News Corp is the user – You are the producer

It’s Rupert Murdoch’s Internet, you just live in it – or so Murdoch argues in his World Media Summit speech. has posted a transcript of the speech Murdoch delivered in Beijing on 10/09/09. It’s a three part speech with one message: if you use the Internet, whether you’re the People’s Republic of China or Internet users in the U.S., you’re probably stealing his property (or at least devaluing it). A defense of (his) property rights that concludes with an ironic plea for “our planet” to be as borderless as . . . the Internet (cue the Twilight Zone intro).

To put the speech in some context, the keynote was delivered at the Word Media Summit to an audience of mostly Chinese business people. The Word Media Summit was a two day conference organized by some of the world’s largest news organizations: Xinhua News (China), News Corporation, Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS (Russia), Kyodo News (Japan), BBC, Turner Broadcasting System, and Google. As Murdoch notes in his introduction, his speech aimed to divide the “digital world” into three parts:

How media is being transformed… how the Chinese media can take advantage of that transformation…and some steps necessary to ensure that the Chinese people are in a position to realize their potential.

I found the section dedicated to attacking “content kleptomaniacs” to be the most interesting. This user-bashing is nothing new, of course, as Murdoch has been a prominent advocate of paid-for Internet content (see Grinch Alert: Rupert Murdoch). What’s interesting is how much this speech reminded me of Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” where Gates demanded that computer hobbyists “pay up” for “stealing” his software. This letter was penned back in 1976, when software was widely considered to be free (while hardware, services, and manuals were something you paid for). In his letter, Gates’ argued that software must be proprietary and paid for to qualitatively improve. . . you know, so people could pay gobs of money for “quality” software like Windows Vista.

Back to Murdoch. In his “how media is being transformed” section of the speech, he argues:

Of course there should be a price paid for quality content, and yet large media organizations have been submissive in the face of the flat-earthers who insisted that all content should be free all the time. The sun does not orbit the earth, and yet this was precisely the premise that the press passively accepted, even though there have been obvious signs that readers recognize the reality that they should pay a price.

There are many readers who believe that they are paying for content when they sign up with an internet service provider, presuming that they have bought a ticket to a content buffet. That misconception thrived on the silence of inarticulate institutions which were unable to challenge the fallacies and humbug of the e-establishment.

The value of content has been volatile in the past decade but we are entering another decisive phase in which device makers are again courting the creators of content. I have sensed that shift in recent days during my travels in Japan and South Korea where I met some of the world’s leading electronics manufacturers. These companies don’t want their customers to be served a diet of digital dross, and yet that will be the inevitable consequence if the worth of content and creativity are not appreciated.

The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid-for content, it will be the content creators, the people in this hall, who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs will triumph. (emphasis added)

Like Gates’ before him, Murdoch willfully ignores the unwaged labor that he so handsomely profits from. Murdoch sees News Corp, AP, BBC, Xinhua, and the like, as the only rightful (and thus recognized) producers of content – just as Gates sees Microsoft’s hired programmers as the only rightful producers of his software. But what about the millions of MySpace users who freely produce untold volumes of content that News Corp then monetizes for a hefty profit?  What about all the blogs that News Corps’ journalists read and take information from without so much as a citation, never mind compensation. What about all the people that freely participate in beta-testing Microsoft’s software and the millions of software “users” who report problems and freely contribute their time and energy to improving Microsoft’s content? If it’s obvious that “there should be a price paid for quality content” — which I’m willing to support — then how much will News Corp be paying for all the free quality content it uses, and how will it compensate all the unwaged labor it uses?

Kevin Kelly’s “We Are the Web” essay in Wired is instructive here. As Kelly notes, ‘in the beginning’ big corporations were unwilling to invest in the Internet because they felt it would be too expensive to produce the “high production-value content” necessary to make their efforts worthwhile. Now, over a decade later, millions of Internet “users” have produced the overwhelming majority of cyberspace. So who exactly are the “users” here, and who are the “producers”? Murdoch can deem free content as “Philistine,” and he can rail against pirates, plagiarists and aggregators — all of which he characterizes as “content kleptomaniacs” — but such a speech needs to be delivered in front of a mirror.

Corporations like News Corp are the users. We are the producers.