I was listening to Joseph Jaffe’s Across the Sound podcast recently and he expressed the oft-heard point of view that “content wants to be free.” Though I often agree with what Jaffe has to say, in this instance I must say “hogwash.”
Simply put, there is no such thing as free content. Content providers receive value and consumers expend resources. It need not always be a pure and direct financial transaction, but ultimately producers and publishers are “paid” and the audience “pays.”
Lots of Thinking About “Free Content” Today
Jeff Jarvis, who spends more time thinking about the future of media and content than most (other than perhaps Rafat Ali though I guess he more reports than predicts), wrote about this last month when he said:
Who cares whether content wants to be free? It already is. Deal with it. … I criticize publishers for still whining about circ revenue and not figuring out the ways to go with the flow and find their cash flow in new ways.
Ultimately, Jeff and I are probably in a similar neighborhood of thinking on this, but I think it does a disservice for those of us who focus on these issues to talk about the need for content to be available for free. I realize it is semantics, but I have opined in the past on the power of language, and I do believe that talking about content wanting to be free leaves many with the wrong impression — namely, that content cannot be monetized.
Jason Calacanis has been a particular champion of financial compensation for those who create user-generated content, and indeed he did just that when he reinvented Netscape and sought to lure link contributors from rival sites like Digg and reddit. And I support efforts to do that, though we must also acknowledge these content producers are already compensated in other ways.
Matt McAlister yesterday keyed off of something that Dave Winer recently wrote (“what we’re doing now, in journalism, as with all other intermediated professions, is decentralizing”) to conclude that this whole debate is moot.
This kind of ends the whole debate about whether or not content wants to be free. That doesn’t really matter. The question is more about how else can we remove friction in the flow of information.
What we really need, however, is a better understanding of the value extraction and contribution process that goes on with all content. Ultimately, consumption of content results in a series of value-oriented transactions.
How Content Providers Get Paid
In each content transaction, those who provide, produce, and publish content receive some sort of payment, though not always financial. Some of the compensation models are listed below (with examples of what I mean by each)
- direct monetary remuneration
- subscription fees
- advertising revenue
- psychic value
- emotional pleasure in sharing information/commentary
- cathartic release of writing
- satisfaction at publishing written material or releasing audio/video content
- indirect revenue generation
- improving individual/corporate profile and reputation
- educating potential customers
- professional development
- learning through writing/producing
- networking with like-minded individuals
How Consumers Pay for Content
Just as the producers get paid, so too must consumers pay. Indeed, in some cases the consumer pays in multiple ways for a single piece of content, even though the individual may not readily realize that fact. Examples include:
- direct monetary payments
- subscription fees
- per-item charges (DVD/CD purchase rental, archived article fee, MP3 download, etc.)
- indirect financial compensation
- clicking on ads
- visiting sponsors
- buying products
- contributing to psychic rewards
- contributing comments
- rating content
- thanking the producer
- magnifying the content value
- sharing it with colleagues/friends by emailing, discussing, etc.
- quoting the content in new works
- personal sacrifice
- time commitment
In addition to what I have outlined, you may want to check out Chris Garrett’s excellent e-book on “Killer Flagship Content” in which he describes many of the benefits of creating blog content. Many of these translate into other media as well.
Content Isn’t a Zero Sum Game
Even though content is not free, it isn’t always a 1-to-1 transaction either. As you likely noticed from the lists above, what a consumer pays doesn’t always match up precisely with what the producer receives. Moreover, this analysis doesn’t consider how producers pay nor how consumers receive value. Ultimately, the best content is that which allows both the consumer and the producer to end up with a net increase in resources.
Content isn’t free — and it shouldn’t be. Content producers must — and do — receive value for what they create and publish. Consumers must — and do — pay for what they read, watch, and listen to. We simply must recognize that these aren’t all cash payments and receipts and that there are other ways to contribute and extract value in a content transaction.
But, please, let’s end the whole “content wants to be free” meme that circulates regularly. As Jeff Jarvis has said, the debate needs to be about different things.