free

Jul 9, 2009 | Tech News

Chris Anderson, of the Long Tail, Wired Magazine, and TED fame, has been in a bit of hot seat lately.

Anderson has a new book out, called Free, The Future of a Radical Price. First, Anderson was accused of plagiarism, lifting large sections of wikipedia entries, which he acknowledges but chalk it up to being an editorial mistake. However those Wikipedia entries got in the book without reference, it was an ironic moment, considering that the premise of his book is that information ought to be free. This hilarious image was part of his send-up:

Swiped

Image from Boing Boing Gadget

 

But more interestingly, the premise of his book was under great scrutiny. Another big time intelligentsia, Malcolm Gladwell (of New Yorker, Tipping Point, Blink, and recently Outliers) took Chris Anderson to task for saying that all ideas and information should be free, or at least will be forced inexorably to a price of zero. In his book review piece in the June issue of New Yorker, Gladwell sees in Anderson a techie who took the web’s transformational effect on the music and newspaper industries (read: annihilating), and extrapolated a step too far in claiming that all information are now unsellable at any price above zero. We’ve seen this happen twice already, so why shouldn’t it happen to other informational businesses as well? Newspapers are being encircled by the bloggers; record companies are being out maneuvered at every turn by music pirates; professional photographers are being outflanked by amateurs on Flickr, and YouTube is unleashing alot more interesting and varied content than the traditional TV networks. Why wouldn’t the trend continue, Anderson argues, and take the price point of such data to the logical price of zero?

Gladwell strikes back sort of haphazardly, I think, but nonetheless he made his dents. Even each additional copy of a pirated song is “free”, someone is still paying for the bandwidth and the storage cost. YouTube, he argues, may see each video played as essentially free, but together they incur a huge hardware, electricity, and connectivity bill. Wall Street Journal charges a subscription fee and still has alot of paying customers to its web site. But on the whole, I think Gladwell has only argued successfully that Anderson has perhaps overreached that ALL INFORMATION will be free due to these exceptions, but not yet refuted the other cases or the general trend towards lower and lower prices.

(Of course, when two cognoscenti argues, you’ll find a posse building up behind both sides. Seth Godin jumps in with his take via his post: Malcolm is Wrong.)

My take?

Gladwell is right, Anderson was wrapped up in his own rhetoric and gone too far. ALL, or 100%, is a very difficult amount to achieve, and by default Anderson’s proposition that “all information ought to be free” needs to be proven. There are certainly a lot of information that is free or will be soon free, but that doesn’t translate to all information yearns to be free.

I also think that the definition of FREE is a problem. If we define FREE as costing nothing to the consumer of the information, this is a definite trend with no easing. Whereas newspapers continue to be printed with cost for ink, paper, and reporters, the economic model has shifted so that no one is willing to buy the newspaper anymore, even if it is better (marginally) than free news on the web. And digital music is so freely available on the web, that not many people will pay for it anymore, at least not enough to support the traditional music industry model of record labels, agents, booking agents, musicians, song writers, etc. etc.

But if we view this so-called “free” movement as a shift from consumers directly bearing part or all of the cost of obtaining the bits, to one where consumers indirectly pay for the information via marketing mark-up of products they buy, or services they pay for (such as telecom bills for the internet), then this is a very sensible conclusion. And there are a wide range of products that will make the transition, starting with the traditional medias such as music, and now print journalism.

And since (human) nature has few absolutes, and so there will always be a place for premium content, such as paid televisions such as HBO, elite journalism such as Wall Street Journals. I think due to the way our societies are structured, advertising-supported “free” will be the majority of the share of the market, with the more well-to-do willing to pay for the distraction-free premium exclusive content.

And let’s not forget too that as the marketplace shift away from the historical “paid” model, that new types of information will be created to serve niche markets that are willing to pay for early and exclusive access. After all, if information is such as competitive advantage, there will always be room for folks who can give a competitive edge, whether it is in the form of tangible goods or intangible knowledge.

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