Digital Rights

In a World of Literary Blogs, Can Internet Writers Actually Make a Decent Living?

A recent article in the International Herald Tribune by computer scientist and composer Jaron Lanier argues the case for a new model for compensating artists, writers and other creative types. Despite an earlier advocacy for Internet piracy, he now admits he was wrong, and that the promise of the Web to increase opportunities for getting paid for creative output has not materialized.

In my view, the situation is not as dire as he implies. Yes, there are many writers who would like to earn a living from the Internet, but it’s simply not going to happen, due to the huge numbers of “wannabes,” and limits to the demand for paid content. Aggregation services tend to function as filters for quality — in much the same way as publishers trawl through piles of submitted manuscripts, looking for the hidden gem that might turn a profit – but ultimately, the market will decide.

Simple economics suggests that not every writer can be paid for their writing – there are simply too many of them, and a huge influx of enthusiastic amateurs has made it even more difficult for good writers to have their voice heard. Fortunately, I believe that the filtering mechanisms will adapt naturally as the ecosystem develops, as we already see many fine writers are featured on Blogs such as BoingBoing, Salon, Technorati and even Digg and Kuro5hin.

Whether these writers make money is an interesting question, which cuts to the heart of Lanier’s thesis – that the advertising model (as supported by Google’s Adwords) is not enough to earn a decent living, and that some other micro-payment model is required to solve the problem of the “free rider.” Technically, such systems exist, but tend to live behind “walled gardens” (such as AOL), or are burdened with restrictive Digital Rights Management (DRM), such as Amazon’s popular new Kindle e-Book reader.

For me, the more interesting issue is that the content providers – or more specifically, the publishers – haven’t yet come to terms with the demands of their customers. Currently, many of us watch TV, which is laden with excessive advertising that disrupts our enjoyment of great programs like “Dexter” and “Heroes.” Increasingly, however, there is a new generation of Internet-literate scofflaws who spurn the advertising, and prefer to trade (mostly illegally) in high-definition digital downloads of their favorite TV shows and movies.

As this trend increases, advertisers will see a decline in their revenues, leading to attempts by studios to be more restrictive with DRM – an effort that is doomed to fail, for good technical reasons. Their only hope is to adapt their business model (as Apple’s widely-successful iTunes has shown can be done with music), so that consumers have more choice over what they download – and pay a fair price for content which is not locked down with DRM that restricts their options for viewing the shows they want to see.

Ultimately, it may be that a reputation-based system may evolve (such as Cory Doctorow’s “Whuffie”) – but I’m not holding my breath. History has shown that artists and writers need some support from the wealthy to create their best works – but that until we achieve a post-scarcity economy, there will always be a surplus of artists and writers (however talented) starving in a garret.

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