“Pay me for my content,” says Jaron Lanier in a noble, if quixotic, op-ed in today’s New York Times. Remembering his days as an “internet idealist” who wrote a pro-piracy manifesto, Lanier writes, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.” He continues:
There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising … How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results.
Lanier notes the odd, and sad, state of affairs we see online today, where people will happily purchase imaginary stuff in Second Life but refuse to cough up a few pennies for real stuff in Real Life. He argues that “information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way,” and that the system can be changed if “software engineers and Internet evangelists” choose to redesign it so the creators of valuable works can charge for them.
I wish Lanier were right, but I fear he’s falling back into internet idealism, the belief that the world’s bugs can be fixed through some creative coding. “Free” comes more from the inherent economics of the digital world than from the technical structure of online distribution and commerce. You can try to change the structure, but if you can’t change the economics your efforts will likely go for naught.