Essential Points in the Free Debate

Expanding on “free”-centric discussions from Steven Poole and David Pogue, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick argues that free experiments are only valuable if they’re backed up by business models:

The basic problem is this: they hear about the importance of “free” and so they give something away for free. But they don’t have a business model around the free content. They don’t understand the economic forces at work. They just give stuff away and pray … and then whine when nothing happens. As we’ve pointed out before, no one says that “free” by itself pays the bills. You need to have a more complete strategy than that — and it involves a lot more than “give it away and pray.”

Poole, Pogue and Masnick all support their cases (whether you agree or disagree likely depends on your overall take on free), but what I find interesting about some of these recent pieces is the tonal shift: there’s an edge to them, and I’m not entirely sure where it comes from. It could be the alternative nature of free (giving stuff away is anathema to some), or maybe it springs from the odd mixture of frustration and opportunity that’s swirling around the broader transition to digital. It could also emanate from ancillary topics like piracy and fading industries.

The problem with edgy discussions is that the edge generally overwhelms the core topic. And when you’re dealing with an already ambiguous concept — such as free — distraction is even more disconcerting.

That said, there are a number of salient points within these recent posts, and each deserves to be called out:

  • Free needs to be judged contextually. As Tim O’Reilly wrote in the past, free is more complicated than it initially seems, so it must to be examined amidst the goals of a particular company.
  • A single experiment — whether successful or not — does not signify a trend. A variety of experiments need to be conducted to get a true handle on free’s utility.
  • Free requires an outcome. As Masnick notes, and as we’ve discussed here, an experiment without a strategy won’t yield anything useful. Free needs to be part of a broader plan, and that plan should be thought out before giveaways begin.
  • Free is one of many potential adaptations. As digital industries mature and revenue streams become more fruitful, additional models will likely form. These models deserve the same level of inquiry. Companies might find that an aggregate approach yields the best results.
  • Finally … free isn’t fully formed. All viewpoints and trial runs deserve at least a passing glance.
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