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Tim Peter Thinks

Tim Peter


October 15, 2009

Does your information want to be free, too?

October 15, 2009 | By | No Comments

Rusty lock photo courtesy of subcircle on FlickrOne of the biggest stories bouncing around the web the last week or so were comments made by Rupert Murdoch and Tom Curley – the heads of News Corp. and The Associated Press, respectively – where they discussed how much they hate “content kleptomaniacs”. Given how digital distribution of content and content aggregation has impacted traditional media and publishing businesses, it’s tough to blame Murdoch and Curley for being upset.

But some critics are doing just that. Jeff Jarvis – serious new media thinker and author of “What Would Google Do?” – labels these media titans “fools.” Jarvis promotes the notion of “the link economy” and the value search engines create by helping customers discover your content – as opposed to simply stealing it as claimed by Murdoch and Curley.

Who’s right? And does this brouhaha matter to your business?

The answers to these two questions are:

  1. It depends; and…
  2. Hell, yes!

While I’ve never been a big fan of equivocation, there is no one true answer to “who’s right?” News Corp and the Associated Press own their content. They’re free to charge for it if they see fit. The real question is whether their customers (and by extension, yours):

  1. Care enough about what they’re (you’re) publishing to find it in the first place; and,
  2. Care enough about what they’re (you’re) publishing to pay for it.

Getting people to find your content – whether you’re a blogger in Boise or The Wall Street Journal – is no small task. As you can see in the second graph of this post by Rand Fishkin, distributing your content offers enormous value in growing both your traffic and your business. And Jarvis is absolutely right when he talks about the value links provide. But where I differ with Jarvis is in this: if the Wall Street Journal – or you, for that matter – can get distributors to pay you for that content, good for you. Amazingly, there is at least one newspaper besides the Wall Street Journal who has succeeded in charging consumers for their content.

Does this mean you should charge for your content? Again, that depends. No one deposits links. We deposit profits. But there’s more than one way to get those profits. For example, Fred Wilson once listed a couple dozen business models for web media used by successful companies. So, if charging Google for distribution or consumers for reading works for The Journal, bully for them. It proves that you shouldn’t rule it out. But also, even if it works for the Journal, don’t assume it’s the only way to go.

Want more? Read our review of Jeff Jarvis’ “What Would Google Do?” Also, see our review of Chris Anderson’s “Free”, which looks at many other ways to make money on “free” content.

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Image credit: subcircle via Flickr using Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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Tim Peter


September 17, 2009

Chris Anderson's "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" (Book Review of the Week-ish)

September 17, 2009 | By | No Comments

There’s an old joke about a physicist and an engineer who spot a pretty girl walking towards them. The physicist notes that if he continually halves the distance between himself and the girl, he’ll never reach her, since dividing by half never can result in zero. “Sure,” says the engineer. “But for all practical purposes, you can get close enough.”

And it’s with this in mind that we look at Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson thinks seriously big thoughts. First he came up with The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, one of the 12 most important business books of the last 10 years. And for many writers, a book like that would make a career.

But not Anderson. He’s continually looking for what’s next. And he thinks he’s found it with Free. In “Free,” Anderson argues that we’re entering – or have entered – a new age, one in which marginal costs race towards zero, creating untapped possibilities for those businesses able to “free” their mind from yesterday’s business models and embrace the power of Free.

When Anderson is at his best, he offers compelling evidence of companies using this “power of free” to drive, counter-intuitively, even greater revenues and greater profits. His favorite example is Google, a company that assumes they’ll never charge consumers for their products, though he also offers plenty of others like open source software companies like Red Hat and predicts the same for pharmaceutical makers and others. And it’s there where he’s not at his best, opens himself up to criticism of his core premise – and that criticism comes across as too logical to ignore.

The fly in Anderson’s free ointment is in the distinction between physical and intellectual goods. Free works best – indeed, its whole premise is predicated on – the advancement of Moore’s Law. As computer technology moves forward, the price for older technology falls, roughly at a rate of 50% annually. Eventually, Moore and Anderson argue, the price falls far enough to effectively round down to zero. Or, in the words of our engineer friend above, “for all practical purposes, close enough.” Hence, “free.”

For people in the information business – and, to some degree, we’re all in the information business these days – “free-dom” opens up worlds of possibilities for businesses to explore the economics of abundance, as opposed to “20th-century economics of scarcity.” Anderson extrapolates from this view to look at all the potential areas “free” might touch. And it’s when he moves away from information that he’s most vulnerable. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a strong criticism of Anderson’s notion in the New Yorker, largely skewering this far-reaching view. And, it seems clear to me, too, that if your business involves physical stuff, the effects of “free” likely won’t be as large or impact as many areas as Anderson suggests.

Still, this criticism – and others like it – largely miss the point. Even if you restrict Anderson’s premise to information alone, this “economy of abundance” worldview makes tremendous sense. A quick look, for instance, at how businesses that thought they had physical products, like the music business (records), travel agencies (tickets) and newspapers (um… newspapers) have been impacted by iTunes, Expedia and Craigslist shows how industries that rely on information can either benefit from – or be shoved aside by – those who understand how to put “free” to work.

All criticisms aside, Anderson has a winner here. He’s right far more than he’s wrong. And even when he goes wrong, he’s thought-provoking in a way few writers can match.

Buy the book. Or, if you prefer, don’t buy it. (You can get an audio edition, for free, from iTunes). But read it. Will Free change everything as much as Anderson says? Probably not. But, “for all practical purposes,” it’s likely to change enough to be worth the investing your time. And your money.

Don’t forget! Just one day left to enter the thinks/ProStores E-commerce Makeover contest. Don’t miss your shot to win a free e-commerce makeover and six free months of ProStores service. Enter today!

Are you getting enough value out of your small business website? Want to make sure your business makes the most of the local, mobile, social web? thinks helps you understand how to grow your business via the web, every day. Get more than just news. Get understanding. Add thinks to your feed reader today.

Or subscribe via email.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to follow Tim on Twitter.

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