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Doc Searls

Open Culture

Speaker, blogger, writer, and former radio personality, Doc Searls is the Senior Editor of Linux Journal, co-founder of GeekPAC and the American Open Technology Consortium, and a leading blogger.

Widely recognized as an authority on technology and marketing, Doc is co-author of the #1 sales and marketing bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto, which will be released under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

Creative Commons: So let’s talk licensing…

Doc Searls: Journalism has an old acronym: MEGO, for “my eyes glaze over.” A mego is any story that’s too important not to run and too dull to interest all but a few. Licensing is one of those topics for me. I glaze at the thought of it — which is an occupational problem, because licensing is a big deal in the Linux community, where I work.

I’m always amazed at how much energy gets spent by Linux weenies talking about licensing, while most people in the business world really doesn’t give a damn. Hey, that’s why they have legal departments.

CC: What do you think might help people to better understand the licensing process?

DS: I think we need to develop a new vernacular understanding of what licensing is. . . . I mean there have always been tacit agreements about what we can and can’t do with stuff — agreements we’ve understood intuitively. Now we need to be much more explicit, because the range of actions that can be taken with our public works is not only much larger, but often committed in digital form, which allows us to be much more specific about the agreements involved.

Anyway, it’s still a boring subject to me, but at least I know why it’s important.

CC: How do you think Creative Commons licenses might help?

DS: I believe there is a crying need for a public conversation about the licensing of artistic works, and for our vocabulary to have the richest and most specific possible bases. That’s why the work Creative Commons does is so important and welcome by attempting to scaffold a new set of commons-native relationships between creators and customers.

CC: And you feel these “commons-native” relationships are fundamental to cyberspace?

DS: Yes. The Net isn’t a distribution pipe; it’s a place. We conceive the Net as a place. Craig Burton calls this place “a new world, built like a sphere comprised of nothing but ends.” Think about “end to end” architecture for a moment. The best way to conceive it, Craig says, is as a hollow sphere. Across the nothingness in the middle we are all zero distance from each other. Each of us is an end. No intermediaries required.

As Monty of Ogg Vorbis put it to me in an Austin bar last spring, “There’s a reason we call it ‘cyberspace, not ‘cyberpipes’.” We go on the Net, not through it.

CC: Who do you think is treating it like a mere distribution pipe?

DS: Well, as we pointed out in Cluetrain, business is thick with the language of shipping. We have something we call “content” that we “load” into a “channel” and “address” for “delivery” to a “consumer” or an “end user.” Even a category as human-oriented as customer support talks about “delivering” services…

That said, the businesses that are most afflicted with pipe-mindedness are the ones that are quickest to call everything “content.” It’s amazing to me that I used to be a writer, and now I’m a “content provider.” Entertainment and publishing are the biggest offenders here, at least in the sense that they see the Net entirely as a plumbing system. The whole notion of a “commons” is anathema to the plumbing construct.

This was the problem with all these dot-com acronyms with a 2 in the middle — B2B, B2C and so on. “To” was the wrong preposition. As Christine Boehlke put it to me once, the correct middle letter should have been W, because in a real marketplace we do business with people not to them. Does anybody ever shake hands and say “Nice doing business to you!”? Because the Net is more fundamentally a place than a pipe, we do business with each other there, not just to each other. Critical difference.

CC: And this can bring about new kinds of relationships between creators and customers?

DS: This demands new kinds of relationships between everybody, and not just the entities we call creators and customers. The relationships don’t need to be personal; they just need to respect the immediacy of everybody involved. That immediacy is what’s native to the Net. It isn’t native to the physical world — except, perhaps, in an old-fashioned bazaar-type marketplace.

So whatever kinds of relationships we have, they’ll be more immediate and direct.

CC: Who has taken Cluetrain to heart thus far?

DS: I know some pretty big companies that have changed their relationships with suppliers and customers radically to take advantage of the Net. These were the guys we heard from right after Cluetrain came out. Companies like GE, Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, Prudential and Nortel Networks. They may not be reacting perfectly, but they are far more realistic and adaptive than the entertainment and broadcast industries. They have long been vested in the industrial mass marketing model, which they have made sure also relies on political and regulatory protection.

CC: In Chapter 4 of Cluetrain, you describe how the Industrial Age served to transform customers into consumers. Is it your opinion that the Internet can be used as a tool to reverse this trend? Or at least go in a more progressive direction?

DS: Yes. The Net undermines the idea that customers are nothing more than consumers with names. Jerry Michalski calls consumers “gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash.” They are the aphids of the industrial age. They exist only in mass form and they are specific to the conditions of the industries we call mass media, mass marketing, mass distribution, and mass retailing.

These industries don’t need to go away, but they do need to face the facts about the new conditions the Net has introduced to the world.

It’s important to note that these industries distinguish between customers and consumers in ways that are not obvious, even to them. But those distinctions are critically important to understanding why change is so hard.

CC: What are some specific examples of progressive transformation of some key industries that are starting to “get it.”

DS: In commercial broadcasting, for example, customers and consumers are totally different populations. You and I pay nothing for what we hear on our car radios. We’re just consumers. The customers of the stations we hear are the advertisers who buy time.

The same goes for commercial television. Consumers of commercial TV have no economic relationship whatsoever with their local NBC station, with the network, or with the producers of shows. All the “content” is just bait. Chum on the waters. The commercial broadcasting marketplace is a conversation that exists entirely between the media, advertisers and intermediaries such as advertising agencies.

CC: So whether customer or consumer, they’re not involved in the process?

DS: Exactly. The consumers have zero influence, basically, on commercial television because they pay nothing, and don’t have any kind of direct feedback mechanism. And if we put that mechanism in place (as the Net and TiVo threaten to do), guess what happens? The colossal inefficiencies of advertising get exposed. A $100 billion business worldwide is suddenly at risk.

There is negative demand for most TV and radio advertising. It subtracts value for listeners and viewers. That’s why TiVo viewers skip over the ads. TiVo isn’t exactly Net-native, but it could easily be. And eventually, it will be, if its backers let it survive.

CC: And you think that this has alienated broadcasters from their customer/consumer audiences?

DS: Yes. This split between consumers and customers has given broadcasters not only zero feel for its ultimate marketplace — one where its consumers become customers — but zero appetite for it as well. And there is a similar lack of appetite in the entertainment industry, which has used its vast distribution system to distance itself from its ultimate markets, which will live in the commons.

CC: You wrote about how you see free music downloads as good marketing.

DS: Markets are conversations. People will buy, and will support, the stuff they care about. The next step after “markets are conversations” is “markets are relationships.” Creative Commons helps us get to that better than any other effort I know.

CC: So you’re using a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication for “Cluetrain Manifesto”?

DS: We basically open-sourced the book. Chris Locke hacked the HTML and put it up on his Gonzo Marketing site. Frankly, we did it without thinking specifically about licensing terms — which we might have done if Creative Commons had already been around!

Posted 01 July 2005