There’s so much love and hate on the Web. People’s passions are easily fanned and repetitive conversations of personal opinions multiply like rabbits. One trend in opinions you can’t miss is a solid encampment of Google fanboys (and girls) that simply love the search giant’s every move. In this article, Google will fill in as the standard bearer for what I will call the “ad titans” – the companies who make their intellectual property free and profit from ad revenue (MySpace, Yahoo, AIM, and many other products and services hinge on this model).
An equally vocal demographic is those who wish toil and pain upon the executives of the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA has seen a lot of press in recent years, mostly due to its ongoing campaign in the courts against illegal music sharing, which has drawn the ire of many. The media can’t leave this ongoing saga alone for more than a few months at a time because, admit it, this drama is fun to read about (“Gasp! They sued someone’s grandma!”). In this article, the RIAA will play the standard bearer for what I will call the “copyright moguls” – the companies who make money by selling copies of their intellectual property (I would include Microsoft in this category since their primary income is still based on Office and Windows).
This love and hate is not irrational. Though it may not be clearly articulated on message boards and forums across the ‘net, there is a very simple equation between the business models of these two companies and the public’s perception of them. Google trades you innocuous ads for free stuff. The RIAA must vigilantly protect the property it sells from thieves, and sometimes grandma gets caught in the fray.
Let’s personify them to drive the point home (and maybe exaggerate a bit). Say Google and the RIAA are your neighbors. On one side, you have a neighbor who brings you a new gift every month with a brochure taped on it. The brochure is annoying, so you throw it away or ignore it. But hey, cool, it’s something free every month. It may not always be the coolest thing or even better than the one you already have… but that was nice of them anyway, right? On the other side, the only time you ever see the RIAA is when he’s chasing down the kid who plucked a flower from its yard. You hear rumors that he spends his weekends in the basement, plotting about how to build a bigger fence around his yard and catch those pesky kids faster.
What would you tell your friends about your neighbors?
The problem is not greed or an overzealous crusader attitude among its executives. The RIAA suffers in the market of public opinion because its profit margin lives and dies by whether they can get you to buy the copies of the intellectual property they sell, rather than the free ones you can find online. It’s a tough market to be in, and it’s one that I suspect may not be sustainable (in its current form, at least) as the age of digital media progresses.
Their short-term solution has been to pursue the issue through the courts. Really, that’s the natural reaction to what’s happening to their assets. Our legal system is based on precedent and slow to change, so it’s likely they will have this buffer to lean on for some time to come. However, reactionary practices cannot stem the tide of public opinion growing against them. Even more seriously, it also cannot slow the pace at which the Web is undermining the other half of their business model.
What do the RIAA’s affiliates do? They contract with an artist to be the one to produce and distribute their music. In return for this, they take a substantial part of the profits. Now let’s say you’re a fairly technically savvy musician and someone shows you Garageband, iTunes, and MySpace. These tools have removed entry barriers to a music career that the recording industry used to hold all the keys to. In reality, it’s not so simple as this (yet), but I think the potential there is already starting to be tapped.
Their customers are revolting and their content producers may soon be enabled to jump ship. I’d be cranky in their position too.
On the other side of the spectrum, Google and its ilk are competing to see who can give you the best service. “Use this! It’s free!” they scream. Their business model is based entirely on how many people they can get using their stuff rather than how much they paid for it. Really, I think it’s spoiling us. Something-for-nothing is a nice mantra, even if a banner ad occassionaly puts us on the edge of an epileptic seizure. People say, “See! Google gave me this awesome mapping program for FREE, and you won’t even let me have five minutes of Aerosmith. Why don’t you do like Google and put ads in, uh… hmm…”
And therin lies the rub. There is no cure-all fix for the RIAA’s woes. For now, they’ll continue to stumble through their lawsuits and take a thrashing in the media until they either come up with a better strategy or start to fade. Meanwhile, Google will continue to enjoy the best free press any company ever enjoyed.
Why do we love Google? It raised our expectations. Why do we hate the RIAA? It’s stuck.