Part 3: Shakespeare and his media brand

James Breiner
4 min readMay 12, 2023

A lesson for entrepreneurs is the value of trust and intellectual property

In the previous two parts of “Shakespeare the media entrepreneur” I showed many parallels between the media ecosystem of England four centuries ago and that of today — similar risks and similar rewards.

Part 1: Shakespeare the media entrepreneur

Part 2: Shakespeare stayed off the grid, in incognito mode

Just like today, the demand for new and exciting entertainment drove innovation and great business opportunities. And just like today, there was an oversupply of content for sale — too many theaters, too many new plays, too many sequels. That was a formula for creating bankruptcies and a few great fortunes.

Title page of the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, 1609. Scholars differ on whether they were printed with his permission. Image from The British Library article on the poems.

Lessons for the media today

Shakespeare worked in possibly the most popular and profitable media vehicle of the time — large open-air public playhouses. (The building boom was comparable to the explosion of movie palaces built to capitalize on demand for motion pictures in the early 20th century.)

By 1609, Shakespeare was a big enough name — a media brand — to make publishing a collection of his 154 sonnets a good business proposition. It is not clear whether the poet himself approved their publication. He previously circulated them only among a small group of friends and professional contacts, possibly because he considered them private and personal.

At the time, copyright law had not been created. It was common practice to copy plots and characters from work by others. And some of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays were published without his permission by unscrupulous printers. It was only seven years after his death, in 1623, that two members of his theater company published 36 of his plays under his own name in The First Folio. It was a good business proposition for the company because he was a brand.

Intellectual property. Today we have a raft of streaming video and audio services all competing for the scarce time, attention, and dollars of the public. Successful formulas are copied. We choose Netflix or Showtime or Disney+ or whatever based on our trust in the brand.

Plagiarism can be automated. Every day I receive a raft of new examples in various media industry newsletters of the dazzling and diabolical new tools of ChatGPT, Bard, and other instruments of Artificial Intelligence. They can create plausible imitations of others’ work, and mimic their tone, style, and content in seconds.

Scary technology. My emotions run wild. From one moment to the next, I might feel terror — “The trolls and manipulators now possess the media equivalent of nuclear weapons”; or indifference — “It’s just another media channel, like newspapers, radio or TV”; or cynicism — “The Big Five tech giants (Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon) will still monopolize the tools to control what we desire, purchase, admire, and despise”.

Political and social implications. And like our new digital media, Elizabethan playhouses and their productions were a threat to the authority of the institutions of Church and State. We saw in Part 2 of this series that playwrights and poets sometimes saw their work suppressed. They risked imprisonment or worse.

In our liberal Western societies, the regulators are busily creating rules for digital speech; and in autocratic societies, censorship, imprisonment, and worse silence dissident voices. Free expression is always a threat to power.

The value of trust

Just as rumor and conspiracy theories swirled around the royal court in Shakespeare’s time, we have the same.

Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, a century after Shakespeare’s death, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” And in the early days of the telegraph, Mark Twain supposedly said, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Bad news travels fast, someone said. Good news takes the scenic route.

The difference today is not just that lies can be sent and received, but they can be programmed to respond to our questions. Rumor and gossip still stir up our emotions of fear, envy, and hatred, but now the algorithms of technology platforms are programmed to addict us to material that generates an emotional response.

In other words, they feed our addiction to seize our attention and sell more ads. It’s a fantastically profitable business model with bad consequences for media consumers and societies faced with challenging problems.

Anyone can publish anything today, and anyone else can repeat it and republish it. People trust news media and social media less and less.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

What hasn’t changed in the 400 years since the First Folio is that people still seek sources and products they can trust. Whether that be friends, family, social networks, or news media. Brands help us decide whether something is authentic and worth our money.

Verification takes time. The best, most reliable sources of news and information attempt to track information to its ultimate source and test the reliability of that source.

It’s the media equivalent of the scientific method. So far, this is the best method that humans have devised for understanding the world around them. It’s the best description of reality that we can find.

Reliable, trustworthy information takes time and money to produce. We publishers and broadcasters have to sell the importance of what we do. We cannot assume that if we produce it, the public will come. People are distracted and confused by what they see and hear.

The demand for a quality product is strong. We have to supply it and attract the resources to produce it.

Next: On May 25, I’ll start a series on Teaching and Learning for journalists, with entries on mentors, coaches, guides, teachers, bosses, and public libraries. Let’s see where it takes us.

Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.substack.com.

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James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia https://jamesbreiner.substack.com/