Why Mark Thoma doesn’t accept advertising

By Felix Salmon
July 7, 2009

David Warsh has a good profile of Mark Thoma, who doesn’t get paid for blogging:

“I lose money on the blog,’ says Thoma. “The state pays me to do this, to be an economist. It would be wrong to take money for it. And if you take advertising, it just feels as though you’re captured.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to take money from outside sources for being an economist, just because the state pays you to be an economist. Is Mark implying that Tyler Cowen is wrong to run ads on his blog? That Mankiw is wrong to make millions of dollars writing textbooks?

What Warsh and Thoma don’t mention here is the legal reason that Thoma doesn’t run ads. Thoma tends to quote other people’s writings at substantial length, often with little or none of his own commentary attached. The vast majority of people picked up by Thoma are very happy about it, but inevitably there are going to be a few who get antsy about copyright. And if Thoma doesn’t make any money from his blog, it becomes virtually impossible for anybody to claim damages.

Some bloggers are much more cavalier when it comes to fair use than others; Thoma and Yves Smith spring to mind as bloggers who tend to quote at great length. But Smith’s blog has lots of ads on it, which means that she’s much more likely to find herself the recipient of takedown notices, C&Ds, and other nastygrams. Thoma, I think, has a much easier life, with much less tail risk, by making the decision to accept no advertising at all. And as an added benefit he has one less thing to worry about on the blog.


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“And if Thoma doesn’t make any money from his blog, it becomes virtually impossible for anybody to claim damages.”

Tell that to the people who are being sued by music publishers for sharing music, and not making any money.

Posted by KenG | Report as abusive

Two counterpoints:
1. Mark is likely to be completely honest about his feelings here. There are many, many, many academics who feel that outside income has an effect on intellectual integrity (I suspect the econ profession, however, has more than its share of people who have seen the economic-and publication – advantages in, ah, certain positions. Mankiw is one)
2. Your supposition is, on the law, wrong. Economic benefit is not a factor in determining a copyright violation.

It is weird to find people who do not actively maximize their income, especially for a New Yorker. However, Thoma may well be sincere. And it may be a luxury he has in Oregon, where the economic pressures are less.

Posted by Dollared | Report as abusive

There are plenty of people in New York (and London) who do not maximise their income – that’s how they can both have such a great cultural sector!

I suspect geography doesn’t have much correlation with attitude to income – all sorts of people in both rural and urban life give up income opportunities for other benefits.

I do agree with you that Mark Thoma’s position is purely a principled one.

@Dollared: “[Felix's] supposition is, on the law, wrong. Economic benefit is not a factor in determining a copyright violation.”

Wrong – Felix is correct to view advertising as a relevant factor in copyright infringement actions.

In the U.S., two of the four tests for finding ‘Fair Use’, which is a defense against copyright infringement, include assessments of the commercial/economic nature of the work and/or infringement.

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work


Interesting points Felix …

Now, Thoma is an a-lister in blogland so perhaps there is a case to be made here. However, take my own humble Alpha.Sources (not by a long shot an a-lister like Cowen et al. but a blog with, I imagine, with a close band of readers). Now I have had offers for advertising but seeing that I think it looks crap on my site (really, it would bugger my site) and taking into account the puny amount of USD it would give me, it is not worth it. Add to this your point about potential “tail risk” and I would say that it is absolutely worthless.

I may be underestimating the buck in this business though.

Heck, Squarespace charges me 17USD a month for the site and I am not even sure I could cover that amount through ads :).


“And it may be a luxury he has in Oregon, where the economic pressures are less.”

BS – Oregon has the second-highest unemployment in the country right now.

I have a feeling everyone just wants to jump all over Prof. Thoma for not “maximizing his income” (as if it were some kind of syndrome!) so that they don’t feel quite so unprincipled about taking money from advertisers themselves.

Posted by Bridgie | Report as abusive

Considering his readership, strong and growing I suspect, Thoma drives a lot of traffic to the sites he highlights. I know I’ve taken two subscriptions to magazines because of my introduction to them via Thoma’s site. If you’re on the “right side” of his page, you’re getting a lot of readership you’d otherwise not see.

For me at least, Economist’s View has been an opening portal to many, many sites I’d have only stumbled upon.

To Dollared: Maybe he is maximizing profits. You are thinking only in terms of money, but e.g. the respect he has in Academia also has value.

To Steve Hamlin: How disingenuous of you to ignore the other two points:

2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;

Mark Thoma is easily violating #3!

To Felix:

While Yves Smith quotes a lot she also usually adds a lot of commentary, which actually gives her a stronger fair use defense. As you mentioned, Mark Thoma often quotes articles verbatim without any commentary, which as I point out above violates the 3rd test for fair use.

And as others pointed out you are also wrong about the commercial intent. It’s still a copyright violation and he can still be sued over it (the RIAA lawsuits are a good example of this). With that said, if you avoid making any financial gain then it usually makes you a smaller target (RIAA lawsuits being an obvious exception to this).

So, people are in effect choosing to look the other way. Why? Well, anyone going after him is going to generate a lot of bad press — precisely because he is so well respected by his peers (and maybe throw in some unwritten rules in Academia for good measure) And why is he so well respected? Because of his personal integrity and the reputation he has garnered amongst his peers. Which is a long way of saying that his answer is sincere.

Posted by Argel | Report as abusive

Incidentally, although Mark often quotes large portions of the articles he cites, he nearly always edits and elides long sections while preserving the meaning. He actually plays a very active editorial role, the success of which is demonstrated by its invisibility.

Steve Hamlin, you’re right and I stand corrected. I was thrown off by Felix’ statement about “proving damages” because of income. But you’re right, damages aside, some profit motive is relevant in determining liability.

Posted by Dollared | Report as abusive

if it might have something to do with an agreement with his employer, whether or not the employer is the (de factor) sponsor of the blog

thoma is also his own sponsor, as pointed out above, presumably with the intent of building his brand in ways which may enable him to tap more lucrative revenue streams – and at the same time presumably using the blog as a research assistant

has anyone done a productivity assessment of the economist or legal – sectors? industries? – and the resulting externalities if all lawyers and economists maximized their productivity in whatever way that might be achieved and measured.

Posted by ac | Report as abusive

“While Yves Smith quotes a lot she also usually adds a lot of commentary”

Is Yves female?

She has apparead on TV a few times so you can google for her. “Yves” is pronounced like Eve (i.e. “eev”).

Posted by Argel | Report as abusive