What’s That Burning Smell Coming from the Internet?

Richard J. Greenstone

It’s 2003 and various burnt odors emanate from the Internet. How is that possible? My computer is in perfect order (finally!), I have a fast DSL connection with a telephone closet holding all the networking gear more than fifty feet away. So what do I smell? Certainly not electronics.

Like computer software programs, which magically morph into various tools to perform different tasks—word processing, database management, accounting—the Internet has many different components, each performing a separate function. There’s the world wide web, E-mail, instant messaging, news groups, and older variants that people don’t speak of anymore. The most important is the world wide web. When I surf, cruise or link into the web, the wafting odors vary

Gettysburg Canon by Richard Greenstone, 2005

Gettysburg Canon
by Richard Greenstone, 2005

depending on what I’m reading and looking at. Scalding hot chocolate from a cooking site, burning rubber from Nascar.com, yes, even human sweat from sites no one admits to looking at. But why should the smell of burnt Internet reach my nostrils?

The great promise of the late-’90s was the implementation of the frictionless economy. The world wide web was supposed to ease transactional friction lowering the cost of doing business, making licensing easy as a click. Need a picture, click and pay; license a song, click and pay (and pay and pay). Transactional costs would ease, time to license would contract, delivery of goods would seem instantaneous. What happened of course was that reality got in the way. Some things naturally lent themselves to fairly fast transactions, some still require human intervention and review. Hope and hype combined to form an unrealistic view of the possibilities of frictionless transactions which collided with mundane issues such as the resistance of humans (there’s that friction again) to give up their roles in the licensing process. There’s plenty of friction on the Internet and where there’s friction there’s heat, and where there’s heat there’s fire.

Let’s build a mythical CD-ROM product which combines our own written content, music, motion pictures, photographs and viewing software. Of course this is an unscientific sampling of areas and products (that’s ’cause its law) but it illustrates perfectly where friction and non-friction enhance or impede licensing.

Since we’re going to deliver some motion picture content, let’s go to Apple Computer’s website for some QuickTime software. Users who don’t already have the software will conveniently find a copy for their use on the disc. We certainly have a farsighted development team! All we want to do is license the viewer for distribution on the disc and it must work cross-platform,i.e., for both Windows and Macintosh machines. Apple’s website provides a form for licensing QuickTime but the form must be submitted to Apple for further approval. See http://developer.apple.com/mkt/swl/quicktime.html. The site explicitly states that the licensee cannot distribute the QuickTime software until written permission has issued from Apple’s legal department. The Apple isn’t rotten here, just cooked. There’s plenty of friction to slow up the transaction; certainly enough to put the brakes on the project.

OK, we need to distribute a viewer on the disc, in much the same way QuickTime software is distributed. Off we go to Adobe Systems’ site to license Macintosh and Windows versions of Acrobat Reader. Again we fill out the form, submit it, but at that point the transaction is finished. See http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/acrrdistribute.html. We can download the software and incorporate it into the disc. Adobe does not require HQ approval prior to distribution of Acrobat Reader on the disc. This transaction is as frictionless as can be. Adobe, both the material and the eponymous company, resists heat and maintains its cool like a Santa Fe dwelling in summertime.

Pictures tell a thousand words; they lend variety and texture to a product. Although the CD-ROM has space for 650 megabytes of information, I’m loathe to fill up an encyclopedia’s worth of writing on the CD-ROM. Let’s see; if we use moderate resolution photographs of about 200 K of information, and include 10 pictures on our CD-ROM, we’ve saved ourselves 10,000 words and used about 2 megabytes of space on the disc. We’ll still have room for motion pictures which use many more megabytes.

Gettyimages.com provides an excellent example of nearly frictionless licensing. There are several steps. Register, navigate, search, purchase and download. Gettyimages.com has a standard web shopping cart feature. They use a nifty price calculator to determine costs (including costs in local currency for non-U.S. buyers). At the end of the purchase transaction you simply download the image. What could have been a difficult licensing transaction—akin to splashing glacial acetic acid on your hands—is quite simple and fast, about the same amount of time spent putting a print through developer, stop bath and hypo. I only smell a traditional darkroom here. Now I’m getting nostalgic!

A trip to Warnerbros.com created as much friction as Wiley Coyote coming to a screeching halt. This is no Road Runner site. A search of the Site Map doesn’t even indicate a page for licensing a film clip. Licensing appears to be available only the old fashion way; call them direct.

I never thought a trip to the woodshed would be a part of the production of this project. But that nearly happened. A visit to Umusic.com, Universal Music Group’s web site has downloads for consumers, no licensing available, and a load of ideology concerning the evils of illegal downloading. Scolding (and scalding) words won’t build a product.

Current conditions don’t prevent licensing of properties through Internet resources but it’s still an incredibly flawed system. We can expect neither uniform licensing terms nor procedures due to varying legal requirements for different properties. Various entity requirements and human perfidy also play a role. The inclination amongst licensors is to introduce friction into the licensing process. These “hot” licensors would do well to note the “cool” company Adobe which licenses without undue friction. As a result, their property, Adobe Acrobat Reader has become the standard viewer of the industry. Very cool, very frictionless.

This article first appeared in The Licensing Journal, April 2003.