The Business of Free!
Free is never really free, as some people would have you believe, but the signs are slowly starting to point towards the possibility that they might be wrong. The fact that pundits are even considering this eventuality makes one wonder if there really could be a future for free content.
The Register reported that Trent Reznor, the leader of rock band Nine Inch Nails, released his latest album online using a stepped pricing format that ranges from absolutely free downloads to three hundred dollar packages. As you might imagine, the higher priced options include much more than high quality downloadable tracks (e.g. custom vinyl versions are included in the top end package). In the publishing industry, HarperCollins have made available for download free copies of Neil Gaiman’s book “American Gods” in the ebook format.
According to a BoingBoing article, the publisher considers it an experiment to see if free digital copies could help sell printed versions. In both cases however, the attempt to push free content has not been without technical hitches and susequent criticism. For example, the free ebooks described above also came with a software wrapper that was slow to load and did not permit offline access to the book’s content. As a result it was suggested that freely available, but illegal, copies on the web could prove to be more attractive and user-friendly for readers.
Also another Register article reported that due to the high demand for Trent Reznor’s album (both free and paid-for versions), the web download service used actually slowed down to a crawl whilst the ‘also free’ copies illegally available on bitTorrent were going like hot cakes. Despite these observations, I think it is still early days for free content business models and it just has the potential to grow and grow in the coming years, a view supported in an opinion piece by Chris Anderson, author of the popular book on “Long Tail” economics and editor of Wired Magazine.
To conclude, it is worth bearing in mind that even though creative businesses and entrepreneurs are willing to embrace, or at least toy with, the idea of free content, they still need to provide a cast iron proposition for the consumer and provide a service and experience that can compete with freely available illegal content.
Note: This post was previously published on my BCS DRM Blog, where you can find the original post, and reader comments, in the archives.