Monday, October 22, 2007

Providing Free Content, Radiohead, the Open Content Alliance, and the near death experience of libraries

Free content is the buzzword in the media. Radiohead announced that its latest album will be online for whatever price you want, even free! The Open Content Alliance has decided to kick Google to the curb and provide their own content online for free without any deal with Google that will restrict content.

Free Music or the Near Death of the Music Industry
The recent announcement by Radiohead that they will be selling their next album online at the price the consumer names is the latest blow to the death of current state of the music industry. Why go through all these middlemen, who take a majority of the profit, for the work the band does? Currently, the music, movie, and publishing industry are undergoing the "near-death experience". A near-death experience can revive an industry so that it is operating the way it should and changes its services to best serve the users.

The move by Radiohead proves that it doesn't need a big behemoth of an industry to create, produce, and market its album. The days of the middleman are numbered. A quote from the Time article,
Radical Remix:

In any industry, the most efficient distribution system has a way of prevailing. Sure, new acts without loyal fan bases would be ill served by the Radiohead strategy. But successful bands at midcareer would be wise to take note. Even the most lucrative deals--the ones reserved for repeat, multiplatinum superstars--give artists less than 20% of the sales they generate, and that has to feed multiple band members. Meanwhile, as CD sales decline (in early 2007, they were down 20% from early 2006 in the U.S. alone), the concert business is booming. In July, Prince, long underestimated for his business acumen, decided to turn his most valuable asset--a buzzed-about record--into a loss leader, flooding the U.K. with 3 million free copies of his Planet Earth CD through the Mail on Sunday newspaper. He was ridiculed for going down market, until he announced 21 London concert dates--and sold out every one at prices five times the suggested retail price of a CD. Not surprisingly, Radiohead has an extensive tour planned for 2008.

Could Steven King pull a Radiohead? or the e-book alternative
Some authors may be able to do this, but there is one problem. The book format is not digital. By its very nature, the book is the printed word on paper. Eventually, it will go digital, but it will only take a near death experience for publishers for it to go that way. The book is the perfect format. It can remain in its pre-digital format and not worry about copyright and all the problems with piracy in the music and movie industry. Even when digital becomes very prominent, will the majority of readers will still purchase a printed book? Isn't it ironic that the blog Print is Dead printed a book?

It seems that the e-book is becoming an alternative format to reading like an audiobook. From the Christian Science Monitor article, E-books multiply, but who's reading them?

as habits change and content inventory nears critical mass (Google, to name one prospective repository, is still wrangling with copyright issues), digital books might finally gain a foothold, observers say – not as a replacement format, but as an alternative delivery system not unlike the audiobook. Both the publishing industry and the reading public appear to be shaking the notion that for the beloved book, digital equals death."

A reaction to this story is available on Teleread here. It speaks to the fact publishers prefer that books stay in print, not so much for their readers, but because books are DRM proof.
Take away DRM—really more of a protection for proprietary formats than the intellectual property rights of authors and publishers—and sales of e-books from large publishers will get a nice bump.

Libraries provide access or the near-death of the public library
To add to that, publishers force libraries to have increased digital rights management to check out digital content. Nobody has really figured out a simple cost and access model for the new way of access. Instead of creating a copy for everyone, there is one copy in which everyone can access. Digital Rights Management treats the one copy like many copies. Libraries have to make access even worse to provide the content at all.

More on DRM from Jessmyn at
The weird part is that patrons can more easily buy their own content, but to get the “checkoutability” it requires DRM and that puts this into the arena of the heavy hitters vendorwise.

On the YALSA blog, Joseph Wilk laments the fact that Radiohead did not provide a way for public libraries to distribute this album to their patrons. Libraries were traditionally the middleman. Sell it to libraries, and they turn around and provide access. Now this is done through Digital Rights Management. Ironically, Radiohead already provided access and libraries can still distribute them. However, it is not so much in the physical format, but by providing computers with internet access.

Public libraries will continue to house books in print as long as the publishing industry continues to do so. When books become digital completely, what will libraries do? If the content is free and can be accessed with a computer and Internet access, what is the future role of the public library?

Public libraries are undergoing the near-death experience as well. Since 1995 the common theme from non-library users is, why do you need the library when you have the Internet. This has come up for discussion recently on Publib because of that same remark in the popular hit series Heroes.
Quote from Publib, starting the discussion:
"... the girl was trying to lie to her parents so that she could go out with a boy. She told them she was going to the library. Her brother said, "haven't you ever heard of the Internet?" She replied that she was doing a paper on how libraries were becoming more and more obsolete for her generation.

The reality is that information wants to be free. Everyone wants free access. The Internet provides that. It will increasingly provide better content online for free. The library role with in relation to content is to provide access through computers with sufficient Internet bandwidth. Content once housed and organized in libraries are freely available online. This will only increase over time. Libraries will increasingly need to shift gears to provide the content, not by owning it or organizing it, but by providing access to it, for free. Watch this video (Information R/Evolution).

Libraries are already striking back by changing their environments mostly due to the Library 2.0 movement. They are also beginning to take back their content to make it freely available online instead of giving it away to Google.

NY Times: Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web
(This article should read, Libraries to provide free content, tells Google to take a hike)
"But the resistance from some libraries, like the Boston Public Library and the Smithsonian Institution, suggests that many in the academic and nonprofit world are intent on pursuing a vision of the Web as a global repository of knowledge that is free of business interests or restrictions."

The real irony with the current state of content on the Internet is the fact that everyone who produces content, at some point, wants to be paid for it. Libraries are the biggest purchasers of the written word. The real goal of libraries is to breach the rich/poor gap and to provide access to content. And in a digital age, there is still a staggering amount of people who cannot read, don't have access to computers and the Internet, and have no skills to compete. This is one of the many roles in which libraries currently play, and will continue to play.

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