Bebo founders Michael and Xochi Birch are the latest Web 2.0 entrepreneurs to cash in on user-generated content. A little over a week ago, the Birches sold Bebo, the third largest social network, to AOL for $850 million, about $600 million of which will reportedly go into the pockets of their jeans. As for the millions of members who have happily served as sharecroppers on the Birches’ plantation, they’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that all the labor they donated to their “community” did indeed create something of tangible value. No doubt they’re thrilled that the little Bebo plantation, which they’ve tended so lovingly, is now part of the giant AOL plantation, itself part of the Time-Warner conglomerate.
For the many musicians who played a central role in cementing Bebo’s popularity – by freely sharing their music through the site in the usually vain hope of helping their own careers – the Birches’ huge payoff is probably stirring some bittersweet emotions. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, folk-punk agitator Billy Bragg recalls meeting with Michael Birch a couple of years ago, soon after Bragg had criticized MySpace for seizing rights over the songs uploaded to its pages. Birch was looking for Bragg’s advice, and, one assumes, imprimatur, as he worked to turn the upstart Bebo into “an artist-centered environment where musicians could post original songs without fear of losing control over their work.”
Birch, to his credit, did not claim ownership rights to the music and other creative work uploaded to his site. But neither did he offer any royalties or other financial benefits to the musicians whose work, as Bragg writes, played such an important role in “draw[ing] members — and advertising — to his business.” Under Bebo’s terms of service, musicians grant to Bebo a license to their work that is “fully-paid and royalty-free (meaning that Bebo is not required to pay you for the use on the Bebo Service of the Materials that you post), sub licensable (so that Bebo is able to use its affiliates and subcontractors such as Internet and WAP content delivery networks to provide the Bebo Service), and worldwide (because the Internet and the Bebo Service are global in reach).”
Bragg recalls that, in his discussions with Birch, royalties were “the elephant in the room” that went largely unmentioned. The owners of the Web 2.0 plantations like to pretend that they are simply the impresarios of “communities” and that the power over the sites resides with the “members.” It’s a wonderfully disingenuous idea. Bragg writes:
Social-networking sites like Bebo argue that they have no money to distribute – their value is their membership. Well, last week Michael Birch realized the value of his membership. I’m sure he’ll be rewarding those technicians and accountants who helped him achieve this success. Perhaps he should also consider the contribution of his artists. The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise. Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets. Now that the business has reaped huge benefits, surely they deserve a dividend.
When challenged in this way, the plantation owners counter that they are doing musicians a favor by providing them with a place to promote their work. But this, too, as Bragg notes, is disingenuous: “Radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business. Why should that not apply to the Internet, too?”
The fact is, it should. And arguments to the contrary are ultimately specious and self-serving. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it’s wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.
Digital sharecroppers of the world, unite!