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The impact of free in everyday life

When I was hoping to make use of Kobo’s offer (failing), I bought the book Free, by Chris Anderson out of curiosity. I didn’t, and haven’t yet, read The Long Tail, but I’m now curious about it — too bad it isn’t available as ePub anywhere!

It is a very interesting read, especially for those of us who work on Free Software and services; it also made me think a lot about it. For instance it ties in with what I wrote about Sony and their way to get even more of my money by offering “free” games with the PlayStation Plus subscription.

But also it ties in with what O’Reilly does with their Ebook of the Day deals (you can get them through their Twitter) where they sell for $9.99 books that would cost even quite a lot more; I actually used one of their special offers, where they let you get one of their books at that price… and I went for an otherwise too expensive CJKV Information Processing (it’s sold at $47.99).

How much is it costing to O’Reilly to “give away” at 14 the price their books? Probably not so much, given that they’re probably going to sell many more copies. For instance, beside the CJKV book that I was planning to buy anyway at some point, I actually went out on a limb, and bought Inside Cyber Warfare ($31.99) during a Ebook of the Day deal, just because it vaguely interested me and it was one third of the price. And the other day I was tempted to get Being Geek for about the same reasons.

D’uh! indeed.

But it doesn’t stop there; Anderson goes on to provide a few ways to “compete with free”, and brings up a point that Jürgen wrote about (sorry, I can’t seem to find the correct post): you can make people pay for something that is available for free by making it easier/faster to procure. I have noted that before when I complained about Mininova shutdown that what I actually end up downloading “unauthorized” and not paying for is mostly stuff that I would have to jump through way too many hoops to actually make sense for me. Real Time with Bill Maher is an example of that: I would very much prefer to have a (paid) feed that automatically downloads the episodes so that I can watch them on Saturday morning, rather than have to wait till somebody who recorded them in the US or Canada uploads it to Demonoid or some other place, so that I can fetch it.

A similar issue happens with the Japanese music I love: I have a number of original albums there as well; some I bought via the iTunes Store (kudos to Apple where it’s due: they dropped DRM and made it possible for me to buy Hikaru Utada music without going through illegal ways), one or two actually reached the European market, the others… I made a single order on Amazon JP and pretty much regret it: over a €80 order I ended up paying €30 of shipment and then over €50 of customs… which were calculated not only on the value of the order but the shipment and then VAT applied over the custom services… it’s ludicrous.

On a similar fashion, I’m generally happy to pay for (or receive gifts of) CDs of Metal music such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody of Fire or Avantasia; both because I can hear the difference in the iTunes Store compressed versions, and because Nuclear Blast, the latest label of all three of them, is actually providing a nice package with their special editions. Take At The Edge of Time – the latest album by Blind Guardian, released on August 2nd – the special edition was priced, at pre-order, £13; it’s a 2-disc edition, with a very nice boxset, and a “special online code”, that provided access to a “making of” video, the “Sacred Worlds” CGI video from Sacred 2, and a demo mp3… all without DRM. A similar situation was the case for the Avantasia double-album set. In Italy, these album would probably have been priced at no less than €50, probably €70 as well… for that price, I wouldn’t have bought them at all.

But if up to now it’s just comparing “unauthorized” copies versus paid copies, what about content that it’s already free, in some if not all senses of the word? When I first blogged about the Reader supporting ePub I was suggested by many people to rely on Project Gutenberg since they provide ePub-format books. Well, I tried, and I actually read The Picture of Dorian Gray this way; while it was a bit cumbersome, it was an acceptable ePub book. When I tried again to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I was disappointed. Out of two versions, one with illustrations and one without, neither had a decent layout. I could have spent some time trying to fix it up so that it flowed properly on the Reader, but.. the alternative was to pay $3 and get a properly-formatted copy from KoboBooks… I went with the second option.

And another example of how free (as in gratis) content can bring sales for paid equivalent, I can bring out thinking of BBC’s NewsQuiz; the show is available for free on the same day of airing as a BBC Podcast — but only the latest episode is. On the other hand, BBC published a number of CDs with selected past episodes… mostly thanks to the caring users, I have almost the full collection; and thanks to Amazon’s recommendations I also discovered I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Once again, a free download was the direct cause of a sale for BBC.

So even if the content is free, I’m happy to pay for the container… if it’s worth it. And the same is likely going to be true for other people. At the end of the day, this is another thing you can make people pay for… and I don’t think this should be considered “bad” by anyone who truly cares about freedom, and not just feel like “sticking it to the man”…

Comments 2
  1. Another nice example of the value of free (as in cost):’s a webcomic by Howard Taylor, and he actually lives off it, because his fans buy books with strips they already read online (and because they click ads).

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