why I bought the Michelin Guide

As the issue of copyrights and intellectual property are moving up the public agenda (see this Economist article for example), I thought I'd write a few posts on what I do buy and work out why I did buy it, rather than say pirate it, to use the emotional term of the day. Let me start here with the Michelin Guide for the iPhone.

The Guide Michelin, as it is known in France, is famous world wide as a very professional database, sold until recently as a book, of the best restaurants in Europe. The Michelin Guide sends highly qualified inspectors anonymously to restaurants to evaluate the quality of their cuisine. They also check the cleaniliness of the kitchens, evaluate the service, the decor, and much more. The result is a reliable guide to restaurant quality.

So why did I spend €10 for the iPhone application for the database of French Restaurants? A search on the internet gives a lot of free restaurant evaluation services. I could have used those instead, right?

It's really all about dating. When you are out with a sophisticated girlfriend, or even on a business lunch, it just won't do to pull out your notebook, and spend 10 to 20 minutes searching on Google through reviews of restaurants, that might have closed a few months ago. It takes a lot of time to sift through open reviews simply because tastes differ massively. To be able to evaluate the quality of a restaurant through online reviews requires assesing the taste of the reviewer from the very limited information available to you from the text -- reviews that could furthermore easily have been faked or sponsored somehow by the owner of the restaurant himself. So when you are on a date or with your wife and she wants a good quality restaurant close to where you happen to be right now, you don't have more than 3 minutes to come up with an answer. You are going to spend easily €30 to €100 on the meal. And a bad meal can spoil a day or a business meeting. So compared to that, what is €10 for the Guide Michelin?

What is important here is that you want quality information here and now. The quality is provided by the inspectors of the Michelin Guide, and the system they put in place to do the tests and verifications. It is confidence in their methodology that gives confidence in their results. Perhaps something similar could be done using crowd sourcing, but I have not yet found such a site, and my guess is that this could be very difficult to put together (not impossible mind you: it is up to Michelin, to keep the cost of their information low enough that building up a parallel database remains uninteresting).

So here are a few reasons I can think of for paying Michelin directly for the information:

  • The information from old guides has no more value. The latest information is what I am paying for
  • by not giving money to the source I'd be reducing my chances of having good information in the future
  • if I got information from someone who did not claim to be using the info from the Guide even though they were, I'd have a lot less reason to believe their results
  • if they did use the info from the guide but sold it to me as a copy that was not respecting the policy of the guide, I'd have reason to doubt the honesty of the company giving me the info, and so of the quality of the information itself - trust is an essential ingredient in an information economy
  • The time it would take me to find a pirated version of the guide, and the nuisance of constantly finding updated versions, would be worth a lot more that €10 of my time.
And I am sure there are a lot more reasons to explain why buying directly from the source is important. In an information economy the current truthfullness of information is key to its value. I will pay for information I need that I can trust and have now.

An analogy with medicine is illuminating here. You can read up in libraries all about a physical problem you may have. But it could take you months to read up about it, and a lot more to get to the point where you felt that you were knowledgeable about the subject: ie that you could diagnose sympotms correctly and prescribe the best medicines for it. If the disease was about to kill you in a few months then you just clearly won't have time to learn. This is how we get scarcity in an information/knowledge economy. The information may be free to reproduce, but tracking the truthfulness of the information is very costly. Learning it takes time. Perhaps we need to replace the notion of the price of a good depending on the offer and the demand for it, with one of the price of a good being related to the accessibility of the good and the need of it. Learning is the procedure to aquire a knowledge resource. Learning takes time, and that has a cost: in other options that are no longer available, for example. Using the knowledge of others is a short cut to having to learn, and the value of this is reflected in its price.

Comments:

I think this article points out well why paying for quality information is worthwhile, but in terms of the intellectual property debate, I think it contributes to a false dichotomy: that one has to choose between free, amateur-produced commons, and paying for commercial, intellectually owned products.

If the Guide's prices weren't so reasonable, there might be incentive for someone to come up with a donation based (or similar), IP-less system.

This kind of thing might happen in the world of textbooks for example, where prices far above value are a frequently-cited motive for piracy.

Posted by Joseph Razavi on May 10, 2009 at 04:01 PM CEST #

Yes, I don't want to claim that "professional" is better than amateur, or crowdsourced. I have the feeling that one could do something very interesting in restaurant guides using clever crowdsourcing with statistical mechanisms to help automatically find people with similar tastes, and use those as guides to help them find other places to eat. A bit like Amazon's book recommendation piece. Michelin should be careful and pay attention.

The thought I was trying to push rather is that I did pay for the service, and perhaps I could even pay for a crowdsourced version. In any case the value would be in the quality of the information \*now\*. If the quality of information \*now\* is dependent on a process, then copying the information, does not copy the process. It is the process that gives knowledge, and that is valuable.

Posted by Henry Story on May 10, 2009 at 04:12 PM CEST #

Ok, you won, I just bought it ! :-)

Posted by Christian Fauré on May 10, 2009 at 04:41 PM CEST #

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