Why They Hate Free

by ross on June 3, 2010

I hear a lot of anger from content creators whenever they hear me say “free” and “content” in the same sentence. They seem to think I want everything to be free, that “information wants to be free”, etc. Their main point of contention, it seems, is they feel their hard work is devalued by offering it to consumers for free.

But free is just another price.

Say a book publisher offers a book for $15, and I offer a similar book for $10—all things being equal, my cheaper book will attract my more buyers. To regain readership, my competitor might lower their price from $15 to $9. Then some jackass comes along and offers a similar book… but for free.

That’s insane! That’s so stupid! That’s retarted! Readers will obviously choose this new free book over our book! We must loudly and unequivically denounce this moronic behavior, and tout this interloper as a purveyer of dangerous ideas that will surely kill the publishing industry. Above all, we must insist that everyone will lose, especially the consumers. So get on our bandwagon, consumers! Stop all this free stuff if you want to save the publishing industry!

But free is just another price.

When I arrived at that conclusion, I realized that—from the perspective of most Old Dogs in the industry—they hate when I talk about offering product for free because they see no way to compete with it. Not only am I “devaluing” their work by giving away product which they must still charge for, which must feel pretty offensive to them, but I’m also offering up content for a price far lower than they can afford to offer… if they want to stay in business. In short, I’m advocating a strategy that represents their single most lethal business threat. Of course they’re going to hate me for that.

But free is just another price.

If I discover a new and more innovative business model which allows me to give away a product for free and still make a profit (by selling other scarce and valuable things), should it be my moral responsibility to help keep all those Old Guard competitors in business even though they continue to reject and openly deride my new business model? Of course not. My responsibility is to compete and if I don’t compete better, then I’ll be beat by those who do compete better than I. If my business model means I’ve found a way to give product away at a price lower than my competitors can afford, too bad for them. That’s how it goes. But offering conent for free is not anathama in itself.

Free is just another price.


What does it lead to?

by ross on May 30, 2010

The following piece is an unabridged version of an article first published in Microfilmmaker Magazine, issue #53.

Hypothetical situation. You’re in a movie store trying to return a DVD set of a TV series. The dude at the counter looks at the DVDs you’ve just handed him. “What’s wrong with it?” he says.

“The episodes have been shuffled around,” you say. “Every episode in the series is out of order so I have no idea which episode needs to be played first.”


“It’s usually pretty important to see a TV series in the right order.”

Shrugging, “Nobody else seems to care.”

“Look, I care—and I’m a paying customer.”

“What can I say? Don’t buy it, then.”

At this point in the conversation, most people might walk out of this movie store in disgust. This is probably what they’d be thinking:

Are you seriously telling me, a paying customer, not to pay you $50-$100 for an entire season’s worth of DVDs—which could end up leading to a larger purchase of the entire series if I like it enough—simply because you won’t sell a DVD set with each episode in its correct order??? That’s lame, bro. I hope you go out of business. In fact, although I know there are more important things in life to worry about, I’m going to make it my mission to see you go down. I’ll start by finding a competitor of yours who cares enough about earning my money that they’ll give me what I want. And if I can, I’ll even go so far as finding that TV show online somewhere illegally, and then I’ll happily download it because I know by downloading it, I didn’t reward your short-sighted cavalier attitude with my money.

We’ve all encountered lame customer service, but in a competitive economy, companies with wretched customer service eventually lose their customers and go out of business because another company would have successfully spotted their competitor’s shortcomings and filled the market need. As customers, we’d never accept this kind of flippancy coming from a company we’re giving money to, especially if the amount of money dips into the triple digits.

My wife and I swore off cable TV in 2003 for two reasons: 1) the current quality of American TV had always seemed so low to us that it’s hard to find anything we want to watch that we can’t already rent on DVD, and 2) commercials suck.

Seven years later, TV has changed a lot. The selection of quality isn’t that much better, but networks like ABC have begun to offer their shows online, and DVR technology like U-Verse and TiVo have become ubiquitous. So my wife and I tried out cable with DVR and chose to keep it for a while, just to experiment.

Despite my reluctance, I must admit that AT&T’s U-Verse DVR system is awesome. If I like a TV show, I just tap a few buttons and know I’ll never miss any show in a series again, even if that show gets pushed to a different time due to unforeseen circumstances. Whenever I sit down to watch TV, I know I’ll always have the most recently broadcast episode queued up waiting for me. And AT&T’s U-Verse remote has a killer 30 second skip feature to allow me to blaze past commercials whenever they intrude upon my viewing experience.

When I watch a TV show, I prefer to watch the series in its original order. Not all TV series are written with a specific order in mind, but you never really know from one show to the next how rigid a season’s story arc is going to be. The show might be extremely episodic in nature, i.e., you can watch each episode in sequence with no problem, or the show might be highly dependent upon sequence, where watching one episode out of sequence would throw you off completely. I remember watching a marathon of The West Wing in its original order and saw the season’s timeline unfold over the course of a single day… events were causal and cumulative, and there was immense satisfaction knowing the contextual signficance of each subsequent plot development based on all the plot points that had come before it. You wouldn’t watch a movie on DVD with the DVD player’s chapter shuffle setting on, would you? And you wouldn’t buy a DVD set of a TV series with its episodes out of order, would you?

So it really irks me when station programmers broadcast old TV series episodes out of their original order, flipping back and forth from one season to the next with no clear reasoning behind their decision. They have their own bizarre logic in doing so, and it’s irritating if you’re trying to really invest in that TV show’s world. For instance, the geniuses at FOX opted to bump Firefly‘s original pilot episode, and insisted another episode be created because they felt the pilot wasn’t good enough at introducing the series to new audiences. Dude, trust the writers. Trust the audiences. We’re not dumb. Let us see the content the way it was intended to be seen.

…and that’s where piracy comes in. Here I am, I’m looking at my U-Verse DVR screen, scanning over a long list of episodes my DVR has dutifully recorded for me. As far as I can tell, I can have at least 24 episodes in a series to choose from at any time—a season’s worth of episodes. Given enough time, my DVR will eventually soak up every episode ever broadcast from that series. Which means my DVR is, ultimately, going to deliver to me exactly what I want—the series—but not in the order I want it. And because I may be watching a series where that’s kind of important, that irritates me quite a bit. So if I have access to BitTorrent or an online site where I have that choice to watch pirated versions of those same TV episodes but in the order I want to watch them, even if it means sacrificing some quality… I could easily see myself doing it. Broadcast TV has failed to deliver what I really want, and now I’m going to get what I want without broadcast TV.

The clincher is that the experiences of using DVR technology and using BitTorrent are strikingly similar. With both U-Verse DVR and BitTorrent, I would:

  1. Find a program and get it recording/downloading;
  2. Wait for it to be finished and come back whenever I want to watch it.
  3. For U-Verse, I skip over commercials in 30 second leaps. For BitTorrent, the commercials have been conveniently removed—effectively, these are the same experience, though BitTorrent is slightly more convenient and time-saving.

Thus, if both experiences are effectively the same, but my BitTorrent copy deletes commercials that would have been skipped over anyway (and saves users the time of reaching for the remote and finding the exact spot where the commercials stop) and offers more content choice than using my DVR… well, it’s pretty obvious why users are willing to sacrifice a little image quality to pirate content.

I could stop there and say broadcast TV’s myopia has effectively forced me into BitTorrent piracy once and forevermore… but that would be a lie. The fact is, contrary to what most people might think, an act of copyright infringement of a TV series is actually a huge win for the TV series’ creators. Yes, a fan has resorted to piracy to seek out episodes to play in the original order they were intended… but that fan is still watching their TV series. Meaning, they still have a person’s attention. Thus, it doesn’t follow that a person will continue to pirate every episode of the TV series just because they can. On the contrary, the more a person pirates a series, the more of a fan that person becomes (if the series is good, of course)… and the more likely that person is to keep watching the series on DVR. Right now, the best quality image is still on TV so, when given a choice to view content on a TV set or through BitTorrent/web streaming, I know that I would still prefer to watch stuff on my TV. Why? If I can get all my content for free, why wouldn’t I? Because BitTorrent and web streaming piracy is still way too much effort (i.e., it takes too much time and it’s too inconvenient) and pirated web streaming is typically of far poorer image quality (it has poor embodiment).

This is the single most irritating myth I hear invoked about piracy, that “piracy is a lost sale”. Rubbish. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but piracy is never as clear cut as always equating to a lost sale. In my case, piracy actually leads to sustained and increased fandom because the more attention I give that content, the more time I have to become a fan of it… and the more I think about buying DVDs on Amazon for myself and/or my friends. Perhaps this is why rumors persist that allowing copyable content (music, movies, books) roam free on the internet without copyright enforcement actually increases the sales of non-copyable content (merchandise, concert tickets, lunch with the content creator, watching in IMAX 3D).

Of course, people resort to piracy for many reasons, but I still believe that casual users—which likely represents the bulk of pirates out there—don’t resort to piracy merely because they can get something for free. If I could get anything I wanted for free online without fear of negative consequence, why do I still pay for cable? Why do I still pay for Netflix? Why do I still buy off of Amazon? Piracy, at its juicy inner core, is really about control. Consumers of digital content want what they want and if producers can’t figure out how to make money by giving consumers what they want, consumers will get it regardless. The mortal sin for producers is that if they remain obstinate enough to allow consumers to venture into piracy (and yes, piracy is the producers’ fault for not fulfilling a market need quickly enough), producers have not only lost an opportunity to get their consumers’ money, but they’ve also lost a chance to get their consumers’ attention. As anyone in marketing knows, it takes seven touches to a sale, so the more attention your customers give your product or service, the more your sales should increase overall. Pirates are also fans, and fans buy stuff. As long as producers are clear that fans don’t buy the actual product, but the intangibles embedded in the product, producers should be fine with letting their content be freely available online. Content only gets buyers in the door, but intangibles are what get money changing hands.

Another mental eddy I run into is people seeing red when they hear the word ‘piracy’. People’s brains shut down. Their knee-jerk reactions seem to be steered by moral judgments they’ve made months, or even years ago, about theft: It’s wrong, it’s theft, they’re pirates, and they should go to jail. Theft is actually an Analog Age concept—taking an apple from you which deprives you of its use—and if we apply the rules of the Analog Age to the Digital Age, this would certainly be true… but the Digital Age has new rules. Never before has it been possible to infinitely copy a product with zero cost to the producer. If I could go back in time 600 years and tell someone a book could be copied and sent to every person on the planet in less than a day, they’d laugh in my face. A book, they’d say, is a scarce object, something venerable because of its inability to be copied. (Even if a book were copied back then, it would still be so original that it would remain unique.) But then they’d see the invention of the Guttenberg press and be both amazed and horrified about its ability to duplicate books with ease. As printing presses increased the supply of books, their price per unit dropped and what had previously been scarce was now suddenly far more abundant and accessible. The Digital Age is merely the latest evolutionary chapter: instead of having a low cost of reproduction, we now have a zero cost of reproduction. And when something can be handed from one person to the next without any cost to the producer, it cannot be defined as theft under any definition. Even the law recognizes there is a difference—illicit digital copying isn’t called theft, it’s called infringement.

Here is it useful to look at piracy in a different light. Rather than define the act of piracy for what it is—i.e., illegal and immoral—let’s look at the act of piracy as what it leads to. You can look at the world in static terms or in fluid terms, and the latter yields more useful conclusions. Author Edward de Bono draws a distinction between the two forms of thinking:

de Bono contends that traditional logic is static, based on the solid foundations of ‘is’ and identity. In contrast to the traditional ‘rock logic’, he proposes ‘water logic’ which is based on ‘to’ and the flow of the mind: ‘What does this lead to?’ as opposed to ‘What is…?’

How does this pertain to piracy? de Bono explains further:

Pragmatism is very much based on the ‘leads to’ of water logic. There is a justified fear of pragmatism because it seems to seek to operate without principles. This is nonsense because the principles can be just as much part of the pragmatism as are the circumstances. One strong reason for a dislike of pragmatism is the fear that ‘the end may come to justify the means’. In other words if the end is worthwhile then the means of achieving that end are justified. Since different people and different bodies will have different notions of worthwhile ends, the result would be chaos and barbarity. Interestingly the very reason we reject this notion of the end justifying the means, is a pure example of pragmatism and water logic. We are concerned with what it ‘will lead to’. So pragmatism can police pragmatism just as well as rock logic policies rock logic.

To cite another de Bono example, if a customer goes to a store without a receipt to return an object they bought, the store can point to their sign that says, “No receipt, no refund.” According to Rock Logic, the store would be in the right and the customer would be in the wrong. According to Water Logic, though, that sort of rigid decision leads to a dissatisfied customer unlikely to buy from that store again. Would you rather be right… or breed lifelong customer loyalty?

In Rock Logic terms, piracy is bad/wrong/evil, etc. and always will be until the end of time. Fine. But what does it lead to? What does having a film leaked on BitTorrent lead to?

Piracy leads to attention… and attention leads to more sales.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? John August had his film The Nines leaked onto BitTorrent and he had this to say about it:

IMDb searches for The Nines peaked at #11 on January 20th, 2008 — two weeks before the DVD was released. That’s because it finally got leaked on BitTorrent. Suddenly, that college student in Iowa and that programmer in Arles could finally see the movie.

Let’s try a thought experiment: what if The Nines had leaked shortly before the theatrical release, say, August 19th? At that point, we were number 836 on IMDb, and that was during a concerted publicity campaign which would ultimately get us as high as 47 on the chart.

Would the leak have helped us or hurt us?

Given we were only playing in two cities in the world, I can’t think it would have hurt us much. And if there had been a legal and easy way to let people watch the movie — say, through iTunes — I think we could have capitalized on the attention. The pirated version was going to be available on or before the release of the DVD regardless, so one might as well benefit from it as much as possible.

To my thinking, leaking a decent-quality, watermarked version would have greatly increased the awareness and discussion of the movie, which could have paid off if the DVD and/or iTunes version were available shortly thereafter.

Piracy is the only explanation for why a film like the massively pirated Wolverine—which received awful reviews—actually did better at the box office on its opening weekend than the other equally popular franchise film Star Trek, which received rave reviews. For every case of a pirated film where the producers claim they lost everything, it feels like I can point to just as many films which seem to have done very well because of piracy and/or because the film was free. My hunch is that the pirated movies that don’t make money aren’t good enough to demand repeat viewings… so we only hear complaints from the producers who are getting their asses tanned for making product the market doesn’t want badly enough.

In a digital age where a decade of enforcing copyright has yielded nothing but a pyrrhic victory, does it make sense anymore to keep throwing money at a pointless battle… and then feel bitter about its lackluster results? Or do you think it’s maybe time to bite the bullet, embrace the market’s new rules and get on with making money the new way?


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