Paying for free content

Business models are changing. And all of us will have to adapt in various ways. But let's not kid ourselves that advertising, live performances, or magic money trees are going to automagically pay the bills for creative content.

Earlier this week, I noted that book publishers and authors had, so far, been largely protected from the mass copying that has helped to undermine the music recording industry's profits. The reason is simple. You can't copy dead-tree books for minimal effort and cost the way you can CDs or MP3s. But, with e-books finally seemingly establishing a bona fide foothold with Amazon's Kindle, that's going to start changing.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman notes this trend in "Bits, Bands and Books" together with a corollary that Esther Dyson predicted in 1994:

”that the ease with which digital content can be copied and disseminated would eventually force businesses to sell the results of creative activity cheaply, or even give it away. Whatever the product--software, books, music, movies — the cost of creation would have to be recouped indirectly: businesses would have to--distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships.”

This, of course, is what a lot of folks--whether as a way to justify music piracy or otherwise--have been saying for years about the business model for music. It's (supposedly) OK if you can't sell a lot of CDs (or iTunes downloads) any longer. Krugman notes that, according to a recent Rolling Stone article: "Downloads are steadily undermining record sales--but today's rock bands, the magazine reports, are finding other sources of income. Even if record sales are modest, bands can convert airplay and YouTube views into financial success indirectly, making money through 'publishing, touring, merchandising and licensing'."

I'm a bit skeptical that selling tchotchkes, tickets, and "extras" in one form or another is really a practical substitute for selling the music itself in the general case. But let's leave that go for the time being. It's been endlessly debated and isn't going to be resolved here. What seems to me even more problematic is the suggestion that there has to be viable alternative models for creative content that becomes de facto free in the general case. For example, Krugman goes on to write:

Indeed, if e-books become the norm, the publishing industry as we know it may wither away. Books may end up serving mainly as promotional material for authors’ other activities, such as live readings with paid admission. Well, if it was good enough for Charles Dickens, I guess it’s good enough for me.

And here, I'm deeply, deeply skeptical. At least with music, there are a variety of revenue-generating activities that are a natural outgrowth of the primary creative product. Most musicians do live performances in any case. The only question is how much money they can make by doing so.

But writers? Sure, some well-known authors make engaging speakers. Geoffrey Moore (author of Crossing the Chasm and Dealing with Darwin) is one I've heard fairly recently. J.K. Rowling just spoke at Harvard's commencement. But just because someone is a writer--even a best-selling one--doesn't make them a good speaker. Indeed, some of the best writers are reclusive and would shudder at the thought of having to make a living by public speaking.

Yes, business models are changing. And all of us will have to adapt in various ways. But let's not kid ourselves that advertising, live performances, or magic money trees are going to automagically pay the bills for creative content that we want to consume but don't want to pay for.

About the author

Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.


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