me in terms of intellectual payment. While this is not something I can put into my checking account, I will store it in my memory banks and, who knows, it may come in handy in the future. It's kind of like a reference book and I will put it on the stacks in my brain and pull it out whenever I need some material. Be warned, I have been informed.

BTW, I also saw today that Zach Braff, who went on Kickstarter (I thought that was for people who weren't famous and needed money for their projects), got people to contribute real money for a film and has now sold his film for $2.7M.  The Kickstarter contributors are wondering where they stand. 

Angels for Broadway plays usually expect to get a return on their investment, so I would think it should be the same on a digital "fund me, please" site? Obviously, at this point we're all waiting to hear how Zach feels about this. Little people be damned? Who knows.  Let's see what his PR people come up with.