Heads or Tails

by on September 10, 2006 · 28 comments

Chris Anderson was nice enough to send me a review copy of his new book, The Long Tail, which has been storming the best-seller lists. So far (a third of the way through) the book lives up to the hype: it’s a quick read that’s packed with interesting stories and insights about the changing rules of the information economy. If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you should.

For those who haven’t yet encountered Anderson’s work, he argues that by reducing the costs of distributing information, the Internet has radically expanded the set of products that are economically viable. A big Wal-Mart might have 5,000 CDs on its shelves, but at the iTunes Music Store, I can choose from among hundreds of thousands of albums. Anderson dubs these less-popular works the “long tail” of music, and he demonstrates that while each of these “misses” aren’t commercially significant by themselves, when you add them up, they comprise a significant part of the total demand for music. Anderson demonstrates that the same phenomenon can be found everywhere you look: Amazon makes a substantial fraction of its book revenue from books that can’t be found in any Borders. A substantial fraction of Netflix rentals can’t be found in any Blockbuster.

Anderson’s book explores the implications of this shift. He argues that once consumers have the option of wandering far from the beaten path of mainstream hits, many of them discover stuff they like a lot better than the mainstream fare. Now that “long tail” products are readily available, the demand for them is growing, as more and more consumers find new products they never would have found in a pre-Internet age. This, in turn represents a serious threat to the hit-dominated culture of incumbent content companies, whose businesses are carefully tuned to cranking out mainstream fare that will appeal to the broadest possible audience. The upshot is that over time, the tail will be more an more important, transforming our culture from the homogenous, hit-dominated world of the 20th Century to a decentralized culture with thousands of micro-niches of varying sizes. In short, Anderson argues that the blockbuster isn’t an inevitable feature of modern media, but rather is an artifact of the centralized distribution technologies of the 20th Century.

I don’t have any real quarrel with that thesis. But “what he said” doesn’t make for an interesting blog entry, so below the cut, I’ll offer a quick criticism.


Around page 75, he argues that peoples’ attitude toward copyright are driven by their position on the long tail distribution:

Up at the head, where producers benefit from the powerful, but expensive, channels of mass-market distribution, business considerations rule. It’s the domain of professionals, and as much as they might love what they do, it’s a job, too. The costs of production and distribution are too high to let economics take a backseat to creativity. Money drives the process.

Down in the tail, where distribution and production costs are low (thanks to the democratizing power of digital technologies), business considerations are often secondary. Instead, people create for a variety of other reasons–expression, fun, experimentation, and so on…

Each of these perspectives changes how the creators feel about copyright. At the top of the curve, the studios, major labels, and publishers defend their copyright fiercely. In the middle, the domain of independent labels and academic presses, it’s a gray area. Further down the tail, more firmly in the noncommercial zone, an increasing number of content creators are choosing explicitly to give up some of their copyright protections.

I think Anderson is right as far as he goes. But I think that what’s happening is actually a little bit more radical than he’s suggesting. There are already long tail distributions in which the people at the head are eschewing copyright, and I think we’re likely to see more of them as the long tail revolution picks up steam.

The blogosphere is Exhibit A in this phenomenon. As Anderson acknowledges, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Atrios, and other blogs at the top of the blogospheric totem pole link and quote one another promiscuously, with nary a word about copyright protection. I can’t think of a single blog that charges for access, and that’s probably because any site that tried it would lose 99 percent of its traffic overnight. Now, it’s true that if we consider these blogs to be part of a larger curve called “punditry,” it’s true that the folks at the head of that curve, say the New York Times op-ed page, say, are still fiercely defending their copyrights. But I suspect that’s a temporary phenomenon, as these papers coast on the momentum created by their dominance of 20th Century media. Those folks still have a large enough market share that they can make serious money by setting up toll booths. But doing so comes at the expense of their long-term influence. The columnists of the New York Times got a lot more attention from the blogosphere before they went behind the Times Select paywall. In the long run, the Times will have to either tear down their paywall, or their columnists will fade into obscurity. Why should people pay to read the Times’s anointed pundits when there are as good (or at least nearly as good) pundits whose work is available for free?

And as I’ve argued before, the same will eventually be true of the music industry. Not because of peer-to-peer piracy, but because there are simply too many ambitious and talented musicians who, given a choice between being rich or being famous, will choose being famous every time. Musicians will give away their music because that makes it more likely people will listen to it, just as bloggers give away their content to get more readers. And once music fans discover how much high quality music is available for free, they’ll begin to wonder why they should pay for music at all, just as many readers are beginning to wonder what’s so special about Paul Krugman and David Brooks. When supply exceeds demand, as it seems to for both music and punditry, the equilibrium price is zero.

So I think Anderson is actually understating his thesis when he suggests that people at the head tend to resist the copying of their products, while people at the tail tend to encourage it. To the extent that there exist people who are anti-copying, they’re likely to be at the head. But I suspect that when the long tail revolution finishes a few decades from now, there will be many categories of content, such as music and punditry, where liberal copying is the norm all the way up the curve.

  • Greg Lastowka

    Tim — I think your critique of Anderson is generally right. While the typical amateur might, sensibly, not object to further copying, this hardly means that those who want to promote further copying are always amateurs.

    I’ve posted an SSRN draft of a piece that tries to put this shift in the context of reputation incentives vs. monetary incentives. As I argue in the article, creativity fueled by reputation incentives has a long tradition and it is not necessarily anti-IP or anti-market. If you consider the enormous investments in advertising, for instance (and particularly in viral advertising as an effort to harness decentralized P2P-like distribution), you can see markets and big corporate players spending a good deal of money trying to get people to make copies of creative works.

    Here’s a link if you are interested:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=917396

    It’s forthcoming in Boston University Law Review (Feb. 2007).

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    I will check it out. Thanks!

  • Greg Lastowka

    Tim — I think your critique of Anderson is generally right. While the typical amateur might, sensibly, not object to further copying, this hardly means that those who want to promote further copying are always amateurs.

    I’ve posted an SSRN draft of a piece that tries to put this shift in the context of reputation incentives vs. monetary incentives. As I argue in the article, creativity fueled by reputation incentives has a long tradition and it is not necessarily anti-IP or anti-market. If you consider the enormous investments in advertising, for instance (and particularly in viral advertising as an effort to harness decentralized P2P-like distribution), you can see markets and big corporate players spending a good deal of money trying to get people to make copies of creative works.

    Here’s a link if you are interested:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract

    It’s forthcoming in Boston University Law Review (Feb. 2007).

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    I will check it out. Thanks!

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    This, in turn represents a serious threat to the hit-dominated culture of incumbent content companies, whose businesses are carefully tuned to cranking out mainstream fare that will appeal to the broadest possible audience.

    And as this hit dominated culture loses ground, it will start to lose money, and at a certain tipping point, that hit-dominated culture will become a money loser, and it will very quickly evaporate. But the process won’t be pretty–I am sure we will see all kinds of legal challenges to distribution of long-tail content.

    Interesting, also, that the paper above itself is available for free download.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    This, in turn represents a serious threat to the hit-dominated culture of incumbent content companies, whose businesses are carefully tuned to cranking out mainstream fare that will appeal to the broadest possible audience.

    And as this hit dominated culture loses ground, it will start to lose money, and at a certain tipping point, that hit-dominated culture will become a money loser, and it will very quickly evaporate. But the process won’t be pretty–I am sure we will see all kinds of legal challenges to distribution of long-tail content.

    Interesting, also, that the paper above itself is available for free download.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Greg, would it be OK to copy/paste your paper onto Wikipedia?

    Enigma, perhaps you can do the honors.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Greg, would it be OK to copy/paste your paper onto Wikipedia?

    Enigma, perhaps you can do the honors.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Tim: I’m fairly sure that if I registered ‘koswithoutadvertising.com’ and republished all of Kos’s stuff, he might get a little miffed- probably less miffed than madonna might be at ‘madonnawithoutfifteendollars.com’, but still miffed. Bloggers may start from a generally more lenient copyright perspective, but once revenue gets involved, they are still likely to get itchy if the revenue is threatened. And quite a few blogs these days are popping up with very traditional ‘all rights reserved, no republication without request’ copyright notices from day one- even when no revenue is involved.

    Greg: sounds like a fascinating paper, thanks for the link.

  • http://www@pff.com Noel Le

    Good point Luis. Well, Greg, you have a “natural monopoly” on the paper- your ability to answer questions and explain it would deter any effort at misappropriation. Still I thougt Enigma could easily be baited given his glee at anything about Wikhpedia.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Tim: I’m fairly sure that if I registered ‘koswithoutadvertising.com’ and republished all of Kos’s stuff, he might get a little miffed- probably less miffed than madonna might be at ‘madonnawithoutfifteendollars.com’, but still miffed. Bloggers may start from a generally more lenient copyright perspective, but once revenue gets involved, they are still likely to get itchy if the revenue is threatened. And quite a few blogs these days are popping up with very traditional ‘all rights reserved, no republication without request’ copyright notices from day one- even when no revenue is involved.

    Greg: sounds like a fascinating paper, thanks for the link.

  • Noel Le

    Good point Luis. Well, Greg, you have a “natural monopoly” on the paper- your ability to answer questions and explain it would deter any effort at misappropriation. Still I thougt Enigma could easily be baited given his glee at anything about Wikhpedia.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Luis,

    That’s an excellent point, and one I can’t really quarrel with. I was being sloppy when I said that people at the head would eschew copyright. Clearly what the top bloggers have been doing is dramatically relaxing their the terms on which they offer their content. But they’re not abandoning copyright entirely, and they’re unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.

    But as a practical matter, I don’t think that koswithoutadvertising.com would have much of an impact on Kos’s bottom line. Kos’s readers like Kos, and they’re probably happy to help him out by looking at the version of his site with ads, assuming the ads aren’t intrusive. And if the ads were intrusive, koswithoutadvertising.com would be the least of his worries. The far bigger worry would be all the traffic he’d be losing to Atrios and TPM.

    So yes, Kos would probably miffed at the existence of koswithoutadvertising.com. But he wouldn’t be anywhere near as fixated on that as the RIAA is on stamping out bootleg Madonna songs. Sites that knock off content that’s already available for free are going to have a much harder time gaining an audience than sites offering content that costs money elsewhere.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Luis,

    That’s an excellent point, and one I can’t really quarrel with. I was being sloppy when I said that people at the head would eschew copyright. Clearly what the top bloggers have been doing is dramatically relaxing their the terms on which they offer their content. But they’re not abandoning copyright entirely, and they’re unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.

    But as a practical matter, I don’t think that koswithoutadvertising.com would have much of an impact on Kos’s bottom line. Kos’s readers like Kos, and they’re probably happy to help him out by looking at the version of his site with ads, assuming the ads aren’t intrusive. And if the ads were intrusive, koswithoutadvertising.com would be the least of his worries. The far bigger worry would be all the traffic he’d be losing to Atrios and TPM.

    So yes, Kos would probably miffed at the existence of koswithoutadvertising.com. But he wouldn’t be anywhere near as fixated on that as the RIAA is on stamping out bootleg Madonna songs. Sites that knock off content that’s already available for free are going to have a much harder time gaining an audience than sites offering content that costs money elsewhere.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    “Why should people pay to read the Times’s anointed pundits when there are as good (or at least nearly as good) pundits whose work is available for free?”

    For the same reason they pay $$$ for WATER when there is as good (or at least nearly as good) stuff coming out of the kitchen faucet.

    I’m not going to bother finding the links, but there’s a lot of debunking of Anderson, to the extent that yeah, there’s a shift, but it’s more like 80/20 to 70/30 – matters if you’re in the retail industry, but nowhere near as big a deal as it’s being hyped.

    Beware anyone who tells you “This new technology makes things all warm and fuzzy”. It has a habit of not working out that way (things change, but not necessarily the way the hypester predicts).

    Exhibit A: The DMCA.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    “Why should people pay to read the Times’s anointed pundits when there are as good (or at least nearly as good) pundits whose work is available for free?”

    For the same reason they pay $$$ for WATER when there is as good (or at least nearly as good) stuff coming out of the kitchen faucet.

    I’m not going to bother finding the links, but there’s a lot of debunking of Anderson, to the extent that yeah, there’s a shift, but it’s more like 80/20 to 70/30 – matters if you’re in the retail industry, but nowhere near as big a deal as it’s being hyped.

    Beware anyone who tells you “This new technology makes things all warm and fuzzy”. It has a habit of not working out that way (things change, but not necessarily the way the hypester predicts).

    Exhibit A: The DMCA.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    As Anderson acknowledges, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Atrios, and other blogs at the top of the blogospheric totem pole link and quote one another promiscuously, with nary a word about copyright protection.

    I seldom frequent the huge “shopping mall” blogs like Glenn Reynolds &c, so I’m not exactly sure just what “quote one another promiscuously” really means. But how is quoting an excerpt even from a New York Times editorial, for the purpose of commentary and criticism, anything other than a fair use? Why is copyright even entering the picture here?

  • Ned Ulbricht

    As Anderson acknowledges, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Atrios, and other blogs at the top of the blogospheric totem pole link and quote one another promiscuously, with nary a word about copyright protection.

    I seldom frequent the huge “shopping mall” blogs like Glenn Reynolds &c, so I’m not exactly sure just what “quote one another promiscuously” really means. But how is quoting an excerpt even from a New York Times editorial, for the purpose of commentary and criticism, anything other than a fair use? Why is copyright even entering the picture here?

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Ned, most of that quoting probably is fair use, although in some cases a blogger will quote the entirety of another blogger’s post, if the post is relatively short, which might be a grey area as far as copyright is concerned.

    But my point is more about peoples’ attitudes towards such quoting. The music industry and Hollywood will sue if a 2-second clip from one of their songs or movies appears in a mash-up. In contrast, bloggers tend to be happy to have even large selections of their works quoted by other bloggers. Whatever the legal status of those behaviors, the attitudes toward unauthorized copying are clearly different.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Ned, most of that quoting probably is fair use, although in some cases a blogger will quote the entirety of another blogger’s post, if the post is relatively short, which might be a grey area as far as copyright is concerned.

    But my point is more about peoples’ attitudes towards such quoting. The music industry and Hollywood will sue if a 2-second clip from one of their songs or movies appears in a mash-up. In contrast, bloggers tend to be happy to have even large selections of their works quoted by other bloggers. Whatever the legal status of those behaviors, the attitudes toward unauthorized copying are clearly different.

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