Compensating authors and other content producers for their work

Anybody who has witnessed the dismantling this past decade of one industry after another would have to ask if digital systems will upend education too. The fallout of an online learning platform that “disintermediates” either of the essential players in education — author and teacher — would have dire consequences for content producers and educators, and ultimately for students. Before we can even talk about other tech-related issues, we have to address the human side of online learning.

First, let’s talk about content-related issues. In an upcoming post, we’ll focus on legitimate fears about the replacement of teachers by machines.

Let’s be blunt: Without a rational payment system to compensate authors and other content providers, online learning will sink under the weight of copyright infringement and unfair labor practices. We make this assertion in light of documented digital trends these past two decades during which a whole lot of us learned how to get stuff for free. Music, books, movies, software. Frankly, it’s hard to blame any consumer for searching out a good deal. Why would you pay a publisher for an expensive chemistry textbook if you could do a Google search for “chemistry textbook” and get it as a downloadable pdf file? Go ahead and do that search now. It’s amazing what you’ll find.

Getting that pdf for nothing is momentarily nice for you. It’s also momentarily nice for the good-hearted professor who is no longer making money off his textbook and decides to enter into the “sharing” zeitgeist and make his information “free.” A system where even authors have been conditioned to give away their intellectual property, where consumers are constantly looking for freebies, and where publishers are not compensated for the capital they have invested in producing textbooks is, to say the least, a system that is not sustainable over the long term. It’s not even sustainable over the short term.

In 1963, IT pioneer Ted Nelson began talking about the importance of paying people for their work — two years before a UCLA professor of computer science sent the first-ever electronic message to a colleague at the Stanford Research Institute over ARPANet, a forebear of the Internet. Nelson, who termed his iteration of a world wide web “Xanadu,” came up with the idea of micropayments to enable “human-authored media that branch or perform on request,” or, the creative mash-up system he called “hypertext.” The way he saw it, micropayments would compensate “content creators” every time a user summoned up a book, an article, a graph, a song, a measure, a paragraph, a film, a scene, etc. His ethically configured digital system consisted of two-way links so that the system could keep track of content owner and content user. While Internet-based information would no longer be free, it would create — for a small price — a business model that would keep authors, composers, designers and publishers in business.

As we know, society and technology took off in the direction that is familiar to all of us: One-way Web links (not quite as hyper as Nelson imagined they would be); untraceable content users and owners, and copyright rip-offs that permit us to copy content ad infinitum without ever paying anyone for it.

With the publication of Who Owns the Future, futurist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has helped revive Nelson’s ideas about paying people for their content — not only because it’s the right way to treat the people who work for you, but also because society cannot prosper if people unwittingly — and often unwillingly — volunteer away their books, movies and music. As Lanier argues, current Internet business models make moguls out of the few and paupers out of the many.

We are excited to see that Nelson’s ideas are gaining renewed currency (pun slightly unintended) because they dovetail squarely with McGraw Hill’s own view of an ethical online learning business model. As we said in our post about cards — the menu of educational offerings based on a utility pricing model — the school system benefits by paying only for utilized content. And authors benefit by receiving payment every time a student retrieves their content, whether it’s an entire textbook, a chapter, a paragraph or an app. Because we will know who authored all content, we will be able to create a rich mash up of relevant text, video and audio. And pay for every bit of it accordingly. Hence, Nelson’s insistence, and ours, that micropayments become the coin of the Internet realm.

What an ecosystem based on micropayments and cards gives the student is a highly diverse trove of educational materials and personalized learning paths.

What this ecosystem gives app developers is a way to increase the monetary value of their product.

What McGraw Hill gains from a Nelsonian digital universe is a business model that rewards authorship, provides a standardized platform for app and content developers, and blazes a path deeper into the Impenetrable Forest of Doom — where opportunity awaits schools, authors and distributors of learning systems that fairly compensate all players in the education marketplace.

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