Free = Worthless: Information Can’t Be Free
Ian Lurie Jul 6 2009
Oh, the humanity. I owe Chris Anderson an apology for this one. After rereading it this morning, I was horrified. Did I really write this? Don’t get me wrong: I do NOT think ‘free’ is a good idea. Nor do I think ‘information wants to be free’ will win out over ‘information wants to be expensive’. But I singled out Chris’ book because I happened to listen to it. What I write below makes a lot more sense as a general argument against ‘free’ as a business model. However, I’ll leave this up, so you can all enjoy my embarrassment. Now I’m going to head off to chew on my foot a little longer.
In ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price’, Chris Anderson says ‘information wants to be free’ and goes on a utopian tirade about how wonderful things will happen as free information hits critical mass.
Mistake 1: It doesn’t add up
First, since I’m a picky History major: Anderson interprets Stewart Brand’s original quote, but something doesn’t add up:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Brand isn’t saying that all information should be free. He’s saying it wants to be free. And that it wants to be expensive at the same time. Anderson takes that quote, deletes analyzes it in a way that makes sense (that there’s a tension between free and expensive information) and then goes on talking about how free will win out in the end. That’s where our opinions differ. A lot.
I expanded on my explanation here a bit. He didn’t so much ignore or delete as bob and weave a bit. I still don’t agree with his analysis though. Ultimately ‘expensive’ must win out over ‘free’ or you end up with marginal quality.
Mistake 2: Information isn’t self-replicating
While information may want to be free, intelligence doesn’t. Talent doesn’t. And hard work by intelligent, competent people doesn’t want to be free.
Information doesn’t spring out of the ground. It’s created by people. And good information is created by good people.
Mistake 3: Over-generalizing
Marginal information may want to be free.
Crappy information may want to be free.
All other information has value.
Example: I write this blog to attract clients and boost my soggy and unpredictable ego. It’s not a humanitarian exercise. If it didn’t pay, I wouldn’t do it.
What’s really happening
This is where all you ‘free’ fans say “Whoa, Ian, you’re an idiot. Look what happened to the music industry”.
The music industry isn’t collapsing because music ‘wants to be free’. It’s collapsing because lots of people are stealing, and music executives are reactionary nubwits. Caught in the middle are talented musicians, who work hard to create the tunes we love, only to have them stolen and placed on a file sharing site by a sweaty-palmed 12 year old in Terre Haute.
Newspapers are collapsing because they didn’t keep up. It’s not some sociological phenomenon. It’s an economic catastrophe of the 1st order.
The mantra that Anderson hopes will sell lots of books (oh the irony) is the product of one generation of professionals who didn’t understand that the model was changing, and another generation who think looting is OK.
Free sucks. If you want something valuable, pay for it. If you don’t want to pay, don’t whine at me when you’re misinformed, sick of lousy music and spending more time trying to find accurate information than you do reading it.
How to fix it
Want to fix the information economy?
Find a way to separate distribution from value. Create a way to sell songs for $.59 that lets me play them on all my devices. Take advantage of abundant distribution and technology to make information a more profitable proposition.
Develop better compression algorithms. Find ways to get the same song onto any device, from a cell phone to a CD player, and bill me instantly. At that point, stealing is too much work.
Make distribution more and more efficient, so you can sell higher volumes at a lower price and still pay the creators what they’re worth.
Declaring information should be ‘free’ is short-sighted and unsustainable. Make information free and you’ll get what you pay for.
What really strikes me most, though, is the hypocrisy. Chris, practice what you preach. Why not give your book away, online, for $0.00? After all, information wants to be free…
I totally screwed up on this one. Chris will be releasing digital versions of the book, for free, over the next two weeks. You can read his book online, for free, here.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More