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Should Disney Open the Floodgates?

January 10, 2007

Steve Rubel has a post today about Disney overhauling the Disney.com site. Rubel’s reaction is that Disney should be opening up more of its content to be hacked and mashed up if it really wants to take its interaction with online customers to a new level.

I think this is an interesting question for both Disney and other companies that own content that others want to mess with. On the one hand, sure, you want your audience to use your content in new and interesting ways. But, at the same time, you created that content, it has value, and giving it over to those who did not create it but want to use it as raw materials for their own works may not be easy, and it may not be wise.

This isn’t necessarily a new question. The Grateful Dead encouraged concert bootlegs when the recording industry wanted only official releases. Rap used samples from both hit songs and obscure songs as spare parts in creating a new style of music.

But just as artists like the late great James Brown felt that they weren’t getting paid for having their work sampled, media companies aren’t necessarily keen on giving away their content to be monkeyed with, especially if the result is something that someone else profits from while they don’t.

The arguments for opening the floodgates and allowing greater sharing of copyrighted work is that it enhances the brand, possibly bringing your content to an audience that wasn’t aware of it, or giving stale content new life. These arguments make sense, but everyone’s pretty familiar with Winnie the Pooh. He doesn’t really need brand extension, or need to have new life breathed into his brand. The kids are still feeling him. So, what would be in it for Disney in allowing someone to mashup Pooh eating some yummy hunny with the voice of Brad Pitt in Fight Club saying “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’d find that funny, but it’s hard to make the case that it makes me feel more fondly toward Pooh Bear.

I just read Wikinomics (review here) and was glad to see this issue brought up. Because I think it’s great if content creators want to let their audiences interact with their work in new ways, but there also seems to be a feeling by some that they should, as if to defend your right to keep your content in the form that you created it is somehow wrong or pigheaded.

I’m talking about this from a business perspective, but even from an artistic perspective I think it’s important. If an artist has created a work that he/she is proud of, and if that artwork is somehow the realization of a vision that the artist feels he/she successfully brought to life, isn’t it natural that the artist might feel unhappy if it is twisted into a new shape? Should the Rolling Stones really desire to see Sympathy for the Devil mashed up with a Carrie Underwood song just because someone who may be a fan of theirs thinks it would be cool (or ridiculous, which itself can be cool)?

I’m all for social media and using old things in new ways, but I think the whole “content wants to be free” thing is at times simply justification for stealing. If companies and artists want to share, great. If they think it can help their bottom line, super. But should they feel compelled to share? I don’t think so.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.

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