Michael Wolff’s speech

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.

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9 Responses to Michael Wolff’s speech

  1. MemeFirst says:

    Does Michael Wolff get it or not?

    Michael Wolff understands new media. He understands that information has become devalued, that if someone wants to find something they can, that the gatekeepers of old, to use Jeff Jarvis’s favourite term, can no longer control what people can and…

  2. Felix: perhaps you should email a copy to John Young at Cryptome (http://www.cryptome.org). This is the sort of thing he relishes.

  3. Felix,

    Michael Wolff’s comments [if they are accurately transcribed...."poorly transcribed" is oxymoronic and therefore something which needs to either cleared up or discarded]are the most honest and accurate about Media that I have so far read. It would be a shame if they were to be hidden. He knows what he is talking about.

    And is the Wall Street Journal for sale or just in need of someone to steer IT and who knows New Media Methodologies?

    In the interview, these comments caused me some interest….” A profound change has happened. The ecology of information has altered, and virtually nobody (at least nobody who has a job) has been willing to really examine the implications of information flowing not from it’s usual source but from so many other sources. The implications of one person having this remarkable control. I mean, that’s the reversal. It used to be that if you were an information provider you had control. Now you have no control. Control has absolutely passed to the consumer.”………..If the information provider provides for the consumer, he/she STILL has Control. So do we have an admission that Big Business is providing a Selfish Service and has lost Control? Rhetorical questions, of course.

    “They go to these companies, which are large advertisers, and say you need cash for growth, here is cash. You can have an advertising contract with us over a seven-year period. This is what you guarantee us in advertising revenue.

    WOLFF: So, the media companies are buying the consumer product companies?”………… Or, a company working for consumers is being bought into Media to help Media. That would be a company ur2die4, meThinks. It would certainly be one worth Living for.

    Have a nice day Felix while I see what I must do to link to Mr Wolff’s comments.

  4. Alan says:

    Cryptome has taken it down, after DMCA threats. Google’s cache isn’t permanent, the next time they spider a site they update it, so all those links are dead too.

    For the moment at least, it has been unpublished.

  5. Alice says:

    I do believe that it has indeed been unpublished. Just out of curiousity however, I was simply wondering if you might e-mail me the transcript?

    -Alice, whom you don’t know.

  6. Aaa Nonny Mouse says:

    [punchline at end] Just got through learning about jux2 and how it can be used to find links in Yahoo and Ask Jeeves which are not in Google. Just got through linking all the links I could find in Google, and thinking Eurasia has always been at war. Tried jux2 and found a link–very entertaining–make yourself a copy and publish it elsewhere ere it be taken down.


  7. Jessie Shook says:

    Is this Michael Wolff? If it is is Nat Wolff and Alex ur sons? If so what are their email address and have them email me at moosey55555@yahoo.com or if they don’t have one email me back and tell me.


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