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From Bards to Search Engines: Finding What Readers Want from Ancient Times to the World Wide Web


  • Stephen M. Maurer, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper: GSPP14-002 (June 2014)


Copyright theorists often ask how incentives can be designed to create better books, movies, and art. But this is not the whole story. As the Roman satirist Martial pointed out two thousand years ago, markets routinely ignore good and even excellent works. The insight reminds us that incentives to find content are just as necessary as incentives to make it. Recent social science research explains why markets fail and how timely interventions can save deserving titles from oblivion. This article reviews society’s long struggle to fix the vagaries of search since the invention of literature. We build on this history to suggest policies for the emerging world of online media.

Homeric literature was produced and disseminated through direct interactions between audiences and authors. Though appealing in many ways, the process was agonizingly slow. By the 1st Century AD commercial publishers had moved to the modern model of charging readers above-cost prices to pay for search and marketing. Crucially, the new model was only sustainable so long as firms could suppress copying. We argue that Roman and early modern publishers developed remarkably successful self-help strategies to do this. However, their methods did little to suppress copying after the first edition. This seemingly modest defect made publishers profoundly risk averse. Ancient best-seller lists were invariably dominated by authors who had been dead for centuries.

Publishers’ self-help systems collapsed under a wave of piracy in the mid-17th Century. This led to the first modern copyright statutes. Crucially, the new laws extended protection beyond the first edition. This encouraged modern business models in which publishers gamble on a dozen titles for each that succeeds. The ensuing proliferation of titles helped fuel the Enlightenment. It also promoted a rich new ecosystem of search institutions including libraries, newspaper critics, and editors.

The Digital Age has changed everything. As copyright fades, the old institutions for finding titles are drying up. We explore several possible responses. First, society can shore up current publishing models by expanding copyright and technical protections. We argue that these methods cannot save book search but might be adequate for music and movies. Second, search engines could pay for editors. We argue that an on-line Digital Bookstore can suppress copyists long enough to fund reasonable search efforts. Finally, society can return to the Homeric pattern of harvesting advice directly from audiences. We explore various commercial and open source institutions for organizing the work.

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Last updated on 06/17/2014