"Free" Doesn't Always Mean Free

Nov. 2, 2007
Fascinating item about blogging and the value of intellectual property on the Internet in an op-ed post in today's Wall Street Journal by "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams. Read it here (if you're a WSJ subscriber, that is). Here's a key paragraph from ...

Fascinating item about blogging and the value of intellectual property on the Internet in an op-ed post in today's Wall Street Journal by "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams. Read it here (if you're a WSJ subscriber, that is).

Here's a key paragraph from Adams' commentary:

A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, "God's Debris," on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, "The Religion War" slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.

When people are used to getting something for nothing, and then all of a sudden they're asked to pay for it, an uproar is the typical reaction. When Adams deleted a substantial amount of archived material from his blog so that he cuold use it in a new book, he got his head handed to him from some readers who "were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated."

Probably not coincidentally, Adams' musings on the value of "free" content comes during the negotiation phase of a contract between TV producers and the Writers Guild of America, with the sticking point largely being: What is the value of TV shows that are made available on the Internet? The writers are prepared to go on strike to get a bigger piece of the online pie, even though nobody apparently knows exactly how big that pie even is.

"We're trying to create an economic model now for the various creative people to participate in, but nobody knows what the business is," says LA lawyer Steven Kartleman, quoted in today's WSJ. "Nobody knows what it's going to develop into when it matures."

The real debate in all of this centers, of course, on money. TV networks pay the producers of the shows a lot of money for broadcast rights, and they end up getting that money back by charging hefty advertising fees. But there's no exact science for calculating whether advertising on a one-hour broadcast should be proportionally more (or maybe less?) than an ad that accompanies streaming media over the Internet.

It's not just TV producers, either, who are wrestling with the question of how to make money off a still relatively young medium that people originally thought of as "free." Traditional B2B print magazines like IndustryWeek are "free" to qualified subscribers; just like with "free" TV, the costs of producing a controlled circulation magazine are largely borne by advertisers. But just as TV long ago stopped being free (the monthly costs of expanded cable or satellite services can be quite hefty, not to mention the costs of "premium" channels like HBO that tack on an extra charge to your monthly bill), so too are all media companies trying to figure out: Will consumers be willing to pay for Internet content? The New York Times recently stopped charging for web access to some of their most popular columnist's articles, and rumors abound that the WSJ, which charges for accessing most of the content on its website, may alter that philosophy when Rupert Murdoch becomes the owner.

Nobody knows how it will all shake out, but this is one of those watershed moments where the consumer gets to vote with their wallets as well as their eyeballs. The amount of time you spend on any given website, whether or not you're paying to see it, is becoming the new benchmark for a website's effectiveness. So spend that time wisely.

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