Valuing Ideas vs Content vs Experiences

Valuing Ideas vs Content vs Experiences

May 27, 2012
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Jonah Lehrer points out that early copyright law created the notion that ideas are valuable. The claim of the legal world is that ideas are valuable enough to provide legal protection. But this is a tricky point. I’d like to know if the economic data bears that out.

Someone help me attribute this story.  An author is challenged that his material is not unique.  “I could have written that.” goes the challenge.  The author responds, “Perhaps you could have written this, sir. But you didn’t. I did.” In this case, our author makes an interesting point: he delivered.  His response accepts that the idea was not inherently unique. Perhaps many people had the same thought, the same idea. But it was our author who wrote, packaged and delivered the idea in a manner that others valued.  Valued enough to pay for it.

I have no idea if any of the following adds up to a hill of beans. I’m really not rigorously versed in these matters. It does strike me however, that this is territory worth exploring.

Alternate Theory: Delivery Is Valuable

What if valuation only benefits the inventor if certain business conditions prevail? What if it’s not the protection of the idea the provides economic value? What if, instead, it’s the ability to bring the fruits of that idea to market? Is there ample evidence to support this notion?

Simultaneous publication of scientific findings from across the Age of Reason. Who wins? The first to register the paper. It’s not the idea that wins. It’s the person who delivers it.

Aircraft market dominance. The Wright brothers may have dominated the flying game in the first ten years of the history of flight, but they could not sustain. It wasn’t that they “invented” flight. Flight wasn’t “their” idea. They began the race by delivering on it. But once they had done so, it was only matter of time before those delivery masters replaced the Brothers Wright as household names. A patent would have never protected the Wrights.

Enter Content

“Content” is the term information technologists use to separate the cogs of code writing from the material those cogs deliver. Railroad tycoons called it “freight.” Today, the shipping magnates no more care for what’s inside their shipping containers than the railroaders or info technologists. Each container, rail car or packet–packaged and delivered–is simply a unit of financial charge.

Newspapers, artists, craftsmen, home builders take heed: content is not being monetized worth a damn, because business looks at it wrong. The editors and executive boards of newspapers have been thinking they are delivering content. And it’s a commodity. So they end up with a new round of arguments. But the fight over pay walls and the “culture of free” is missing some major points of human psychology. Why should I buy a New York Times article? Why do I buy music? Why do I buy a ticket to a movie? Why do I buy a cheap table from World Market? Why do people love Facebook, but won’t pay a nickle for their accounts?


People love stories. They love being a part of something bigger than themselves. They like being generous and magnanimous. They like crafting their identities and expressing themselves. They like having agency in their own lives. They like making the world better. They like shared experiences. They love seeing new things and being swept up in the beauty of the world. They like having food, shelter, clothing and medical assistance. They like being held, pampered and listened to. They like making things. They like making sense and meaning out of their lives. They care about each other.

These are a handful of the forces that motivate human beings. People put up with Facebook for one reason: it allows them to share pictures and thoughts with loved ones without a lot of fuss. The interface is simple enough to get started, yet elegant enough that most people aren’t embarrassed by the stock design offerings. In some management psychology speak, the transaction costs for customers is low. Like Google’s interface, Facebook thus earns enough goodwill that you put up with some well healed advertising. Facebook becomes another tool in my ability to have great relationship experiences.

I buy my music because I like to have integrity and be honest. I don’t like the experience of being shady. But frankly, I only buy the music I like. The rest of it I listen to for free thanks to, now, internet radio. And I pay those guys for their great ‘service’ of providing me a terrific listening experience commercial free. They stretch me. They introduce me to a world of new experiences. Occasionally they play music I don’t like. But it passes quickly and pretty soon something nice comes along. I very much like the experience of auditioning new music all day and working wonderful things into my playlists.

I won’t buy a New York Times article because no one in my immediate circles of influence care that I read the NYT. And if I really want the analysis and insight, I’ll go to channels that have figured out their business model enough that I can get what I need to consider the idea. I don’t really consider the NYT an essential feature of my citizenship experience. I also don’t use the material professionally. If I did, then a NYT subscription would be a no brainer. I have read the NYT for years as fuel for conversations. I found other sources.

I wanted a table in my back patio so I could entertain more elegantly and easily. Tables are endlessly useful things. But I’m an architect. Design matters. The appearance and long term durability make a difference to me–part of my identity you know. I bought it from World Market because it was a fine design and it was cheap. It also makes me feel like I’m part of the World. I now have a great table. I don’t feel embarrassed about it. Now I provide really good experiences for others. That, in and of itself is a great experience.

So consider what you’re doing. If you are interested in making money on ‘ideas’ and ‘content’ remember that the people buying your stuff are people. How does your stuff fit into their experience?

Post Script
I’m using WordPress for this blog. I have to say, it’s pretty amazing. Why? The experience of putting up content is a breeze. That’s why. While I’m pretty handy with coding, I have a lot more to say than just <html></html>. Full screen mode is a beautiful thing. No clutter, just blank screen, nice type, good margins. Ahhh.


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