A Note on Free Content

 

There is indeed a large volume of materials on this site for free browsing by the public, without any registration requirement. My site could be compared to what we normally call a blog, except that my site is much larger and more diversified and functionally organized that a typical personal blog.

 

This material is centered around the HTML text of my three books, as well as many supporting running footnotes, special sidebar topics, and editorials. There is also a library of movie, book, and drama reviews, and a gallery of “amateur” photographs and digital video sketching out a concept of a possible feature documentary film.

 

It is my intention that users may browse material to get at various concepts and to do research on policy issues. Users who want to read a large section of the text of the books are requested to purchase the books through e-commerce channels. The general expectation is that it is not practical to read an entire book online, even with a palm or mobile device. On the beach or at a campsite, you need a good old hardcopy book. (Sorry, these books are softcover only!)

 

The text of the first DADT book was first posted on 7/31/1998, about one year after it was available in print. Whether “free content” posted by sites offering books, products, services, or ecommerce-links is considered “commercial” when intended to develop publicity through passive marketing to sell products later, is legally controversial. This point has been debated in litigation surrounding the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) without clear resolution, even from the Supreme Court. I have certainly taken advantage of a medium which presents opportunities unaddressed by older legal paradigms. Clearly there are First Amendment protections here for writers, and the constitutional question could be how far these protections go when speech is connected to “self-promotion” to enhance its effect. The Court has given considerable protection even to commercial speech in past cases.

 

Generally, most “political,” “social,” and “academic” non-fiction sells in small quantities, and sales of non-fiction books tend to drop off quickly after a few years and external circumstances in the world have progressed, making print versions partially obsolete. That is why a supporting website of continuing information is essential. And the sad truth is that for persons who have not been celebrities, it is very unlikely that one can make a living alone doing this with out outside employment (presenting possible conflicts of interest) or retirement

 

The endpoint of this kind of effort would be to sell an adaptation of much of this material to the media. Possibilities would include a screenplay for a future film, a database of social science political views, or future fiction books developing these ideas. Some income might be earned by isolating certain materials and developing much more factual details about them and presenting them on blogs or other sites funded by advertisers. This approach might be practical for specific problems where law and technology must be studied in combination, such as reconciling child protection with free speech, controlling spam, preventing identity theft, preventing downstream liability for various Internet related businesses. It is also possible that developing the technical details could create otherwise untapped (and unadvertised) employment opportunities.

 

Some persons who earn a living by writing in more conventional operational pursuits, where they must get paid for every piece and especially need to be paid for Internet republishing rights, may find my approach troubling. They may feel that this is unfair competition from me. However, most “conventional writers” write what other want, and work for others when they write. (This is obviously the most true for professional journalists—members of the press.)  I develop the content that I think needs to be presented “no matter what”; I connect the dots created by others. Furthermore, in some materials I add personal anecdotes or perspectives that generally would be inappropriate in materials commissioned by others. (In some ways, then, some of the materials resemble “journals” that writing students are encouraged to make in high schools, except that the technique is carried very far indeed.) So am I really a credible threat to the livelihood of others? In the long run, I think that the reverse is true, that I am creating future opportunities for others, in media and maybe even movies and television.  The aim, of course, is to package the material, even though the subject matter was chosen by me, to sell later (although suddenly and unpredictably) to media companies when they seem newsworthy and interesting to the public because of evolving current events. My hope is to whet the public appetite for better and more challenging movies and television content so that media companies would eventually find it profitable to produce.  All of this is a natural progression as technology improves productivity and changes the conduct and basic paradigms of work.

 

In some situations, when one is receiving benefits (such as unemployment or interim social security benefits), it may be illegal or at least questionable to offer goods or services to the public for free if (1) one had been charging for these goods or services before starting benefits (and must reduce an inadequate “work” income to qualify for benefits) OR (2) offering the goods and services for free is unreasonable given general conditions in the market. Point (2) is subjective with respect to writing, given the extreme volatility and unpredictability of sales of new forms of intellectual property and depends very much on the content and paradigm and future strategy of the writer. The point (2) probably holds when one accepts assignments with subject matter decided by an external customer. The important point here is, again, is that I play on my own home turf; I set the distance to the outfield walls, and I bat last in the ninth inning.

 

Bill Boushka   8/12/2005

 

Additional Notes: (9/1/2005)

 

I want to reiterate a couple more points. One is, what is all of this free content “good for”? One major objective of my sites has been the provision of analytical materials about various social and political issues in such a way that readers can see how they are interconnected (“connecting the dots”) and particularly to help readers anticipate sudden shocks that may ambush or surprise them. There are a number of issues that don’t get discussed as much as they should. These would include, for example, filial responsibility (with links to discussions about “gay rights” and particularly gay marriage), downstream liability, conflicts of interest, and even the possibility of resuming the draft. It is useful to have all of these presented in an interconnected manner in one body of work where they are easily found by search engines. I can tell from the search engine logs that many readers are very concerned about some of these issues, which the major media often overlook.

 

Again, I would want to expand a bit on the idea that some persons find the strategy of passive marketing of free content to be ethically questionable and a paradigm of unfair competition, motivated perhaps by the freewheeling climate of extreme capitalism and self-promotion that developed in the 90s while corporations were shedding and offshoring conventional jobs. Why? Cannot one do what one likes with one’s own property?  But there are many possible problems, as others may be involved and, for example, exposed to unwanted public attention that could not occur if the material could only be published when supervised by a third party and by making money. There are concerns that the loose supervision and ever evolving security problems of the Internet produce unpredictable liability risks (as if one were “framed” by an enemy acting as an imposter), and other various concerns regarding such issues as censorship (and the lack of effective age screening—COPA), benefits, zoning, and employment conflict of interest. I am well aware of all these concernsm however hypothetical they are, and have discussed these problems in various other pieces on this site. In general, the First Amendment protections for what I do are considerable (as repeatedly shown in court opinions), but they could run into limitations if the free speech is seen as being overrun by self-promotion.  We do not have the same world that we had ten years ago when I started all this, as there are many more risks, and hardships to be shared, all of which can put pressures on me. (The Internet security scenarios are particularly worrisome, as they could some day necessitate bonding of domain owners.) Therefore I cannot be overly optimistic that I can keep a large amount of free content available indefinitely.

 

Some may ask, why not get established as a “writer” first by being paid for what other people want?  My answer is self-defining: I have what I have. I think that the William and Mary story, for example, can teach some subtle lessons. I think I can make some of this material quite compelling for film. But it is my material. It is not Harry Potter (although a couple of my scripts present appealing teen or young adult characters as “heroes”). It is not “Purpose Driven Life,” or anything else that was a quick popular success. I can’t simply tell people what they want to hear.

 

The natural question, then, is how to get people to “pay” for this. I’ve already talked about the movies, media, and television. There could be other opportunities, for example, building curriculum databases or content management strategies. Another idea is to develop material related to solving one or more particular problems associated with my manner of free speech (addressing censorship, spam, identity theft, or reconciling piracy prevention with fair use), and then get a job implementing the solution to such a problem. An obvious idea would be advertiser-supported blogs. A variation could be movie and book reviews (a particular emphasis on smaller films)  with my own cutting spin of political relevance, maintained on a database and presented professionally as would appeal to advertisers.  These would be narrower in scope, professionally presented, and (to appeal to sponsors or advertises) tend to emphasize well-researched facts and analysis rather than opinions and interpretation. Finally, there is education and teaching, especially of critical thinking skills.

 

Putting ideas together in various media is what I can best do. In order to sell it, I need to keep it available to be found, often with the help of search engines, by those concerned about the various issues. That is the case at this time, but probably not forever.

 

All of this gets back to the questions about what I would do with the content in any particular employment situation, particularly after some kind of “success.” If I sell a script to the movies or to investors, I may have to reduce the free content that I offer. I cannot tell yet. If I get a more “conventional” job solving one of these problems I may also have to. Generally, one may not promote oneself as I do in a free medium if one has direct reports in the workplace, is responsible for speaking for a specific company or group, or has other accountabilities for others (like giving students grades). I’ve discussed this in detail in other papers at this site. It’s also important to stay away from jobs that would require access to trade secrets or confidential information if that particular information would be relevant to what I publish, considering the broad scope of the site. Understand, however, that, while intellectual honesty and objectivity (if you write at all) require the ability to address any issue, they do not normally involve disclosure of legally confidential information (trade secrets; classified information; medical, employment-related or school-related or other information about specific people or clients, etc.)

 

I want to reiterate that I would not want to accept a job involving hucksterism, where the point is to sell the ideas or causes of others.  These obviously would cause unacceptable conflicts of interest. Recently, I looked at the possibility of becoming a life insurance agent (based on my background in insurance) and ran into the roadblock that no other outside income was allowed for three years. People typically take these kinds of “adversarial” jobs when they are motivated by providing for families and do not have significant self-expressive motives. I am quite different from such people, not being a “man” in their sense.  I do not want to be have to play by their rules (I’m not good at them), but I suspect there are people who would try to force me to.

 

Note: 11/2005

 

It is important to note that sometimes giving away free content if illegal, if that content intends at inducing illegal behavior of others. Grokster has agreed to stop offering its free peer-to-peer software as part of a lawsuit settlement, predicated upon the idea that Grokster’s business model was predicated on encouraging copyright infringement. This danger appears more likely when offering software for free rather than just one’s own essay, database or video content, although one still has to be careful that one actually owns the content offered (or has requisite permissions when owned by others) even when the content is offered for free. Again, one has to watch any legal developments that could cause ISPs to have any downstream liability for what customers do (usually they do not). In general, the Grokster case could create a climate where the offering of a large amount of free content or software presupposes one to presume an ulterior, unethical, or even illegal motive, that can spread over to third parties as downstream liability. It could raise more questions about Chinese walls and the desire for third party supervision.  

 

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Journalism policy statement

 

Note on “fair competition” (look for this phrase on this file)

 

Note on agents    Editorial on peer-to-peer file sharing

Note on COPA    Suggested blogging policy   Note on the right to be heard       Note on substitute teaching   Resume

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