Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Proposal on Making Free Content Pay

There is a post this morning from Bill Doskotch about a Toronto Star article (which also mentions other articles.) The basic gist of it all is how to make newspapers pay. Newspapers have been declining for decades now, very few of them charge for online content and quality journalism costs money to produce. There are alot of comments on the Star article of the 'evolve or die' variety and it's true that all media must evolve or die. This isn't advice, it's reality, if media fails to evolve it will die. However, media cannot going on forever producing content for which there is no way to get paid.

Doskotch wonders, in particular, about whether newspapers should charge for online content. They shouldn't. That discussion has been over for a decade. If, for example, the Toronto Star decided to start charging for content tomorrow they would get a few subscribers but most people would simply go to the thousands of online news sites that don't charge (especially in a recession.) So, how do you pay for all the work that goes into that journalism? Ads alone won't do it. Internet advertising simply doesn't pay that well. If it did news organizations wouldn't have been slashing budgets and staff for the last decade, but there is another way.

The Songwriters Association of Canada put forward another unacceptable proposal. They called for a fee to be added to everyone's internet bill to pay for 'illegal' downloads'. Their proposal is not acceptable primarily because the suggested fee would go to the SAC who would then decide on their own how to distribute it. How does the SAC know how many times a particular song has been downloaded? They don't know. They would have to guesstimate and what about Canadian musiciains who weren't members of SAC? They would have to join if they wanted to get paid and then - what about films? what about television programs? e-books? etc., do we set up separate fees given to various organizations to divy up as they see fit? The short answer, and the long one, is no. We simply cannot institute what would basically be a new tax to be distributed according to the whim of a private organization. However, they are not far off the mark.

What might work is a centralized fee for all content. So, let's say (as a starting point) that $5 / month was tacked onto everyone's bill. According to this there are 28 million internet users in Canada, the collected fees would come to 1.68 billion annually. So that is the pool to be divided. The Internet Service Providers would be required to pay the administration costs.

The administration would be set up as a bureaucracy that ran something like Google Adwords. The regulating agency would provide a snipit of code that would track your traffic - not just by visitors but by bandwidth. So large files would count for more than small ones. A feature film, or a new music album is incredibly time and cost intensive and it simply wouldn't be fair to only pay the hosting site for a single visitor when someone came and downloaded an entire feature film. So, bandwidth used would be measured and the site would be paid based out of the pool based on that.

Like Google's adwords there would also be rules. Sites that tricked people into visiting them, or set up robot software to artifically increase their traffic would be kicked out of the program. Sites that used other people's (unlicensed) content or sites that deliberately made their files larger than they needed to be would also be removed from the program. Sites that already charged for content would be intelligible etc.

Initially this would only be available for Canadian web sites but that could change. If other countries wanted to adopt similar rules, and if mutually acceptable guidelines could be found then the program could become international in scope. This would discourage the 'not available in Canada' messages we sometimes see.

On the whole this would allow consumers to pay for content without even thinking about it - no forms to fill out or credit cards. It would also encourage content producers to put their best stuff online. It would encourage, for example, television producers to put their shows online, it would encourage recording artists to put their music online and it would make all internet content pay, without the content producers actually having to do much - no ad sales required, no elaborate licensing contracts - you put good content online and you get visitors and when you get visitors you get paid, automatically.

I think that a program like this would answer the questions asked by Bill Doskotch and countless others almost since the birth of the internet: "How do you make money providing free content ?" My answer may or may not be the best one, but it is an answer - if you don't like mine, please tell me yours.


Downes said...

Good idea. Then I could gt some money from my blog, from my recorded audio conversations, from my home video, from my contributions to discussion boards and mailing lists, from my lickr photos, from...


You meant only *professionals* would get a cut of this $5 content fee.

Well, then I don't like the idea at all. Why should they get money, and us not, just because they're greed, and we're not. Hm?

Justin Beach said...

Did I say it was limited to 'professionals'? I'm pretty sure I didn't. Of course you would only get paid for your own web sites - so posting on a bulletin board would make money for whoever owned the bulletin board.

Anonymous said...

It's a good idea, Justin. And it easily deals with the professional/user gen question because users vote with their clicks. If they are Downes' site a lot, then he gets his appropriate cut of the fund and becomes a "greed" (sic) professional.

I like the use of the Google Ad Words-like system to track use and bandwidth.

But what happens if your content sits on a nonproprietary website... like YouTube or or is widgetized and goes on Downes's site?

Justin Beach said...

I don't think that's much of a problem. If I put a CBC video on my site I'm promoting the CBC - driving traffic to them. If people like it they will go to the CBC for more, not to me.

So I may get a few visitors out of it, but so will the CBC and the CBC may get regular, return visitors out of it. So both of us win. They get paid for having good content and I get paid (less) for promoting their good content.

If you look, for example, at the aggregators on this site like this for example - it publishes headlines, along with a date and source and the first few sentences of the story. If you click on one of those headlines you go to the generating site.

So, I might get paid for visitors to the aggregator but ultimately it's driving traffic to the content creators and increasing their traffic.

The reality is that if you are going to have a successful site built on linking to other people's content you'd better have good taste in what to link to (if people are going to keep coming back) and even then you're still driving traffic to the creators. So you get paid (as a marketer of content) and the creators get paid appropriately for creating good content.

There is obviously a value in creating good content, but there is also a value in finding and promoting good content.