Thoughts on the writers strike

I watch little television, so I’ve felt comfortable ignoring the writers strike, which has been going on since November.

But it’s hard to escape the strike’s effects while hanging out in Southern California, where writers of movies and TV shows are essential to what they call The Industry here.

Not surprisingly, a search for a bracing perspective on the matter took me to Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too — a post last month by my old friend and colleague Stephen Lewis at his blog Hak Pak Sak. His core points:

  The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Steve has also been active in , and his post moves me to point out that VRM should, among other things, create business models that facilitate “willingness to pay” for writing and other “content” in the open marketplace where the users of that content have wide-open choices over what to pay for creative goods and how to relate to creators. Our job is to create that “how”. Hollywood won’t, and perhaps can’t. Certainly not without our help, anyway.

That “how” needs to lower the friction involved in “willingess to pay” in the direction of zero. That is, the cost in time and effort required to pay must move toward zero until the willingness to pay exceeds the same value. This challenge first faced us with Napster, and nearly all “solutions” from the supply side since then have ranged from harmful to inadequate.

The will to pay fair sums for perceived value needs to be melded with technology that facilitates 1) working relationships (on an elective basis for both supply and demand), and 2) efficient transaction. Neither can be scaffolded on the old supply-controlled systems that feel threatened by the Net. Nor can it be built on an artist-by-artist or distributor-by-distributor basis, because that will just result in countless narrowly-focused and incompatible CRM (customer relationship management) systems, such as those we see today with public broadcasting, where CRM systems restrict listeners and viewers to paying for freely available creative goods only through hundreds of different channels comprised of stations that mostly comprehend relationship only in terms of “membership”.

Nor can it be built only inside some large company’s walled garden. The most free markets will be built on the most free customers — and the most creative and resourceful suppliers and intermediators.

VRM systems need to leverage the freedom and facilitate the independence of individuals, and their ability to make their own choices. They must enable passive consumers to become active customers. It must help demand find and drive supply at least as well as supply drives and creates demand. A healthy market ecosystem with have both. Not just the latter.

The markets that arise from independent and enabled customers will be incalculably varied and large. And some of the largest potential facilitators of those markets — especially those without stakes in the old distro systems — are in an ideal position to help out here, and to break free of their own old failing or hidebound business models. (Hear that, phone companies? Retailers? Banks and credit card companies?) This is the Intention Economy I wrote about almost two years ago. We’ve made progress in that direction (especially around identity), but we still have a long way to go.

More at How VRM can help CRM get past DRM and some other links I don’t have time to find right now. Gotta pack and leave for CES in Las Vegas. [Later… here’s one.]


  1. docduke’s avatar

    Re: We’ve made progress in that direction (especially around identity), but we still have a long way to go. I clicked on the link at “identity” to see what progress has been made. It begins by saying: Use your OpenID or i-name to login, and follow the instructions. Read Wiki Tips for some helpful wiki shortcuts and Help On Editing for text formatting tips. There are 4 links in that sentence, however all (100%) of them are links to nonexistent pages — clicking on them invites me to create a corresponding page. Without any clue how to create an OpenID or i-name, there appears to be no way to “Get Involved.” I believe you do, indeed, have a long way to go.

  2. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    And I was just wondering if I should email you about the column I just wrote for the _Guardian_ about this very issue of the writers strike and the Internet:

  3. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    [Reposted without link, see my blog, delete when link-post gets past moderation]

    And I was just wondering if I should email you about the column I’ve written for the _Guardian_ about this very issue of the writers strike and the Internet.

  4. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Residuals are an interesting idea. You see, everyone has a time preference for money. We’d rather have money now than later, if all else is the same. Thus, we’re willing to exchange less money now for more money later. And thus, screenwriters don’t actually need residuals. They just need a raise that equals the present-time value of the future residuals.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    docduke, you’re right that the IdentityCommons site is still lame. I’ve had high hopes for it, and remain supportive. Unfortunately, there is no one place to go for a big picture of what’s happening with user-centric identity. The latest event was IIW2007b. That link leads to a search for it. Explore from there.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good piece, Seth. Thanks for pointing to it.

    It’s interesting to read that The studios want to define internet streaming video as “promotional”. This is similar to the position of both the entertainment industry and public radio in respect to podcasting. There is no effort even to collect a voluntary sum for downloaded podcasts. Instead, they are underwritten by sponsoring corporations.

    The important point, however, in respect to the strike, is that money will be made with these goods, and the authors deserve their fair share of it.

  7. docduke’s avatar

    Thanks for the pointer to IIW2007b. It helps to orient me.

    I’m not complaining, I’m just supplying feedback. I have only come upon your blog(s) recently, and I’m now checking in daily. I am really impressed by the breadth, depth and relevance of the topics you are tracking and linking to. The pictures are also gorgeous! Thanks!

    Happy New Year!

  8. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    But … Doc … will they make enough money to cover the lost income from the strike? Not clear that will happen.

  9. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Glad you enjoyed it. Note particularly the portion calling for the support of unions for white-collar workers, and the criticism of the reflexive hostility some hold against collective bargaining. In particular, “VRM” won’t help (except in trivial secondary sorts of things) because it does nothing to change the fact that big corporations are far more powerful than any one worker.

  10. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    And customers are more powerful than the corporation that serves them.

    When the customer disintermediates the corporation out of their relationship with the worker, then the worker has a simpler, less fraught relationship with the source of their income.

  11. vaspers the grate aka steven e. streight’s avatar

    I see also a User Gen vs. Mass Media problem floating in the background of this discussion.

    As writers strike, the free user generated content factor looms larger: reality TV vs. scripted TV, actual people vs. actors. This whole loop then ties in with the Do It Yourself mentality, with open source tools and distribution channels enabling us to bypass the whole mess.

    For example, I can make music with Audacity, add loops with Ambiloop, upload videos to YouTube, make mp3s (now m4as) via iTunes, host them on Ning and Garageband, distribute audio files via Pownce, etc. and thereby eliminate the need for recording companies.

    While I sympathize with the writers, as I am one myself, I also see the bigger tide rolling in from user gen variations.

    We are entertaining and informing ourselves now.

    Many are turning off their TVs, avoiding the movie theatres, and watching their peers on YouTube.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    docduke, thanks for the kind words. And I knew you weren’t complaining. In fact, you flagged a problem that needs to be fixed.

    Seth, agreed, except perhaps about VRM, which I’m not posing as a way to balance power between corporations and workers. I am posing it, however, as a way to balance power between vendors and customers. Different challenge. Should VRM succeed, it will probably have other effects. Perhaps the worker/corporation relationship is one of them, especially if customers sympathize with workers.

    Russ, I have no idea if the strikers will make up for lost income. Not sure that’s the only issue, though. Or the deciding factor. Lots of strikes have gone forward in spite of grim prospects.

    Crosbie, agreed. In the meanwhile, dramas play out so long as companies intermediate between first sources (in many or most cases, work or workers) and final customers. No doubt the roles of companies are changing. Some, perhaps, will be no more than ways of organizing work and routing paychecks. But I doubt that will be the case. There are many things only companeis can do.

    Steven, I believe your points were supported by Paul Otellini of Intel in his talk at CES yesterday. interesting shift there.

  13. Drummond Reed’s avatar

    Doc, I fixed the broken links on the ID Commons wiki home page that you pointed to. Sometimes us users need to tend to the user-generated content 😉


  14. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Russell: The answer to your question is here:

    Doc: Or perhaps, if it has any effect at all, VRM will make things even worse. The possibility should be considered.

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