The first iteration of the Internet, the one we are still somewhat experiencing, was built on the fundamental belief that content should be free.
In its early days, it was to be this fantastic social experiment where anyone and everyone would be able to share anything, anytime, with anyone. It was built on the premise that people would use it to share information and knowledge and ultimately make the world a better place.
Decades later, we are far from that result. As more entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to turn part of the Internet into lucrative businesses, the early dreams of sharing world knowledge and the free exchange of ideas has more or less vanished. With exceptions like Wikipedia, everywhere your browser ends up is now a revenue source for someone. Yet, strangely enough, it does not seem to eradicate the initial conviction that content should be free.
The Root of All Evil
Media companies’ early foray into space didn’t help. They timidly entered by offering for free everything they had previously charged for when in physical format. Financed by the advertising-supported television model, some even poured millions of dollars into creating fresh (free) content for their online division. While it made no one rich, it indeed confirmed in people’s minds, for a long while, that content should be free.
The notion of free content allowed others to take root in this fertile ground to build multi-billion dollars businesses. Feeding itself on this abundance of free content, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube, cynically took advantage of the situation. They offered to organize this “free content” into digestible silos based on taste, affinities, and genealogy. In other words, match an audience to a specific type of content, package the whole thing and sell it to advertisers. With the only cost for them being the package and not what is in the box. It’s the TV set without the cost of the programming. Imagine how much more revenue networks like CBS or NBC would have if they never had to pay for the programming.
Show Me the Money
But times, they are changing. Media companies have run out of money- and optimism. Their free content is now bordered by paywalls. Publications are seeing a healthy intake of paid subscribers who are not shy of paying for quality and exclusive content. NFT’s craze demonstrates people’s willingness to pay a large amount of money for the right to own digital content. Like Netflix or Disney +, streaming channels demonstrate that free content ( in exchange for advertising) is no longer the panacea. And Web services like Patreon or Onlyfans clearly confirm that users are more than happy to pull out their credit cards if they perceive value. Not for the packaging, but for what is inside.
The old Internet of free sharing is dying even if a whole slue of passionate and vocal old-timers – ironically aligned with multi-billion dollar companies – claim it shouldn’t. And for a good reason. Free content is not sustainable. A business should not expect to have access to free raw material and labor forever. It’s call slavery. Without compensation, creators are forced to find other sources of income to live.
Some companies have seen or were forced to see the changes ahead of others. YouTube has long offered profit-sharing, making some of its creators very successful. Others have let parasital businesses grow on their back, like Instagram and the influencer industry. Others, like Snapchat, are outright paying creators out of pocket to secure their content. As with Article 15 for news content, Article 17 of the Europe Directive on copyright is taking care of those who have yet to figure it out. With its implementation, it will be the start of the licensable Web.
Adapt or Die
The next Web is where content, where ever it might originate, will be compensated for. A place where if you want to build and sustain traffic, you will have to incentivize your content producers. But also a place where it will no longer be against the “Internet principle” to charge for content.
Already the pieces are getting into position. Google now includes licensing information with pictures search results, same as it has been doing for product searches for a while now. It will undoubtedly follow suit with video and, why not, text ( Forget music which is already well managed and the only piece of content currently adequately compensated.). Companies like “Catch & Release” help companies easily find and legally secure content wherever it might come from. It is not a stretch to see content licensing giants like Getty Images offering similar services.
Free sharing will not disappear, obviously. Museums and knowledge institutions will continue to make their library of public domain content available for anyone. Some creators and artists of all kinds will continue to offer their content for free, as they have done for millenniums. But unlike the last 30 years, it will be a choice rather than an obligation.
About the author: Paul Melcher is a photography and technology entrepreneur based in New York, and the founder of Kaptur, a news magazine about the visual tech space. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his writings on his blog, Thoughts of a Bohemian. Melcher offers his services as a consultant as well. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Stock photos licensed from Depositphotos