Some content wants to be free. Some doesn’t, but we’ll still use Google (or something like it) to find it

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ZDNet blogger Donna Bogatin, who pays much closer attention to Google than I ever will, raked my Google vs. Big Media column over the coals last week. At least, I think that what she was doing–her post spends a lot of its time countering arguments that I never really made, but perhaps are espoused by the more Web-2.0-besotted among us.

No matter: Bogatin grouped me into the camp of people who think Google will rule the world, and from the evidence of that one column this wasn’t unreasonable of her. But I am large, I contain multitudes. Which is to say that, on this issue at least, I change my mind every couple of hours.

Bogatin is convinced that content should not be free, and that “Google’s free content kingdom is at risk.” Fine. My question, though, is which content? Some (highly specialized business journalism and porn spring to mind) shouldn’t be free online. Some should. For the latter, and even some of the former, Google provides an enormously valuable function: It steers people to what they want. I don’t see how that’s freeloading. And while it’s entirely possible that another company will come up with a better way of doing that than Google’s, the function will continue to exist. It will also continue to transform the business models of companies that produce media content. They’re going to have trouble forcing customers to come in through the front door of their TV network, home page, whatever–because that’s just not how people use the Internet.

Google’s YouTube site is more problematic. It hosts content that it didn’t create. Most of it is uploaded free of any copyright restrictions (like Curious Capitalist Jr.’s first soccer goal), but a lot is illicitly swiped from copyright holders. Google knows the latter can’t go on forever, and is working hard to set up ad-revenue-sharing deals with the TV networks and others whose videos end up on YouTube. But it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that this effort will fail, and that YouTube will turn out to be Google’s bridge too far.

What’s not within the realm of possibility is that TV networks and magazines and newspapers will be able to go back to the old ways of controlling their interactions with customers. Unless, that is, they can get by without very many customers.