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The Really Free Market

Iíve spent the last couple days ripping through Chris Andersonís highly anticipated new book Free, The Future of a Radical Price. Free is about the ďeconomics of free,Ē the idea that by giving away copies of creative works (like music, movies, or books), the creator of these things can still make money from other, related, and ancillary sources, and sometimes much more money than by just selling copies of the work itself. I read Free for free online at Scribd.com, but itís also posted at Google Books, and for sale as a real book everywhere else.

Itís a fabulous, provocative, illuminating book. A central tenet is that free ďcontent,Ē be it music, photographs, or whatever, is the inevitable result of the digital age. Forget about traditional concepts of copyright, ownership, or the overheated arguments about stealing or privacyóonce something is reduced to a digital file, itís gone if itís something people want. Itís a law-of-nature phenomenon, not a moral one. Itís inevitable. Like I tell clients, if you post something on the Internet, donít be worried that people might download it. Be worried that people wonít.

This all became graphically real to me one snowy morning in 2000, when I first fooled around with the original Napster program. My first search was for recordings by my band Blotto, and as the little search button blinked, I had the epiphonic realization: How the hell was I going to feel if we werenít on there?

Anyway, starting with the assumption that good content is inevitably going to be free content, Anderson goes on to make the case that this isnít necessarily a bad thing for creators. Yes, things may change. Some business models are going to crumble, and some creators (or, more than likely, their corporate overlords) arenít going to make as much money as before, but there are other ways to skin the cat, and, if the cat wasnít as big as before, there will be most definitely be more cats to choose from. And more creators skinning them.

For me, one of Andersonís more interesting points is that a lot of this isnít particularly new, that enterpreneurs have been dealing with the economics of free for as long as thereís been the economics of anything. He starts the book using the example of how Jell-O broke through to commercial success, by printing millions of Jell-O cookbooks and by giving them away door-to-door to create interest and demand in Jell-O. It worked. (Note: Next time youíre on the Thruway driving to Buffalo, get off in Le Roy, NY and visit the Jell-O Museum. Yup, the freakiní Jell-O Museum.)

Did you know that RCA first started broadcasting radio programs for free as a way to sell more radios? Then they had a contest for people to suggest ways to pay for more radio broadcasts, and the winning entry was a tax on vacuum tubes. Then, finally, somebody came up with an advertising model, so radio was free to the listeners and advertisers were the true ďconsumersĒ of radio, paying for listenersí attention. And that was the model that stuck.

In part, this is what Anderson sees as happening now, a period of technological and entrepreneurial evolution. Case in point: Right now there are at least 50 different models for Internet advertising, some that work, some that donít, some that are being tweaked, and some that await an audience.

Of course, the establishmentís reaction to Free has been unrestrained hysteria. There was the big plagiarism charge, that heíd nicked a bunch of things from Wikipedia. The truth was that his publisher didnít agree with the form of his submitted Wiki citations and took them out. In the version I read, Anderson cites Wikipedia constantly, as youíd expect he would. Wikipedia supports, if not proves, his premise. Free rocks.

Most criticisms of Free are like those of failed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Keenís odious and intellectually dishonest book The Cult of the Amateur, in which the evil Internet is made out as the cause of the destruction of civilization. I imagine most of these critics havenít bothered to read Free, and if they have, were so horrified by its truths and its challenges to their livelihoods that they decided the only effective response was to just yell stuff. Disappointingly, The New Yorkerís Macolm Gladwell, a thinkiní feller if ever there was one, filed a remarkably tone-deaf diss last week, one I suspect heíll eventually regret as his deadline and dread of change fade.

Despite being posted for free on the Web, Free is right now the Amazonís 75th best-selling hardcover book overall and the 25th nonfiction title.

Checkmate.

óPaul Rapp


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