Today I have thinking about this: On the Internet am I “stealing” any content that I view or service that I use, if I neither pay for it nor experience advertising that its creator expects to earn money from? It’s an old question and I don’t have an answer, but I do have some thoughts about it.*
In a article last month reporting the doleful demise of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, I Programmer’s Mike James writes:
The web is a very hostile place for anyone with the idea that they might encourage professional technical writing by paying for it rather than just expecting it to be given for free. Dr Dobb’s is a victim of this impossible environment. What we were once willing to buy on paper, we expect to be given away on web pages.
I Programmer has discussed this issue frankly for some time. Sue Gee wrote a substantial article there about the problem (1, 2) in August, 2013. Gee cites a report on the effects of ad-blocking by PageFair, which does business measuring the extent of ad-blocking. (Here’s a newer PageFair report, from 2014 — there is a 20140909 press release associated with it.)
I’m surprised to find how gripping this topic has become to me. I am recently hired into my first paid programming job, and it happens to be in the digital advertising industry, but before that I had a career as a tenured professor in a field within the Humanities that was a lěngmén 冷門 ‘cold gate’, a subject as devoid of popular interest as your imagination might portray for you. Baldly speaking, as a capitalistic ad-man I should be stereotyped as in favor of advertising and as a cranky ivory-tower type I should be stereotyped as against it. So where does that leave me, speaking morally and emotionally?
As a Humanist I was usually paid nothing — or once in a while a tiny royalty — for my published work. I saw clearly that the world expected me to give my work away for nothing. Humanist professors, apart from the famous, are usually badly paid, too. The publishers who ushered my writing into print, however, have made some profit on it, though usually a small one (so cold was my gate). At the same time, I’ve gotten used to a life in which I encounter almost no advertising at all, and I’m happy about that — even in the days when I owned and watched a television set I cultivated habits allowing me to see as little advertising as possible. I always found the construction of television and flat-media ads very interesting, but I organized my viewing and reading so as to encounter as few of them as possible except when I was in a position to control my experience of them, usually in order to study how they affected the viewer. This is less a privacy issue for me than an issue of controlling my own time and attention. Not being interrupted still seems to me a crucial right in my life both as scholar and engineer — it is not possible for me to do good intellectual work when I know I may be broken in on by demands for attention. There’s a fine maxim about this by Donald Rumsfeld:
If you are working from your inbox, you are working on other people’s priorities.
Here’s another good thought on a kindred subject, by William Deresiewicz.
Preparing to bring out a book at my own expense, I remember that it will probably be pirated and made available on line on very short order, so that the only way I am likely to recoup my publication costs is through advertising of some sort. The whole situation is luscious with irony.
In this I am in the same state of paradox† as many creative people: I receive little or no pay for my own creative work, and pay little or nothing in return for others’ creative work. Why paradox? Because I don't want to be stolen from but I steal from others. Well, that is an extreme statement. In reality, I pay to subscribe to the two newspapers I read on line most often, as well as to an on-line dictionary I use a great deal. I know of ways to get my paws on that content surreptitiously at no cost, but I pay anyway and forego the delights of guile. Beyond that, I am a dues-paying member of the Authors Guild (legal defender of the collective copyright of individual writers), and I also donate substantially to an organization that gives away free software. I pay either to rent or purchase every movie I watch and every book I read or refer to significantly, apart from what I borrow from libraries. In consequence I possess, I think, vastly more physical copies of books, DVDs, and CDs than most of the other engineers I know. I possess on the order of ten thousand paper books, and many hundreds of CDs and DVDs, not to mention more electronic editions than I know how to count. Yes, I pay with neurotic honesty for a lot more content and services than many engineers I know. But it’s true that even if I pay a lot, I still surely don’t pay for as much as I’m expected to by some people. The question is, is their expectation right and reasonable?
In the end, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of digital advertising now. Ultimately, I’d like to be paid properly for my intellectual work, but the likelihood of doing so seems even smaller now than it did when I first became an author. One of the current business slogans to which my employer subscribes is "software as a service" (SaaS) — it seems that not only my company but I, too, am paid as part of that model. But some people who are creating intellectual content are not paid for it at all, except through advertising, most of which I never see.
.* I’ve written about these issues a little before: 1, 2.
† Maybe a better name would be enantiodromia, lit. “running in opposite directions”, the condition (considered inevitable by some) of turning into one’s own opposite. Paradox may be a state, but enantiodromia is evidently an evolving condition. The term today is associated with Heraclitus (who denied the possibility of stasis) and appears in Diogenes Laërtius’s résumé of his ideas, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, book IX: α.7, (English here). The earliest English citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are to editions of Jung.