Why We Can’t Afford Free

I know a man who spends his days keeping society on the rails, and his nights gambling on the internet to pay for it. He is a magistrate and it’s one of the many jobs that people do for free.

There is an expectation today that things will be free and it has penetrated our lives to an astonishing extent. Kids graduating now, have grown up without any notion of paying for music, TV, movies or games.

Free, as Chris Anderson explains in his fascinating book of the same name, has its own economics. It knocks everything else out of the water. You simply can‘t compete with free. A CD that costs a penny will stay on the shelf if the one next to it is free. The free CD is a no-brainer because you make no commitment.

The free generation is pretty much “hostile to copyright”, as Chris Anderson has it, and is playing its part in taking down industries which no longer fit the old model. The record labels, the newspapers, even paid for TV and boxed-up video games are all struggling in a world where what you want is available now, online and for free.

This hostility to copyright has invaded intellectual property too. There is an expectation that your ideas, your experience and your expertise should be available to others for free, hence my friend the magistrate, who has to fund his good works by gambling.

But now there seems to be a backlash underway.

There’s been a surge in blog posts recently from people who have had enough. They have titles like, “Why do we blog if there is no money”, “How to make sure you don’t sell yourself short as a freelancer”, “Why I can no longer give my work away for free.” Witness also the move by the Third Tribe group of social media experts towards a paid for community. Access to the new stars of social media is no longer “all areas” but behind the velvet ropes.

Free and its counterpart, Cost, are heading for a titanic struggle.

Free has conditioned us to give away our efforts almost constantly. We make and share playlists, write blogs, review products and book our own tickets. We populate the internet with our free labour and our free content.

But to make a living, whether you are Rupert Murdoch trying to squeeze a  return out of your investment in newspapers, (who we don’t feel sorry for) or a struggling copywriter looking for payback from your free online advice, (who we do) money is at some point going to have to come back into the equation.

Murdoch is tackling the problem by putting up pay walls for on-line newspaper content, encouraging others to do the same. Whether people will go for it remains to be seen.

But the fact of the matter is, if information really does demand to be free to the end user, as Chris Anderson has it, then the big guy can afford to pay for it and still make money. Economies of scale and clever new ideas pay for give-aways on the back of profits made elsewhere.  (See Chris Anderson’s book for chapter and verse on companies offering free electric cars, free stock market trades, free long distance calls and even a shop in which the goods are all free.)

They can afford to do this because ‘free’ is an illusion. We are still the ones who pay.

So the shiny new economics of free look remarkably similar to the old economics of paid. And the little guy who struggles to keep up? He may end up paying too by going to the wall.


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