The Paradox of Free

Buzz Bishop is a Guest Contributor and this post was published his CyberBuzz blog last week.

Free didn’t work for music.

In the mid and late 90s, people flocked to the web to get music for free with Napster and LimeWire. However, when Apple came along and launched the iTunes music store in 2001, the model changed. Apple wanted to charge people 99c for something they were already getting for free. How could it possibly work?

The problem with the pre-iTunes model is that it was underground, peer-to-peer, seedy file sharing. The quality was dodgy as the files were user produced. When you downloaded a file over Napster, you were never sure how reliable the bitrate or recording was or even if the file was labelled and sorted correctly. You had to spend a lot of time hunting and pecking for your music. We did it because we eventually found something that was free and in the digital format that we craved. Remember, there really wasn’t a reliable digital music store before iTunes.

When iTunes came along, for 99 cents and a simple set of clicks you knew you were getting a reliable product at a high quality sample rate and it would be very easy to get the music on to your portable device of choice, the iPod. Some argue the true price of digital music should be closer to a nickel, but the market has accepted the price point as a reasonable trade off for the benefits given.

When you look at news content and how Rupert Murdoch is wanting to charge people for access to his news services, that’s not going to work – because we already get it for free.

Compare the music for free of the past with the news that is free today. The free music was of dodgy quality and content. The news for free today is from reliable professional sources. We have access to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (one of the properties Murdoch wants to put behind a paywall), CNN, the BBC, CBC and others – for free.

To take this content away and put it behind a walled garden will just drive the user base to the equally quality content that is not behind a pay wall. If the New York Times were to start charging for news, users will just gravitate to the CBC, or BBC, or Washington Post.

Murdoch, and others in this scheme, need to realize that we are not relying on underground bloggers with questionable ethics and spelling mistakes conjuring up our online news, the way we relied on them to rip and upload our music to the peer-to-peer networks. We are reading professional news from professional journalists for free. If sites starts to charge, we will still read professional news from professional journalists for free, we just do it somewhere else.

Free doesn’t work for music. It does work for information.

Photo credit: kalandrakas