Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Strong Argument Against Free

Malcolm Gladwell, reviewing Wired editor Chris Anderson's Book Free: The Future of A Radical Price for the New Yorker, effectively deconstructs what he and others call one of the Internet's most pervasive urban legends, namely that giving away "ideas" (ranging from newspaper articles to iPhone apps) is a good thing.

Rather, Gladwell argues, the law Anderson calls one of the Internet's "iron laws" demonstrates how the Internet is cheapening information not because it wants to be free, but because consumers and distributors want it to be free so they can either save money or make more money themselves, forgetting that those who create the information probably ought to be paid as well.

Gladwell's review of the book raises some challenging assertions. YouTube, as he points out, is a free service, where anyone can upload videos for free and watch videos for free, as long as they're willing to put up with a lot of amateurish crap, pirated material or, in my case as I try to keep up with The Goode Family without having television at home, shows that are truncated on YouTube but offered elsewhere as long as I'm willing to take surveys, watch a lot of commercials or, in the case of (a property of the show's originator), watch the "download" spiral spin and spin and spin and spin and spin until I get fed up and go back to YouTube. But YouTube, this wonderfully free service, has yet to make a penny for its owner, and rather is set to lose nearly half a billion dollars because despite the millions of eyeballs coming to watch all these free videos, advertising can't keep up with the price of server space, distribution via expensive bandwidth and the $230 million in licensing fees YouTube paid for in order to get non-crap videos on the site that would attract those advertisers.

So what to do? I know, as an information provider myself, there are limits on what I'll give away for free, and limits as to the amount of money people would pay for my content. But I'm not going to settle for a pittance of a price simply because someone on the Internet believes what I produce should be free. I look, for instance, at people who write software that lets you enter a YouTube link and copy the video to your computer. It's a great service. You get a video you can then put on your iPod for free. But not really, because unless you pay for the software, you get a nice little watermark across the screen throughout the entire video. These software writers, offering the temptation of free information, from that iron Internet law, want you to pay for the privilege. Pay for my information, you say, so you can get information created by someone else for free. That's not an economy. That's rank hypocrisy.

So that raises the challenging question: Can the Internet -- especially newspapers -- recover from the Internet's iron law? How can they get that genie back in the bottle. I've argued here that it's impossible. And yet at the same time, as a budding author, I'm not prepared to offer my book online for free. Why go through all that effort and time and pain to produce something worthwhile, only to give it away and then, as Anderson argues in his book, try to figure out a way to make money "around" that information?

We're greedy, I suppose. The greed that we imagine on the hands of, say, the recording industry, in making us pay the ungodly sum of $12 to $15 for a compact disc of music, or 99 cents for a downloaded song, justifies music priacy that is crippling the recording industry and making saviors of the likes of Sweden's The Pirate Bay, who argue -- and do so successfully -- that information wants to be free. But aren't we merely transferring that greed from a faceless corporation to ourselves? We're now the ones who want that iron law to be absolute, so we can have our cake and eat it, too, leaving artists the work of tours, perfornaces -- which many already have to do because compact disc sales alone, without piracy, don't make for lucrative careers -- making money around the thing that they love to do, namely write and perform music. It's like we're telling architects, builders and others involved in building the skyscraper that we want the biggest, tallest, baddest building in the world but that we don't want to pay for it -- they can get paid by tacking advertising posters on the side of the building while we tromp around inside, upset that the penthouse suites are occupied by the folks who barged through the door before us.

So I admit to being conflicted on free. I've argued here that newspapers can't put the free genie back in the bottle. But I hardly think Anderson's vision of journalists getting paid less for what they do, journalism becoming a part-time avocation rather than a full-time vocation, will be good for the industry, enticing for talented writers, or beneficial to the democracy. There's a real hate-fest going on out there about newspapers, and the information wants to be free argument is just one of the many blunt instruments industry critics are using to bludgeon a dying horse. My local paper charges for access to its website, and has been roundly criticized for it. Yet they have more than 600 online subscribers, which help add to the paper's circulation figures when the American Bureau of Circulation comes around. The Wall Street Journal, as Gladwell points out, has over a million online subscribers and keeps its information mostly behind a walled garden paywall. Yes, the paywalls keep out cursory visitors, crippling what Gladwell and others call another Internet myth -- the link economy. But at the foundation of all things, somebody has to pay for the information we want. I'm glad someone paid Gladwell to review this book. I'm also glad the New Yorker put the review online for free. The conundrum continues.

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