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The Inertia of Digital Turf Wars

Two recent news stories touch upon a core question in the conflict between established businesses and digital creators: what’s the point of a turf war when the turf keeps shifting?

First up is a New York Times story that examines the murky relationship between professional sports teams, bloggers and multimedia coverage:

Mike Fannin, the president of the Associated Press Sports Editors and the managing editor for sports and features at the Kansas City Star, said the dispute was the result of traditional news organizations redefining themselves in a changing technological environment.

“Ten years ago newspapers weren’t in the world of video and audio,” he said. “We were in the world of print. The leagues don’t have a print product. Their view of this is that we entered their world.”

That is one point both sides agree on. “I’m all for selling newspapers and magazines,” said Bob DuPuy, the president of M.L.B. “What I’m not for is them branching off in to other enterprises.”

The second story comes from the publishing world. Author JK Rowling and Warner Bros. sued to block publication of the Harry Potter Lexicon, a book derived from Steven Van Ark’s Harry Potter fan site. From the Associated Press:

The author and her lawyers said they were stirred to action by the proposal to move the Potter lexicon from the anything-goes Web, where it was available for free, into book form, where it would compete directly with a Potter encyclopedia that Rowling plans to write herself.

In short, by deciding to sell his material, Vander Ark was stepping across a line. He was no longer just an enthusiastic fan, but a professional and potential competitor — fair game for the lawyers.

The conflict between digital envelope pushers and traditional businesses will take years to subside (or move on to a new skirmish on a new platform). But isn’t there a better way? Rather than throwing huge resources at lawsuits and posturing, especially when you’re confronting a gray area, why not allocate some of that time, energy and money toward trial runs and acquisitions? Digital initiatives don’t require abandonment of established business models, and the knowledge gleaned from experimentation — knowledge that could lead to new revenue — is far more useful than a turf war.

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