Innovation Versus What Works Now... And the Law
The Web marketing business is largely populated by leaders who innovate but who have little knowledge of the operations - the granular, working elements - of their enterprise. Digital marketing is no different from many other businesses in this way, which is one reason why so many businesses fail. The pain in this tension seems never to dissipate in our business, as even some of the more sustainable and profitable companies have executive turnover rates that are laughably high. I know from this, as I've had to force some chuckles on the way out the door myself more than once.
The sub-segment of our business that has been a whipping boy in this argument is the rich media sub-segment. Nate Elliott started a fuss about it in his Rich Media Insider column a few months back, and it was hard to argue with his claim that rich media vendors - as a whole - were failing at the innovation end of the business. When Elliott wrote this, he upset a lot of readers, even some who didn't work for rich media companies. But, what was lost in the controversy pursuant to his spot-on assertion was the fact that these companies, most of which are pretty lean, have made a bunch of money over the past few years with their non-innovative technologies. They've filled a niche, and helped move the Web forward.
In the aftermath of his column, as he skulked off out of the country for new challenges in London, I thought of the Soviet space program's success when measured against the U.S. space program. We got to the moon first, sure. But, they used these really simple rockets to launch many more missions, a space station, and dozens of satellites at a fraction of the cost. So, while we beat them to the moon, they beat us about every other way - certainly in terms of relative utility or value per dollar (or ruble). While we developed the high-tech space shuttle, its Achilles heel has been the most rudimentary, awarded to the lowest bidder parts, which have felled two missions and killed too many brave astronauts.
So, who really cares how innovative rich media companies have been? (Unicast's recently released financials notwithstanding) Their business is growing, so buyers must be pleased. And many of them are trying to replicate tired old television-style ads anyway. So, why should their focus be innovation when they're essentially trying to be utilitarian and necessarily a bit backwards facing anyway? Besides, as many have written earlier, what rich media clients and publishers want has less to do with increased innovation and more to do with increased utility and uniformity of reporting.
All of this raced through my mind earlier this week as I read the reports of Agence France-Presse's lawsuit against Google. Many of you have certainly heard that the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) has filed a lawsuit against Google Inc. for aggregating photos and story pieces from thousands of news Web sites, including those sourced by AFP.
AFP's suit claims that the Google News service infringes on their copyrights by reproducing information from the Web sites of branded media subscribers of the Paris-based news wholesaler. This is a suit to watch and it could become a major story in our business, as well as a challenge to much traditional thinking surrounding the First Amendment protections afforded anyone here in the United States who reproduces news with citation.
The Associated Press's Anick Jesdanun quoted Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor, "The story [of the Internet] from day one has been one of waves of liberalization followed by attempts at control," said Zittrain. "It's rightly up to the courts and the government to figure out where the lines should be drawn."
The push and pull between technological innovation and effective business operations will seemingly be matched this spring by the push and pull between technological innovation and the law. If a search engine properly cites a branded media source that it spiders, but doesn't cite that source's source, should it matter? The future of Web-aggregated news may be at stake here. Look for more and deeper citations to come as a result of this lawsuit, as lawyers appropriately protect those who generate the copy and those who originally pay for it.
And the obstacles to our industry's focus on innovation increase - but this time, with an eye toward fairness under the law.