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Friday, December 16, 2005

The Web Tightens Up

In 1997, the National Geographic magazine issued a 30-CD set of all of its issues for the previous 108 years. A number of photographers and writers whose work was included sued for additional compensation (for those of you who aren't professionals, payment for original pictures is usually determined based on intended use, and if a client retroactively decides to expand its use of a photograph—for instance, if it decides to use an editorial image for a cover, or a catalog image for an advertising campaign—the photographer is owed additional compensation). They were turned down by a Federal court in a ruling which called the CDs a "revision" permissable under copyright law. The ruling was later upheld by a Court of Appeals. Last Monday, the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) refused to hear the case, without further explanation.

The issue of who gets paid for what, and how, is going through a radical transformation. Record companies (who had it good in the past and are clinging to their privileges) are obsessed with copy protection, to the extreme that Sony was recently revealed to have installed what amounts to malware on its recent music CDs—play one in your computer, and it secretly installs spyware, spyware that can even be used by third parties to hack your personal hard drive. Clearly, that's going too far. But if everything's free (or free to copy), how do the content providers get their due?

Payment for creative work has never been remotely fair. Vincent Van Gogh used to have to trade finished paintings for new tubes of paint; on the other hand, I remember a gallery show I saw in New York City years ago—a famous painter (I think it was David Salle) had essentially had two rolls of undistinguished vacation snaps made into 16x20 dye transfers. The gallery had put $25,000 pricetags on the photos, and the gallery attendant gushed to me about what a marvelous opportunity this was, since so little of the painter's "work" could be aquired for so little money. Vincent should have been so lucky.

What is most likely is that content will simply follow the money—however it emerges that the providers can get paid, that's what they'll create. Earnest attempts to find subsidies for traditional modes of content provision will gradually go extinct. Nothing wrong with that, from an economic standpoint anyway.

Recently, the Web has begun to tighten up a bit. While 99.99% of what's online is still free, some of the best and most trafficked sites have begun to erect subscription "gates" to their content. The New York Times, said to be the #1 news site on the Web, makes essential content available for free but charges $50 annually for most ancilliary content, including columnists. In photography, PDN (formerly Photo District News, the must-have journal for commercial photographers) now charges a $65 annual fee for its Website content.

It remains to be seen how these attempts will play out. The content on large, established custom sites is clearly worth paying for; however, individuals cannot possibly afford an infinite number of such subscriptions, so the number of sites able to demand direct payment will always be limited. And will the presence of the "gates" have the effect of driving surfers to free sites just below the pay sites in the quality hierarchy? I don't know. But I don't read New York Times editorial columns online any more.

Interesting times, these.



Blogger BobR said...

Speaking of the New York Times, have you seen the article on Michael Lesy's "Angel's World" ... some brilliant street photography from 40 years ago.

4:29 AM  

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