Monday, July 31, 2006

The Ouroboros's Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s phenomenally successful book The Long Tail has inspired lots of enthusiastic business commentary, and some critical academic commentary. The basic thesis is that new technologies of search and distribution make it much easier to find obscure content–so rather than relying on a few blockbusters as primary revenue producers, content owners (and, of course, creators) may be able to sell a smaller number of copies of a wider range of things.

At risk of sounding Manichean, let me speculate on two paths this realization could lead to. Many entities have succeeded with business models premised on making the “long tail” of content as accessible as possible. But it strikes me that Anderson’s book is really making a stir because business people want to squeeze revenue, not from the “long tail’ as a whole, but from individual works (by restricting access to them). That trend strikes me as potentially self-defeating--like the classical mythical figure ouroboros eating its own tail.

For example, might publishers resist Google’s book digitization project all the more strongly, hoping to ride a “backlist to the future?” If so, they may defeat the very enhanced searchability that made the long tail so important.

What role can law play? Well, Richard Lanham has a nice commentary in his Economics of Attention on the range of motives animating cultural production. On one side lies the desire for "fame, for wealth and honor;" on the other, "love of knowledge for its own sake," "pure play," etc. Lanham suggests that copyright law "simply ignores" the latter side of the equation. Perhaps an awareness of the necessity of "open access" to the "long tail's" success can lead to a more balanced copyright law.

PS: This is a mini-cross-post from


Anonymous Shawn Abel said...

Discussions of the Long Tail recently have reminded of observations that began to come to light 2, 3 years ago regarding online music sales. Data indicated that there was a much larger volume of sales in the tremendously large back catalog of music (where it was available) as compared to very contemporary, recent, "Top 40" types of music. This only stands to reason, as I see it; there's just so much more to choose from in the last 60-80 years of music (plus new recordings of much older compositions) that you can please just about everyone. And since online stores can hold a much bigger catalog than brick and mortar outlets, they can better tap into this heretofore limited market.

This data only exemplifies what you are talking about in this post. Current responses to this market indicate that recording labels and distrbutors - the copyright owners - instinctively want to lock down and squeeze the revenue from this market (or perhaps their goal is to squeeze more revenue from the contemporary playlist, I'm really not sure). But it means exactly what you say: enhanced searchability and circulation, which is crucial to vitalizing this market, is curtailed.

So there's your real world example, I suppose.

8/03/2006 8:18 PM  

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