Don’t get me wrong–I love books, I love movies, I love music. But in cold dollars-and-cents terms, how much do they figure in the grand scheme of things on the Internet or in the American economy at large? The approximately $39 billion that U.S. consumers pay each year for books–much of it going to middle people rather than writers and publishers–is just a speck in our $11-trillion economy. Especially at a time of mean cuts at local libraries, maybe we’d better see the grand picture and create a TeleRead-style national digital library system paid for with a mix of tax money and philanthropy. We couldn’t get everything online for free. But in the cosmos, the costs are not that gigantic, given the value of shared knowledge’the very stuff on which oppressive Digital Rights Management schemes will wreak mayhem. No socialism here, especially since I’m a capitalist. Just practicality.
I don’t know how Andrew Odlyzko, now a math professor and assistant vice president for research at the University of Minnesota, would view the TeleRead plan. In fact, given his particular economic philosophy, I suspect he would probably oppose it since his mindset seems to be to focus more on costs than on benefits. Still, in recent years, his papers have nicely backed up my premise that just like Hollywood stars, including the biggest of all in D.C., movie lobbyist Jack Valenti, content people can be awesomely swell-headed about their own importance. Ditto for recording lobbyist Hilary Rosen, Ms. RIAA. Odlyzko or an editor has even gone so far as to title one paper Content is Not King. More recently, in The Many Paradoxes of Broadband, Odlyzko alludes to the costs of telecom vs. the costs of music content:
The impractical way for stimulating broadband adoption is to make music free on the Internet. Currently, music file sharing appears to be one of the main drivers behind the spread of broadband. (It certainly is among the main generators of traffic.) Instead of using the law to choke file-sharing, perhaps we should encourage the telecom industry to buy off the music studios. Total recorded music sales in the U.S. comes to a grand total of about $15 billion a year, while telecom spending is over 20 times higher. Moreover, of that $15 billion, only about half goes to the studios. Thus, in the abstract, it might be a wise investment for the phone companies to buy out the studios. This is of course wildly impractical for business and legal reasons, but it would quickly stimulate demand for broadband. (It would also demonstrate that the content tail should not be wagging the content dog, as it too often does in political, legal and business discussions.) A slightly more practical approach would be for the government to enact a compulsory licensing scheme that would have a similar effect. However, given all the concerns about fairness and consensus, it is doubtful that the government could come up with a scheme fast enough to do much good.
Odlyzko, of course, as indicated by the title of his paper, is discussing content costs in a broadband context. He goes on to suggest that a good way to nurture broadband would be to encourage the growth of wireless, including the humble voice variety, which in turn would lead to widespread adoption of broadband wireless, a far, far more promising technology than cable. That’s what he’s really driving at.
Just the same, as I see it in a TeleRead context, his message along the way is loud and clear. In the big picture, content just isn’t that huge a cost. Now add that to the other advantages of TeleRead such as stable links and reliable archives. Also consider the possibility of creating an infrastructure solid enough for private philanthropists to support–plan. Have them augment tax money and circumvent the censorship-related limitations of public funding. Do the aforementioned, and the library model, for e-books and very likely for other media, truly makes sense as I see it.