Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ideas for Rent

The migration of video, music and books to electronic format will create sweeping changes. Music and video retail stores are in significant decline, and newsprint is on the decline. In addition to now having excess commercial real estate, we may yet see the day when we no longer have bookshelves holding our personal libraries or when our children no longer know the back-breaking pain of hauling textbooks to and from school.

The drive toward digital media shifts our consumption model from “own” toward “rent.” With physical media, we buy an album or a book and the medium was ours to do with as we would: let it sit idly on the shelf, loan it out to our friends or reference it to a state where it wears down. We didn’t have the right to copy the media (because we never held the rights to the intellectual property itself) but possession granted greater – indeed, for all practical purposes permanent – ownership rights to the media itself.

Digital media is an exercise of content licensing. Instead of owning a copy of the book, I now have the right to read the book. Very often, that right granted is specific to a device or platform: for example, my right to read the Wall Street Journal is not transferrable from Kindle to laptop to a printed edition.

The devices themselves are increasingly complex ecosystems, with library management and content acquisition tools such as iTunes, as well as wireless networks through which we connect our devices to management tools and storage. While I may own the media playing device, it’s about all that I do own: I’m renting the means by which to keep the device current and useful, and even the devices are restricted (e.g., “locked”) against use in a competing infrastructure.

This creates a high cost of change for the consumer. The further you make use of one particular ecosystem, the greater the dependency you have on it, the more difficult it becomes to change to another. Because I’m renting both the intellectual property and the medium through which I can enjoy it, I stand to lose all of my investment (e.g., sacrifice the right to enjoy the intellectual property to which I’m subscribed) if I elect to change. That isn’t trivial: technology is still evolving at a blistering pace. It’s a bit premature to take a “long” position in an ecosystem that will have a “short” shelf life. That, or I have to accept that I will renew subscription to – and acquire updated hardware – in a particular ecosystem into perpetuity.

It remains to be seen whether intellectual property increases or decreases in value. Intuitively it would appear that the shift from owning to renting the media would make content king. But that isn’t necessarily true. For one thing, people tend to regard things they own with far more respect than things they borrow. For another, electronic distribution gives content a disposable characteristic it didn’t previously have. A person is less likely to associate permanency with electronic possession. Although people have paid for the same piece of recorded music in multiple formats – LP record, cassette and CD – the media was perceived to be considerably different than one would have of changing electronic ecosystem. It seems somewhat incongruous to constantly acquire a short-term right to a timeless piece of music or work of literature. To drive people to acquire more content (and therefore build dependency on an ecosystem), there may be consequences to the quality of intellectual property churned out.

If content is more temporary in a digital world, are we moving into a state where we’re renting ideas and influences? Are they more transitory than consistent?

What we read, listen to and watch contributes to our evolving knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom isn’t something that we want merely to accumulate, it’s something we as parents want to pass along to our children. One way we do that is to share our journey by exposing them to the influencing factors in our lives. This we do over time – and at appropriate times – in our children’s lives so they are prepared to consume and draw their own conclusions. Does “personal digital consumption” create an obstacle to that? Does “idea rental” put us at risk of generational loss or continuity?

Individual philosophy and understanding of the world evolves, giving it a temporary quality. But while temporary, it follows a consistent path. It’s not something that we rent, it’s a store of intellectual wealth that we build. Is it harder to do that through content we never fully internalize and “make our own” because we never feel a sense of ownership of it in the first place?