As Worthless As You Want It To Be

April 14, 2008

As a result of this week’s “bitchmeme” regarding the “theft” of blog content came an interesting post from Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb discussing the decreasing value of digital content.

She makes a fairly apt comparison to the recording industry, where music piracy has destroyed the old business models and depressed its value. Some feel musicians should just “give up” making any money off music sales, and at most extreme, digital files should be given away and considered advertising for the musician’s “brand.”

But then comes the inevitable suggestion: musicians should make their money… some other way. The previous business model of pay per play is a dinosaur, it’s going to die, and therefore you need to adapt, to some unknown business model. Perhaps musicians can earn a living through concerts, merchandising, corporate sponsorships, or donations.

Makes sense to me. But the recording artist’s plight applies to any content creator whose work can be duplicated and distributed digitally: Bloggers, writers, journalists, photographers, movie producers, heck, even software engineers. In a world ruled by piracy, anyone creating digital content should not expect meaningful compensation for their work.

I Get It, But I Feel Guilty

I can totally understand this line of thinking, but the statements “all content should be free” and “earn your money some other way” don’t entirely sit well with me.

First, “free” removes much incentive for many individuals and businesses. I don’t believe there are enough “touchy feely” content creators to take the place of collapsing business models – and certainly not enough to produce the quality content that will be lost. I want to support artists, writers, and content creators that produce quality stuff with my hard earned dollars. I do not see any hope of free, amateur YouTube videos replacing Battlestar Galactica or the passion-driven blogosphere replacing The New York Times.

Our society is starting to say: because your “product” can be easily duplicated – it’s worthless. Therefore, its “theft” is justifiable. Now I am not any big fan of the RIAA and DRM – but the pendulum may be swinging too far the other direction.

Why is a bottle of water – which you could just turn on a water fountain and get for free – worth a dollar, but for a song on iTunes, that same dollar feels too expensive? Consumer prices are rarely based just on fundamentals. “Worth” is a nebulous concept in the mind of the customer. I don’t buy the argument that just because something can be duplicated for nothing, its price should therefore be nothing.

In other words, when someone buys bottled water for a dollar, they justify the added cost beyond duplication (markup) by saying: the store has to stay in business, has to pay its employees, advertising costs money, and the corporation has to pay its employees, and the buyer really wanted that water right then and there. This same bottle of water costs less at Costco vs. the convenience store next to work, but because the convenience store is more “convenient” they charge extra for it.

But while markup is understood and tolerated (at times begrudginly) for material goods, markup on digital information is not. Online, people tend to consider the negligible reproduction cost as the only basis for price. The fact that digital goods are not “scarce” means “free” – despite the same issues of markup that exist for physical goods.

I don’t think that’s fair.

So I Might Pay For Your Stuff

Call me crazy, but I’m increasingly willing to pay for digital content – music, movie rentals, and software, partly due to the aformentioned “convenience factor.” I recently did my taxes with a paid software download because that was quicker than getting in the car to buy the software from a store. I didn’t pirate the software since I felt the time saved doing my taxes with it, was worth paying for.

I am also willing to pay for “quality” content that reflects a lot of time, thought, and investment on the part of the content creator. For example, I am more than willing to pay for a digitial download (a rental, even) of a major motion picture which cost millions to produce, and the end cost to me is a few dollars. Another possible idea is the subscription model.

But would I pay for blog content? Actually, I might. Say a blogger I read compiled their posts into a paperback, book form. The convenience of having all that information in hard copy, saving me the time of sorting through those same posts online, could be worth paying for.

My point is – I’m willing to pay extra for digital information under certain circumstances. In an increasingly digital world, we need to get beyond believing that ease of duplication by default, equals free. Ease of duplication is increasingly used as an excuse for just being a cheapskate, and at worst, justifying piracy. It’s no surprise corporations respond with increasingly invasive DRM.

Do The Right Thing

Perhaps when a content producer or corporation eaves their store door ajar, don’t run in and steal everything inside. Buy something anyway. This may encourage more to leave their doors unlocked. If we can reach some compromise where digital content is worth something and people are willing to pay for it, that will go a long way toward creating sustainable business models instead content producers relying solely on advertising, or telling everyone to go get day jobs.


  1. Mark Evans says:

    You make some excellent points. I'm feeling the same way, although we're clearly still in the minority. I am wiling to pay for the convenience of buying a CD online as long as it's high-quality and fairly priced. Even more so for movies, which can be so challenging to get via P2P that paying for them is a great “investment”.


  2. webomatica says:

    Thanks Mark (nice post on your end, too). I know it may be naive that people “unlearn” the free for all that was Napster, but iTunes (and the Amazon music store) give me hope that a viable medium can be found.

  3. tigerlil says:

    I like the Radiohead model better than the ITunes model. I don't yet understand how much artists get back from Itunes (if it's enough well then ok)…but Radiohead did pretty damn well selling their album at customer's own choice of prices. I know they're radiohead, but people are pretty loyal to their musicians when given the chance.

    i like what you wrote. It's like shopping locally instead of going to Costco.

    Itunes has definitely benefited from the recent shutdown of P2P movie streaming/download sites–it was getting so horrible trying to watch a film (in six parts) that I finally just paid for the overnight rental from ITunes.

  4. webomatica says:

    Yeah I think looking at what the more forward-looking musicians have done can give some monetization ideas for other content creators.

    And shopping locally – I partly feel shopping through iTunes sends the message to the content rights holders that downloads can be a viable form of distribution.