Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, August 2, 2000

Selling Ice Cubes to Eskimos

Steven Brill's Contentville.com will sell you this column for $2.95. Or, you can just read it for free at www.byte.com.

Last week, I spotted an ad for a new site called Contentville.com. This was, I soon learned, the latest venture of Steven Brill, the laywer-turned-watchdog who founded Court TV to keep the legal system honest, and then founded the magazine Brill's Content to keep journalism on its toes.

The "value proposition" stated on Contentville's archive page was:

Perform lightning fast searches of the archives of nearly two thousand publications, including the New York Times, then purchase and download for immediate reading. Readers rejoice.

On a whim, I searched for my own name, and turned up a list that included not only my book, but also a bunch of my byte.com columns.

To my considerable surprise, the search-results page was also a shopping page on which these columns, freely available at byte.com, are being sold for $2.95 a pop. Or, to members of the Contentville Citizens ClubSM, just $2.80, a 5% discount! Of course, as the order confirmation page charitably points out:

There are no shipping costs for electronic goods. After completing the check out process you will be able to download these items right away.

Nifty! While Napster has everyone's shorts in a knot over content piracy, Contentville has a whole different take on the new economy. It reminds me of my dad's favorite business plan: a classified ad with a postal address, and the line:

Last chance to send your dollar!

When I mentioned this in my newsgroup, Alan Shutko asked the logical question:

What does CMP's legal department think about this?

I don't yet know; the matter is being investigated. It may well turn out that Contentville did acquire rights to the material through a clearinghouse. I hope there's no piracy going on here. But if not, then what, exactly, is going on?

The value of convenience

A friend of mine, Harry Wolhandler, who does e-commerce and online market research, offered this observation:

Apart from considerations of copyright, I think it says something about the transaction value of knowledge. What's $3 today, vs. a professional spending a little more time and effort to discover info on their own? Try bribing your kids to do the laundry for $3.

The payment actually appears to be for location and transmission, since the content is available free if -- and only if -- you know where to look for it.

As Harry points out, Contentville's legal page -- that is, the page on which you can find legal documents that Contentville thinks you might find want to read -- explains:

Occasionally, Legal Documents that we sell at Contentville are available elsewhere on the Internet for free. The reason we charge you for them is that we have taken the trouble to gather them in one place; thus you are paying us a small fee -- $2.95 - $3.95 -- for the convenience of having easy access to them.

Convenience and easy access? Judge for yourself. Contentville's legal page features a section, entitled "Some of our favorites." The first two items listed are:

I went to one of my current favorite search engines, All The Web, and typed in the phrase "Deposition of Michael Ledeen." The first result was this page at a site called www.FreeRepublic.com, which is "an online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web." That FreeRepublic.com page is, like many of the pages on this bustling site, a discussion wrapped around a link to an article. The link leads to the deposition itself, which is available at the The American Spectator's site, where I learned among other things that Michael Ledeen, deposed in the Drudge libel case, is foreign editor of that magazine. I also found a Spectator editorial by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. that locates the Ledeen deposition within a milieu involving the White House, Sidney Blumenthal, and Matt Drudge in the summer of 1998.

I'd say it's easier, and more convenient, to access the Ledeen deposition by way of a search engine than to fill out the forms required to buy it at Contentville.com. When you do find the deposition yourself, you're naturally led to sites that supply useful context. Contentville's "value proposition" has, in this case, nothing to do with convenience or ease of access. Rather, the value lies in calling attention to the item as being a legal document of some interest. If it weren't featured on Contentville's legal page, you'd have to first know that there was a Ledeen deposition in order to look for it. Then, there'd be no difference between finding it at Contentville, or in any Internet search engine -- except for the $2.95 "convenience" fee, that is.

For my next experiment, I went back to All The Web and typed "will testament marilyn monroe" into the search box. The very first result, a page entitled Wills on the Web (Actual Wills of Celebrities & Others) at www.ca-probate.com, links to Marilyn Monroe's will at (oh, the irony!) the "famous wills" page of Court TV's web site. There, you can find 16 wills -- a $47.20 value -- for free! All these, and many more, are available (for free) at www.ca-probate.com.

Contentville isn't selling ease of access or convenience, so much as an editorial process that selects and (one would hope) contextualizes items of interest. Is that valuable? Hugely so. In an era of crushing information overload, we depend on editorial services to draw important matters to our attention, and frame them in a useful context. What bothers me about Contentville is the way it misrepresents the nature of its service. If there's real editorial effort involved (and you can, of course, judge for yourself the quality of Contentville's editorial process), then isn't that the product I should be asked to pay for? Or, as in the case of byte.com, that advertisers should be asked to pay for?

The leper colony of publishing

As it turns out, I wasn't the only person to raise an eyebrow at Contentville last week. A lot of other writers noticed their work for sale there too. Wired News ran a story about the flap which said in part:

The National Writers Union met with Brill on Tuesday and reached a tentative agreement for all independent articles to be processed through the Publications Rights Clearing House -- which is run by the NWU -- before being posted on Contentville.

"Brill is way ahead of the pack," said [NWU president Jonathan] Tasini. "He's being ethical and smart."

Another story, in FEED Magazine, puts a slightly different spin on things:

Some publishers are shocked at Contentville's chutzpa. The Village Voice says it licensed EBSCO to use content for educational and research purposes. "It's outrageously unethical. Nobody ever dreamed of this. It's just gross," Voice counsel Barbara Cohen said last week. Brill flamed back at the Voice on Jim Romanesko's MediaNews.com site, saying the publishers shouldn't be surprised; after all, the search engine Northern Light has been doing the same thing. "Northern Light has been selling [Voice] archives for $2.95 for at least as long as I can remember," Brill wrote.

Curious, I tracked down that posting, which was hard to find because FEED got it wrong -- it wasn't at medianews.com but rather www.poynter.org/medianews. Eventually I did find it on the letters page there, along with a fascinating note from C.L. Morrison entitled "Brill is dipping into the former leper colony of publishing." Says Morrison ("Former Senior Editor, New York Times Syndicate"):

In the traditional newspaper structure, "syndication" was about as far down on the status ladder as promotion, PR, marketing or ad sales. At the NYT, for instance, "syndication" was almost a dirty word among the cleaner types who (heaven forfend!) would go to any lengths to avoid the dirty hands associated with the business side of The Wall. That Brill, guru of editorial ethics, should be making a giant footprint in the area of syndication signals -- well, how can it be?

What Brill alleges seems true, by the way. I went to NorthernLight and searched its "Special Collection" for my name. (NorthernLight defines its Special Collection as "a unique combination of premium data representing over 6,700 journals, books, magazines, databases and newswires not easily found on the World Wide Web.") No byte.com articles turn up, but one of my ComputerWorld stories does. Same deal: you can read it for free at www.computerworld.com, or you can buy it for $2.95 from NorthernLight. While you're there, why not pay another $2.95 for the O'Reilly press release announcing my book? It's not easily found on the web -- not, that is, unless you should happen to look in the O'Reilly press release archive.

A couple of summers ago my young son, then 6, set up a lemonade stand in front of our house. Lacking the wherewithal to make lemonade, he sold glasses of tapwater instead. He made $2 doing it (well, he's pretty cute), then diversified into bags of driveway gravel. I guess he's all set for the new economy!

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly and Associates. His recent BYTE.com columns are archived at http://www.byte.com/index/threads

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