The Adams Theory of Content Value: As our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.

I heard someplace, albeit unreliably, that 90% of all music that people own for personal use is stolen. Let's agree that the real figure is some large number, if not 90%. And you can already obtain every top-selling book, TV show, and movie on the Internet for free, assuming you don't mind mixing your shopping with your copyright crime sprees. Newspapers, magazines, and comics such as Dilbert have been freely available on the Internet for years.

At the moment, plenty of people still pay for media content. Those reasons will evaporate. Let's consider books. Most people still prefer old-timey tree-based books, but the Kindle and other ebook readers are eating into that preference quickly. I haven't yet heard of anyone buying a Kindle and later returning to a preference for regular paper books. It appears to be a one way ride. The Kindle, and similar devices, are designed for buying legal copies of books, which is a doomed attempt to forestall the inevitability of all media content becoming free.

Now comes the iPad, which is destined to become primarily a criminal tool, and it will cause a change in society the same way that widespread illegal boozing caused a change in Prohibition laws. I'm not saying the changes will be bad, just inevitable.

The iPad has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. Once you have an iPad, the only reasons to ever buy physical books, magazines, or newspapers will be:
  1. You might want to read outdoors, where the iPad isn't so good.
  2. You don't want to break the law.
  3. It's still a little bit hard to search for illegal content.
  4. Kindle is cheaper than an iPad.
My guess is that the iPad will someday be easy to read in bright light, perhaps working in concert with your sunglasses of the future. And when Kindle owners begin to factor in the unnecessary cost of books, they will start to see the iPad as a bargain.

Then there's the issue of not wanting to break the law. Every kid understands that stealing is wrong. But ask the average ten-year old about copyright law and watch for the blank stare. Students are taught to freely download copyrighted content from the Internet for school reports, which I understand is legal in the context of education. And at the same time, every school kid is learning from friends that downloading music and movies from the Internet is common practice. Paying for content on the Internet is strictly a generational thing, and it will pass.

Those of you reading this blog are already savvy enough to find and download any content you want for free. But I'll bet the average 40-something user of the Internet still wouldn't know how to search the Internet for criminally free content. At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page. When that happens, Amazon.com will primarily be selling electronics, household products, and clothes.

I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books - and good ones - for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won't exist.

As an author, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the media content of the future will suck because there will be no true professionals producing it. But I think suckiness is solved by better search capabilities. Somewhere out in the big old world are artists who are more talented than we can imagine, and willing to create content for free, for a variety of reasons. And so, as our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.



Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +80
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Jun 1, 2010
The good news, if you are correct, is that the barrier to entry would be much lower. A writer would no longer have to convince a publisher to take a chance on him/her as an author. The bad news is that the vetting and editorial process does have value both to readers and to authors.

You theorize that talented content producers would spring up from all corners and grace us with poignant, beautiful prose, humor and poetry - in exchange for the non-monetary rewards that have ever motivated the true artist.

I think this will happen to some extent, but we will also lose access to talent (and never know what we've lost). The real question is how this cloud-based editorial review process will work. Will writing of true merit be discovered and propagated? By whom? Motivated by what?

What is clearly required to sustain such bright new world is an educated leisure class who have enough personal resources to allow them to focus their personal time and effort on sleuthing out and elevating beauty from the common mire.

The reality is that the role the publishing industry plays is an essential one and it cannot be eliminated entirely - but it can adapt and change - assuming we have an intellectual scab force at the ready.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 1, 2010
The amount of pirated content is, I think, directly related to the state of the Internet in a given country. Take the following as an example that probably bares no factual truth or reasoning.

As recently as 2009, South Africa, did not have iTunes (it did have iTunes, just no way to pay for the online shop) or PayPal. Getting music off the internet if you had a iPod was impossible. Piracy in South Africa was almost enforced on the population. Now that SA citizens have access to iTunes, I am willing to bet (once again based on gut feel and nothing else) that the amount of piracy on in that country has been reduced.

My point is that people are prepared to pay for things as long as the content is good and the cost is negligible. It is a lot easier and less risky to get a song from iTunes than to troll the net for it.

Having said that, when it's as easy to get a song of a random site, peoples attitudes will probably change.
Jun 1, 2010
I know a blacksmith who does ornate metalwork for houses although he's been hit hard by the current economic climate.

I dont think, or hope at least, that books will ever disappear. I have bought ebooks but definitely prefer paper copies. And even if paper books go, I still think there will be authors. People thought as few as 5 years ago that the music industry was dying as a result of piracy - it was definitely having an affect. Now with reasonable electronic music purchases available it has rejuvinated the industry. Perhaps it will take a few more years to happen with books.

I think too early to say but it will all be ok.
Jun 1, 2010
I think there's a flaw in your theory, although it's hard to explain. Let me say this.

The latest Stephen King book "X" is not as good as Moby Dick. A copy of Moby Dick costs about $1.25 (public domain.) The latest Stephen King book "X" costs $40. The Stephen King book "X" will out-sell Moby Dick in the short term, although Moby Dick is much higher quaility than "X".
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 1, 2010
I think people will always pay a small amount for content that is conveniently and efficiently delivered, with some sort of benchmark quality guaranteee - think of the market for iphone and android apps. Becasue they are sensibly priced, and you can return them directly for your money back if they don't work, people are very happy to pay for them. Few people spend time search the web for the pirate version of a $1 app.

what's missing from the web is electronic cash - a convenient, cheap way to make micro-payments. When that comes all sorts of markets for paid-for content will open up, it's just that the model is different. Instead of selling 50,000 books for $10 some authors will be aiming to sell 50,000,000 of something for 10c (making 10x as much money as they do it)
Jun 1, 2010
"The iPad has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet"

Unless it's Flash-based, of course. ;)
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog