It’s official: the New York Times is erecting a partial paywall.
The first thing to say about this is that it’s not going to work. Not in a technical sense. You can’t give away your content for free some of the time, then stop — not when the cost of reproducing that content is zero. It seems likely that users will be asked for an email address in order to use the site at all. But of course it would be easy to generate a ton of accounts and then build a firefox plugin to cycle between them (with some scripting, your monthly free-article-views can be multiplied by the number of captchas you’re willing to fill out). Or you could create a site that caches NYT content, reducing the need for “spending” your free credits. Or you could make a browser plugin that uses P2P to serve viewed content to others who’ve asked for it after their credits are spent.
None of that’s likely to be necessary, though — the NYT has created loopholes for bloggers and search engines before, and I imagine they’ll do so again: it’s just too tempting, and their future is too uncertain to close off any avenues of imagined salvation. But it will probably be fairly simple to take advantage of those loopholes for general reading. The web simply wasn’t designed with the sorts of systems necessary to prevent that from happening.
Of course, even though the proposed scheme, like all other half-hearted (aka commercially viable) DRM systems, is technically hopeless, the system might work in a practical sense. Most people won’t bother with the circumvention techniques that will emerge. People still make money selling DVDs even though CSS is cracked, for instance. But, as others have noted, the papers that have had the most success with paywalls are the ones that have asked readers to spend someone else’s money on a subscription — their employer’s money, typically. I doubt the NYT can pull that trick off.
I don’t have a solution, really. If I were in their shoes, would I try to put up a paywall? Maybe. If you’re ever going to try, you should do so while your cultural import is at its height, which means as soon as possible — the old media oligarchy is clearly set for steady decline. But if I were going to build a wall, I certainly wouldn’t build cracks into it. A subscription-only model would radically diminish the paper’s influence and consequently transform its components. But the choice may be between that and oblivion, and if it is, the time to choose is now.
They won’t, though.