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Update on the Death of Amazon

Dinosaur Skeleton by Petr Kratochvil

You may want to skip this one if you’re not into tech or copyright or strange rants from guys who ought to be working on something else.

For both of you who are still with me: I just had a long conversation with an old friend, in which we excavated the ideas from my Death of Amazon series (posts one, two, and three). The upshot of my previous rants was that Amazon (or iTunes, or whoever) has lived beyond its usefulness…in its current form, at least. It’s a relic that only exists today because its competitors are rooted even farther back in the mists of time.

I proposed that someone (anyone?) could build a distributed system, in which those who wished could volunteer drive space and internet bandwidth (sort of like the SETI@home project). In the midst of my prior delusions I imagined a system like this:

  • Hosts would never know what content they hosted, thus shielding themselves from prosecution (probably)
  • Hosts would be paid on a percentage basis when they served paid content
  • Authors/Artists would be paid whenever their content was accessed, according to the model they’d set up (could include free stuff, or subscriptions, or outright purchases/licensing)

During today’s conversation I realized this system would allow content creators to bundle their work, which is pretty cool. Want to sell a bunch of books or songs as an album? Maybe a sort of ad-hoc anthology of several people’s work? A combo of books, music, and video organized around a particular theme? A really cool travel book/movie/discussion forum, maybe? Well, why not, if the various copyright holders agree to the scheme? Combine that with easy support for subscriptions, and suddenly the system helps people do innovative things they can’t with current distributors (aka silos in my inner vocabulary).

Today’s talk was mostly about a possible investor for the idea–it’s not likely to come to anything, but you never know. During the discussion, though, I realized something that may or may not be useful if the idea’s essential validity is challenged: this system is already being built, all around us. Except that authors/artists aren’t being paid for any of it.

Suppose I want to watch a movie, and either it’s not available for sale or streaming through legitimate channels or I’m a cheap bastard who doesn’t want to pay for it. I’d have a few options (that I know of offhand ’cause I’m kind of a geek but not really into this stuff):

  1. I could use BitTorrent and probably find the movie…it’s a little bit dangerous, because I would likely be making the movie available to others as part of the process of downloading it, and I might be sued or prosecuted. But chances are good I’d get the movie.
  2. I could install xbmc and navi-x on my computer, and browse or search various people’s lists of available content, and once I found what I wanted I could stream it to my computer or TV. Sort of like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime only without paying anybody.
  3. I could get a little bit fancy and set up a VPN that terminates in a foreign country, and then connect to a Usenet server in yet another foreign country, and use HTTPS to connect and download whatever I want that people have posted. Which is nearly everything. I don’t think I’d worry much about lawsuits or prosecution, especially if I used anonymous debit cards to pay for the VPN and Usenet account.

Now…morality aside, this is a set of distributed systems in which people create their own indexes (or recommendation engines), content is stored everywhere, and users access it from anywhere. Very similar to the system I proposed, only ad-hoc instead of deliberate. Substitute “book” or “TV show” or “song” above depending on your own preferences.

This particularly resonates with me because I used to write software for a living. And because I have many pieces of such a system lying around as detritus of old projects…and because I know a few people who’ve done the bits I’m not as familiar with. So there’s that.

Why build this? To “fight” online piracy with cost and convenience. To help content creators make a living by getting rid of middlemen who sometimes take nearly ninety percent of a sale. To aid anyone who wants to either create or curate entertainment for anyone who wants it.

Does Amazon really have to die for this to happen? Well, no…not all of it anyway. My proposal probably wouldn’t affect anything they do but digital content sales. But they aren’t set up to compete with it either. Their cut of the pie is too huge–the system I propose might take two percent off the top instead of thirty-plus. Amazon’s biggest advantage would suddenly be not distribution but data. They might very well find a way to monetize their recommendation engine. In fact I hope they do, if it comes to that.

I doubt all the words my friend and I exchanged today will lead to real action on our part. It doesn’t really matter, though. In the end, this will happen–it’s already started. It’s a natural consequence of the distributed structure of the internet and human cussedness. Either it gets built deliberately by someone looking to manage it, or it happens anyway, or–most likely–both.

So what prevents online piracy in my brave new world? Goodwill between entertainers and the entertained. Same answer in the future as today, really. Some (such as Joe Konrath) have suggested that future entertainment will be supported by advertising, but that would likely be no harder to circumvent in the future than it is now.

I hope to make a living at this writing gig. I hope lots of other people can do the same. I have no idea what form payment will eventually take…but I’m looking forward to finding out as we go. No matter what the answer, I think it comes down to goodwill in the end. So let’s work on that? {8′>

Okay. I’m done again, for now. And for what it’s worth I still plan to write fiction. It’s just that my crystal ball was itching a little, so I scratched it.

Have fun out there.


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