Free = Worthless: Information Can’t Be Free

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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.

100% Free

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.

free book, woo hoo!

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.

Hypocrisy, anyone?

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.

27 dollars please

tags : conversation marketing

16 Comments

  1. Love calling Chris Anderson out. This is very high on the rantiness meter indeed.
    BTW – you dominate the serps for “nubwits”. Good show!

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Ian. I’ve spent years trying to teach customer service agents that and salespeople that giving away a product or service for free is the psychological equivalent of devaluing it entirely. “If this was worth anything, why would he be giving it to me for free??”
    If you give away a product or service for free, chances are it’s because deep down you don’t believe it provides enough true value to charge for it. Not only that, but it then plants a seed that any other products or services being offered might not be worth paying for either. It’s a dangerous precedent to set and a quick way to perpetuate the notion that your time or your product doesn’t hold any true value.

  3. So Ian, bu writing “Anderson takes that quote, deletes what he doesn’t like, and keeps on writing,” are you inferring that Chris Anderson works for Fox News? I mean, it sure sounds like it.

  4. diane

    He’s baaaaack!!!
    I was going through Ian Rant Withdrawal Symptoms. Now I’ve had my fix. :) For a little while, at least. Tomorrow I’ll probably need another fix. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked, and it’s nigh impossible to quit.
    OK, getting semi-serious for a moment (always difficult for me): I wonder whether the devaluing of good information is connected with the general devaluing of writing? The big thing that keeps me from leaving corporate slavery for freelancing is the fact that all these prospective clients out there want to pay $12 an hour (tops) for SEO writing. No wonder there’s so much crap and shlock out there.
    If I google some SEO or Internet Marketing topic I want to learn about, chances are I’ll turn up one of those articles that reads as though it was written by a bot. Because it probably was. Sure, that kind of information’s free, but that kind of information sucks pondwater. You get what you pay for.
    Diane, Official Sycophantic Acolyte (and proud of it!)

  5. Ian

    @diane I think writing’s devaluation is definitely part of this. Good stuff is worth less if no one cares about good stuff. I wish I had a really easy answer. I don’t. So I’ll keep ranting.

  6. Chris Anderson

    Ian,
    Chris Anderson here. I don’t want to stand in the way of a good rant, but you obviously haven’t read the book. First, not only do I use the full Stewart Brand quote, both the free and expensive part, but I actually have a whole chapter devoted to deconstructing and understanding it, based on hours of interviews with Brand himself.
    Second, there’s no hypocrisy: the book will be free in all digital forms, ebook, web book, and audiobook. Some are time limited and some, such as the audiobooks, are not. Indeed, I retained the rights to the audiobook and spent $25,000 recording and producing the it myself specifically so it could be free to all.
    Details are on my website at longtail.com, or you can download the audiobook here: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-07/mf_freer. The other free digital forms will be spooled out over the next two weeks on various platforms.
    Chris

  7. Ian

    @Chris I’ll edit accordingly. But the fact remains that your original Wired article on the subject – Why $0.00 is the Future of Business – was pretty clear. And that “Free” as a business model is utterly unworkable.
    I did listen to the book. But it’s not the same as reading. Once a print version comes out I’ll read it.
    I WANT to be convinced. The freenomics model is well-suited to the internet. If it can earn money. But I have yet to see it work. And Google doesn’t count – they aren’t using free. They’re building audience to sell advertising.
    That said, I’ll redact the incorrect sections. Mea Culpa.

  8. I’ve read a few different write ups on this and referenced them in a blog post http://evolutionofwealth.com/2009/07/02/ahead-of-chris-brogan-seth-godin-and-mark-cuban/
    I’ve referenced posts from Seth Godin, Mark Cuban, Chris Anderson(of course), Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Brogan. In the comments section there is another post by Kevin Kelley. I think all are relative to the debate. I would love to hear your thoughts on the debate as a whole vs Chris’ book.

  9. Ian

    @CJ “Free sucks” really fits my overall thoughts. I’m afraid Chris’ book struck a nerve, so I ranted more about it than the general debate.
    I think free is OK as part of a larger plan to earn money: Give away $.20 to make $.80. But too many people are becoming looters by insisting that “free” is some kind of civil right, and that it’s wrong to try to earn money from great content. That’s just silly.

  10. Harry

    It’s worth noting that something can be free AND have ulterior motives. For example, I’ve gotten a lot of valuable information from your blog…but I’ve never paid a penny for it. Doesn’t that make this content “free,” at least from my perspective?
    I think there’s no denying that there is more free information of higher quality available now than there was twenty years ago. How far this trend will go, that I don’t know.
    Very interesting discussion!

  11. Ian

    @Harry Yes, that’s true. I use free information to build an audience all the time. But that feels different, to me, than what the new ‘information wants to be free’ crowd is putting forward.
    I have a direct, clear connection that I can make between this blog and my ability to earn money. It’s not even a stretch.
    On the other hand: If musicians give away their music for free, they can’t make that back on concerts and merchandise. Nor do newspapers have a working free model.
    And someday I’ll probably have to start charging. $999 a month?…

  12. That’s some really good, free advice for the music industry! Interesting article, Ian. By the way, I’m in the process of reading Web Marketing for Dummies..

  13. That’s some really good, free advice for the music industry! Interesting article, Ian. By the way, I’m in the process of reading Web Marketing for Dummies..

  14. Ed

    If I remember correctly the original article in WIRED so many months ago, was more along the lines of giving away a front end item for free to show value, then charge for the back end. The profit margin on the back end more than made up for the profit of either item sold separately.
    Most people may not capitalize on the follow up. While the blog is free, I see a ‘for hire’ link below for consulting w/Ian.
    Well done Ian. Looks like you’ve gotten the concept of ‘Free’

  15. Brent

    I agree with you Ian, if you are going to use free as a lead in to a product for sale then the free item must be incomplete so you must buy the product for all the information.
    Many times I have thought that the use of sale pricing also devalues a product and destroys an industry. People have been trained to only buy on special pricing – case in point, would you buy a carpet a full price? Can you find a carpet at full price?
    An what about adding $2,000 of bonuses to a $77 ebook of dubious quality online? Surely if the content in the ebook was worth $77 then it really doesn’t need any bonuses?
    Puts me off buying those ebooks at all.

  16. Brien O

    I want $20 from now on every time I read your blog. Information distribution is not free, so I am no longer giving away my memory. If you would like to place your words in my mind, it will now come with a cost. What I provide to you, a place in a living human being where your writing has a chance at influencing an active personality for the alteration of the world as you feel it should be altered, is far more valuable than the limited variables you use to try and bring that about in this single isolated instance amongst many. I no longer offer the potential of achieving your goal through me for nothing.
    $20 for introductory reading service, $100 for mentioning it later to someone else, plus $10 for each additional person I mention it to beyond the first. If you do not wish to participate in this program, please provide $50 for the necessary process of erasing this blog from my memory and do be so kind as to isolate your blog from “free” viewing to prevent costs from piling up in the future.

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