A Moron In A Hurry

October 20, 2006

Wag the Tail

Filed under: Uncategorized — nick @ 1:23 am

Ars hails Universal’s announcement that the 3,000 out of print tracks it released in February have been downloaded more than 250,000 times since,as an example of the long tail in action. I’m a bit of a copyleftist and don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. Yes, hooray for consumer choice and all those dying to get their hands on music by Eddie & the Hot Rods. Hiss for the hit to the public domain.

Here’s the problem with the long tail. Out of all the copyrighted material that Universal (or any other Big Content player) controls, only a fraction of it is valuable, and an even lesser percentage of the old stuff. The ‘short tail’ world made these materials generally worthless and, especially if copyright renewal were mandatory, made it more likely that the material would pass into the public domain. Would Universal complain about Eddie & the Hot Rods going into the public domain? No, but think about the Beatles. Remember how we dealt with Mickey? In the long tail world, all of these obscure materials can actually make money for their owners rather than toil away the years locked up because they’re not worthy of shelf space. Obscure works may not rake in much individually, but a company would enjoy a comfy cushion with a large enough library of them. Thus, the odds are good that Big Content is not only going to work harder in lengthening copyright terms, but also crack down on public archives, all thanks to Anderson’s neat little use of a picture (read his thoughts on Universal’s announcement here).

Recall the ominous warning of The New Yorker’s review of The Long Tail:

In recent years, eBay has sharply increased its commission rates; Amazon has admitted charging its customers different prices for the same goods; and Apple Computer has stubbornly refused to make its iTunes service compatible with portable music players other than iPods. Has the New Economy really moved past the familiar “winner take all” dynamic? That depends on whether you’re looking at the long tail—or at who’s wagging it.

It is probably the best critique of the book and the idea, unless you are of the Lee Gomes persuasion and like numbers.

I thought Anderson’s original article was smart, but was dissapointed with the book (does an Amazon rank of #147 qualify as being in the long tail yet?) because I was hungry for more. What does a coherent understanding of the long tail mean? Is such a view of online commerce an unquestionable good? Will access to the darkest corners of Big Content’s libraries make us more likely to accept it being wrapped in DRM? Anderson fails to address these questions, focusing more on the fact that the long tail represents a huge money machine for those with enough stuff to peddle.

Maybe a better title for this post would have been “If You Meet Chris Anderson on the Road, Don’t Drink His Kool-Aid.”

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