Ceci c'est un meme.

On Forbes today, I look at the phenomenon of memes in the legal and economic context, using my now notorious "Best Buy" post as an example. Along the way, I talk antitrust, copyright, trademark, network effects, Robert Metcalfe and Ronald Coase.

It’s now been a month and a half since I wrote that electronics retailer Best Buy was going out of business…gradually.  The post, a preview of an article and future book that I’ve been researching on-and-off for the last year, continues to have a life of its own.

Commentary about the post has appeared in online and offline publications, including The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, TechCrunch, Slashdot, MetaFilter, Reddit, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool, and CNN. Some of these articles generated hundreds of user comments, in addition to those that appeared here at Forbes.

(I was also interviewed by a variety of news sources, including TechCrunch’s Andrew Keen.)

Today, the original post hit another milestone, passing 2.9 million page views.

Watching the article move through the Internet, I’ve gotten a first-hand lesson in how network effects can generate real value.

Network effects are an economic principle that suggests certain goods and services experience increasing returns to scale.  That means the more users a particular product or service has, the more valuable the product becomes and the more rapidly its overall value increases.  A barrel of oil, like many commodity goods, does not experience network effects – only one person can own it at a time, and once it’s been burned, it’s gone.

In sharp contrast, the value of networked goods increase in value as they are consumed.  Indeed, the more they are used, the faster the increase--generating a kind of momentum or gravitational pull.  As Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and co-inventor of Ethernet explained it, the value of a network can be plotted as the square of the number of connected users or devices—a curve that approaches infinity until most everything that can be connected already is.  George Gilder called that formula “Metcalfe’s Law.”

Since information can be used simultaneously by everyone and never gets used up, nearly all information products can be the beneficiaries of network effects.  Standards are the obvious example.  TCP/IP, the basic protocol that governs interactions between computers connected to the Internet, started out humbly as an information exchange standard for government and research university users.  But in part because it was non-proprietary and therefore free for anyone to use without permission or licensing fees, it spread from public to private sector users, slowly at first but over time at accelerating rates.

Gradually, then suddenly, TCP/IP became, in effect, a least common denominator standard by which otherwise incompatible systems could share information.  As momentum grew, TCP/IP and related protocols overtook and replaced better-marketed and more robust standards, including IBM’s SNA and DEC’s DECnet.  These proprietary standards, artificially limited to the devices of a particular manufacturer, couldn't spread as quickly or as smoothly as TCP/IP.

From computing applications, Internet standards spread even faster, taking over switched telephone networks (Voice over IP), television (over-the-top services such as YouTube and Hulu), radio (Pandora, Spotify)—you name it.

Today the TCP/IP family of protocols, still free-of-charge, is the de facto global standard for information exchange, the lynchpin of the Internet revolution.  The standards continue to improve, thanks to the largely-voluntary efforts of The Internet Society and its virtual engineering task forces.  They're the best example I know of network effects in action, and they've created both a platform and a blueprint for other networked goods that make use of the standards.

Beyond standards, network effects are natural features of other information products including software.  Since the marginal cost of a copy is low (essentially free in the post-media days of Web-based distribution and cloud services), establishing market share can happen at relatively low cost.  Once a piece of software—Microsoft Windows, AOL instant messenger in the old days, Facebook and Twitter more recently—starts ramping up the curve, it gains considerable momentum, which may be all it takes to beat out a rival or displace an older leader.  At saturation, a software product becomes, in essence, the standard.

From a legal standpoint, unfortunately, market saturation begins to resemble an illegal monopoly, especially when viewed through the lens of industrial age ideas about markets and competition.  (That, of course, is the lens that even 21st century regulators still use.)  But what legal academics, notably Columbia’s Tim Wu, misunderstand about this phenomenon is that such products have a relatively short life-cycle of dominating.  These "information empires," as Wu calls them, are short-lived, but not, as Wu argues, because regulators cut them down.

Even without government intervention, information products are replaced at accelerating speeds by new disruptors relying on new (or greatly improved) technologies, themselves the beneficiaries of network effects.  The actual need for legal intervention is rare.  Panicked interference with the natural cycle, on the other hand, results in unintended consequences that damage emerging markets rather than correcting them.  Distracted by lingering antitrust battles at home and abroad, Microsoft lost momentum in the last decade.  No consumer benefited from that "remedy."

For more, see "What Makes an Idea a Meme?" on Forbes.



We've recently added over two dozen new posts to the Media page. Most have to do with SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced a few weeks ago in Congress to cheers from the entertainment industry and jeers from Silicon Valley. The bill would make it easier--too easy--for copyright and trademark holders to turn on and off Web content they don't like.

Larry's early analysis of the bill for CNET, and his on-going work on the poor relations between Hollywood and Palo Alto, led to a great deal of press coverage and speaking engagements. His detailed review of the bill was praised across the political spectrum, including by TechDirt's Mike Masnick and the National Review's Reihan Salam.

Larry participated in a Capitol Hill debate on SOPA and other pending piracy legislation sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, debating the bill against industry representatives. He also appeared on CNET's Reporters' Roundtable and This Week in Law, as well as podcasts by the Heartland Institute.

Net neutrality also stayed in the news, as did the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, privacy, spectrum reform and online human rights. Larry was quoted in a wide range of publications on these topics, including Politico, Reason, NPR's Marketplace, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Caller.  Conference footage from this year's Compass Summit panels on privacy and tech policy are also available.

For CNET this morning, I offer five crucial corrections to the Protect IP Act, which was passed out of committee in the Senate back in May.

Yesterday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, told a Silicon Valley audience that the House was working on its own version and would introduce it in the next few weeks.

Protect IP would extend efforts to combat copyright infringement and trademark abuse online, especially by websites registered outside the U.S.

Since Goodlatte promised the new bill would be "quite different" from the Senate version, I thought it a good time to get out my red pen and start crossing off the worst mistakes in policy and in drafting in Protect IP.

The full details are in the article, but in brief, here's what I hope the House does in its version:

  1. Drop provisions that tamper with the DNS system in an effort to block U.S. access to banned sites.
  2. Drop provisions that tamper with search engines, indices, and any other linkage to banned sites.
  3. Remove a private right of action that would allow copyright and trademark holders to obtain court orders banning ad networks and financial transaction processors from doing business with banned sites.
  4. Scale back current enforcement abuses by the Department of Homeland Security under the existing PRO-IP Act of 2008.
  5. Focus the vague and overinclusive definition of the kind of websites that can be banned, limiting it to truly criminal enterprises.

As I've written elsewhere, the Senate version was in some ways even worse than last year's COICA bill.  It imposes significant costs on innocent Internet users, and would do so with no corresponding benefits to anyone, including rightsholders.

The best thing the House could do would be to ignore this dud and work instead on reforming the broken copyright system.  That would do the most to correct the imbalance in endless copyrights and a shrinking public domain, eliminating much of the incentive for infringement that exists today.

But short of that, I hope at least that the most dangerous provisions are removed.

We’ve added about a dozen new posts to the Media Page on my website, reflecting a sampling of articles, media quotes, and radio appearances from the last few months. These include several pieces for CNET News.com and Forbes, as well as links to appearances on NPR’s “Science Friday” (debating Sen. Al Franken on privacy law) and “Marketplace.”

I continue to be called on to help business leaders understand the confusing and dangerous new interest that national, state and local governments are taking in the “management” of the digital economy. I’ve been speaking most recently about Apple’s iPhone privacy flap (which turned out to have nothing to do with privacy), the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, and pending legislation in Congress aimed at curbing online piracy of movies and trademarked goods, the so-called “Protect IP” Act.

Next week, I’ll be making my tenth visit this year to Washington to meet with Congressional staffers and other policy makers to discuss these and other worrisome developments. Increasingly, my role seems to be as an unofficial representative of Silicon Valley helping regulators see the potential damage to innovation from ill-considered laws.

Of course I continue my long-standing work with companies working to introduce new products and services that exploit digital technology. The introduction of “killer apps” only gets faster with time, and more than ten years since the publication of my first book, I’m deeply flattered to hear from entrepreneurs who tell me the book still works as a manual for success in the digital age.

I'm pleased to be the guest this week on Jerry Brito's "Surprisingly Free" podcast for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Jerry and I talk about enforcing copyright and trademark law online, and in particular the dangers of the recently-introduced Protect IP Act.  Protect IP tries to solve the problem of foreign websites selling unlicensed or counterfeit goods, but the tools it offers are a poor match for the realities of the global network, and if passed would likely do more harm than good.

Later:  Alternatives better suited to the real, underlying problems of digital content.

I've written two articles on the Protect IP Act of 2011, introduced last week by Sen. Leahy (D-Vt.).

For CNET, I look at some of the key differences, better and worse, between Protect IP and its predecessor last year, known as COICA.

On Forbes this morning, I have a long meditation on what Protect IP says about the current state of the Internet content wars.  Copyright, patent, and trademark are under siege from digital technology, and for now at least are clearly losing the arms race.

The new bill isn't exactly the nuclear option in the fight between the media industries and everyone else, but it does signal increased desperation.

I'm not exactly a non-combatant here.  Increasingly, everyone is being dragged into this fight, including search engines, ISPs, advertisers, financial transaction processors, and, in Protect IP is passed, anyone who uses a hyperlink.

But as someone who earns his living from information exchanges--what the law anachronistically calls "intellectual property"--I'm not exactly an anarchist either (or as one recent commenter on CNET called me, a complete anarchist!).

The development of an information economy will stabilize and mature at some point, and, I believe, the new supply chain will be richer, more profitable, and give a greater share of the value than the current one does to those who actually create new content.  (Most of the cost of information products and services today is eaten up by middlemen, media, and distribution.)

But it's not an especially smooth or predictable trajectory.  Joseph Schumpeter didn't call it creative destruction for nothing.