Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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23 December 2004

In an October Wired article I just got around to reading, the editor in chief argues the importance of what he (and others) have called the ‘long tail’. As we know most people want things that are popular (expressed through the so called “power law”:http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/01/13/inequality.php which indicates visits to web pages (or weblogs) tend to be concentrated on a few big sites, or through book and music shopping where most people buy blockbuster books or CDs). What the ‘long tail’ thesis suggests however is that there are still substantial numbers of people who look at, read or otherwise consume stuff outside the mainstream “bump” – and this article suggests that there is money to be made in serving them as well as more mainstream customers.

The author assembles several interesting facts including the figure that 57% of Amazon’s customers are buying books that aren’t in its ‘top 130,000 books’ (the number of books in a typical Barnes and Noble store).

As a frequent would-be consumer of goods in that ‘long tail’ I am all in favour of encouraging the kind of attention to diverse needs that the article goes on to call for but I have to note one or two flaws in the article’s argument. First of all, Amazon (and the other vendors they highlight) may have lots of ‘long tail’ customers precisely because they are known for the breadth of what they stock. If there were lots of people serving that market, the proportion of sales going to ‘long tail’ customers for any individual one may be lower.

Also, the author dismisses the impact of the free file sharing networks on music too quickly. These already provide much of the variety that conventional distribution has so far failed to offer and there is a danger that the longer commercial organizations stay out of the ‘long tail’ market the more likely consumers are to become used to and dependent on free file sharing networks. And as broadband gets more widely available, movies may increasingly ‘go free’ as well. Indeed, I am a little surprised Wired didn’t suggest this would be a good thing – or at least threaten businesses with this as an alternative future…

Interestingly this article is (perhaps at an unconscious level) an attack on one of the key planks of the arguments advanced by copyright reformers like “Lessig”:http://lessig.org/ (traditional Wired allies) who say that it is ridiculous to retain strict copyright rules for lengthy periods because the commercial lifespan of most material is limited. But if the Long Tail encourages companies to try to wring even small amounts of money out of their lower-worth properties they will have a stronger interest in sticking with existing restrictive copyright rules.

Update There is a Long Tail blog and there will be a book. Also it appears the 57% figure for Amazon (one of the more interesting ones) may be exaggerated.

My friend “Reid”:http://rae.tnir.org/ comments rightly:

The thrust of your post seems to indicate that Lessig et al are labouring to make copyright less restrictive than it is. Fine and good, but it would have been better to point out that this would just return to the way copyright was for years and years (centuries?) before companies in the US pushed to change them starting in the late 20th century.

They key issue is that the duration of a copyright is increasing at about one year per year. Needless to say, this is not good. Read more about all this at the Opposing
Copyright Extension

I agree on this point – copyright expiry dates need to be looked at afresh from scratch and a new balance needs to be struck (certainly for example the need to assert your copyright after x years in order to have it valid which was removed a little while ago in the US needs to be returned so works which have no residual commercial value would revert to the public domain faster).