Professional media gadfly Michael Wolff delivered the opening keynote address
at the 2005 SIIA Information Industry Summit in New York at the beginning of
February. Hundreds of digital content professionals heard his speech; it caused
a bit of a stir at the time, largely because he said that the Wall Street Journal
"kind of disappeared" in the mid-90s:
I think the fact that the Journal felt that it was powerful enough to charge,
and for a long time everyone regarded the Journal’s activities online as the
ultimate. They had unlocked the puzzle. In fact, I don’t think they did. I
think they locked themselves into a puzzle.
The speech was recorded by the SIIA, and then given by the SIIA’s flack, David
Williams, to IWantMedia.com. IWM then sent it off to be transcribed, and published
the full transcript on their website.
Michael Wolff was not happy about this.
I don’t know why Michael Wolff wasn’t happy. I suspect that he wasn’t happy
because the speech was a little bit informal, and a little bit embarrassing.
When people get paid money to give speeches, as I’m sure Wolff was, they often
drop in little juicy bits of gossip to make their audience feel that much more
insidery. In print, however, those bits of gossip can look more like self-aggrandising
I have a good story. I mean, this is a really good story never before told.
At least never before told in public.
A little less than a year ago I was out at a conference on the West Coast.
And there was a guy at this conference who in New York we refer to as the
mysterious billionaire. We have no idea what he does, but he lives in the
largest private residence in Manhattan. That’s what everybody always says,
that specific phrase: "He lives in the largest private residence in Manhattan."
He also travels in a private plane, which I had once been on. I went out to
Kennedy and there were all these G5s parked there. And I started to kind of
move over to them, and the guy taking it out said no and shifted my attention
to a 767.
I got on this plane first with some other people. And then the mysterious
billionaire came on, followed by three teenage girls (not his daughters).
At any rate, we’re at this conference and it finishes and he’s going to L.A.
and offers me a ride on the plane. As a matter of fact, he says, you can sit
up front if you want. So we go out. I follow him out to his car and then we’re
quickly followed by two other guys. It’s Larry
Page and Sergey Brin, whom I’ve met before…
In any case, it turns out that Michael Wolff had either failed or refused to
sign the SIIA’s standard release form, which allows them to disseminate and/or
republish the speeches of their speakers. Williams didn’t know this when he
sent the speech to IWM, but he certainly knew it when a furious Wolff phoned
him up demanding that the speech be taken down. "No one realised Michael
Wolff didn’t sign the release," Williams told me when he called me earlier
today. "And nobody reckoned that IWantMedia would get it up so quickly.
And nobody realised what Michael Wolff’s reaction would be."
Willliams also told me, per Wolff’s statement
to FishbowlNY, that IWM had sent the recording out to be transcribed, and that
the quality of transcription was, indeed, pretty poor.
When Williams asked IWM to take down the transcription, explaining that he
shouldn’t ever have sent them the recording in the first place, they complied.
But I happened to have a copy of the IWM page open in my own web browser, and
I couldn’t help but notice the
irony in the situation. In the speech, Wolff congratulates himself on being
right that "information wants to be free"; then, after his speech
becomes public, he tries to unpublish that information. But in the age of the
internet, as Wolff himself should know better than anyone, that’s simply impossible.
I proved that myself, by putting a copy of the IWM page up on felixsalmon.com.
That was a week and a half ago. Today, I got that phone call from David Williams
at the SIIA, asking me to take down the page, and telling me that if I didn’t,
I would probably get something called a "takedown notice". Williams
made it clear that if he had his druthers, he would have left me alone: after
all, virtually no one was reading that particular page any more, and asking
me to take it down, a la Puma,
could simply rekindle interest in a story which everybody had already moved
on from. When I asked Williams whether he was explicitly or implicitly threatening
any kind of legal action against me, he said that "I’ve felt and argued
from the very beginning that that would do more harm than good."
Williams, in other words, gets it. Wolff, on the other hand, doesn’t. I left
Williams with a choice: we could either let sleeping dogs lie, or he could ask
me to take down the page – which I would, on the understanding that in
doing so, I would certainly explain why I was doing what I was doing.
Today, I am taking down the page – something I always refused to do when
Puma was after me. I’m doing so because, in this case, I think I’m actually
breaking copyright law. The speech is Michael Wolff’s intellectual
property, and me reprinting the transcript in toto does not, I think,
count as fair use. Williams phoned me back shortly after our first conversation,
this time conferencing me in with Keith Kupferschmid, the SIIA’s Vice-President
for Intellectual Property Policy & Enforcement. "Michael Wolff clearly
has intellectual property rights," Kupferschmid said: "he owns the
copyright rights in the transcript". My reprinting that transcript, I was
told, plausibly enough, was a violation of copyright law.
That said, I’m perfectly happy to link to anybody else who might want to host
that particular webpage; if you want to read what it said, Google Cache still
has it. Kupferschmid told me that "I’m hopeful nobody would take a
complete copy of the transcript and put it up" on the internet. If anybody
does, they can certainly expect me to link to them, but they can also expect
a phone call from either Williams or Kupferschmid in short order.
Williams and Kupferschmid, I think, are likely to have something of a thankless
task ahead of them. Every time somebody mirrors the page, they’re going to have
to get on the phone and try persuade that person to take that mirror down –
something which won’t be easy, especially if it’s hosted abroad. They don’t
even particularly want to make all those phone calls, but they’re thankful
to Wolff for speaking at their conference, and they have promised him that since
they caused the problem in the first place, they’ll try to clear up the subsequent
mess. On the other hand, maybe no one cares very much about Michael Wolff and
information wanting to be free – maybe once I take my copy of the page
down, it will disappear from the internet forever. That’s certainly what Wolff
is hoping will happen.
UPDATE: The page has magically
appeared at cryptome.org.