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Why Does Jaron Lanier Hate Google?

Spurred into opining by the television writers strike, virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier has reversed his long-standing "piracy is good" position. Writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, he's lamenting the fact that content creators aren't reaping their fair share of the Web's riches, and that this comes at the expense
Spurred into opining by the television writers strike, virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier has reversed his long-standing "piracy is good" position. Writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, he's lamenting the fact that content creators aren't reaping their fair share of the Web's riches, and that this comes at the expense of big aggregators like Google.Lanier acknowledges that the online culture of free content, where writers are essentially ripped off by aggregators, is inequitable, at least insofar as the writers go. (For business people and venture capitalists, it's clearly less so.) Here's how he puts it in his piece, which is entitled "Pay Me For My Content":


Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead, they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry -- Google, Facebook, MySpace, and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft -- are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users.

Unfortunately, Lanier's current analysis of the situation is as lacking in nuance as was his 1999 manifesto, "Piracy Is Your Friend", in which he told the record labels to "get over it." (That was the era of MP3.com, and he was writing about the music business.)

Lanier is wrong because Google is more a writer's friend than it is his or her enemy. Google -- both natural search and Google News -- gives most writers far more readers than they'd have without the search engine pointing people in their direction.

True, Google makes most of its money off this searching, which wouldn't exist except for the external content to which it points. However, very few Web writers get directly remunerated for the traffic their content generates. If they're employed by large media companies, they're paid salaries. If they're freelancers, they get fees (in some cases, with overrides for exceeding traffic goals.) The employer has to go to the trouble of selling the ads, and justifiably reaps the revenue from same.

Plus, Google AdSense provides an unbelievably easy way for any Web site to make money via its own traffic. (Whenever a reader on your site clicks on one of these ads, which are tagged to keywords, you get paid.)

Still, Lanier does have something of a point. Historically, writers have always gotten screwed, and it's not much different now that online text and streaming video are making print and television obsolete. The television writers have a point -- and the movie studios have an indefensible position -- when the writers say they should get eight cents per DVD instead of four cents and the studios say no.

As Lanier correctly notes, the Web has resulted in increased opportunities for all writers, but it hasn't resulted in increased business opportunities for all of them.

The big question -- the elephant in the room for big content-creation operations -- isn't whether writers should get paid. They are getting paid. Rather, it's how do you support a large content-generating operation, analogous to the old-style print model where you had hundreds of reporters cranking out stories?

Because online ad revenue is still much smaller than were the print ad sales it replaced, content-creation budgets are being squeezed. That's the online world's ongoing challenge, not whether big bad Google is aggregating the heck out of the Web.