Really Free Market
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
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
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.