CrunchGear (a blog I follow fairly closely, and which I recommend) had a post up the other day on the future of piracy. Basically, their argument is that sooner or later, quality material on the web will live behind a pay wall--you'll have to pay to view it. Not pay a ton, mind you, but pay something. On the other hand, Scott Adams (the guy who draws Dilbert) has another take. His argument is that there will always be someone talented out there willing to create something really good for free, and that as it becomes easier to search the internet to find that someone, the cost for good content will be eventually reduced to zero.
I've read both articles, and both make compelling arguments. However, they can't both be right. I mean, in the future, you will either pay for content, or you won't, right? Well, maybe not. Maybe the answer is that the future will look more like the present. You know, the one where some stuff is free (YouTube) and some stuff isn't (Netflix). I believe there will certainly always be a free option out there, some of it of dubious quality (most of YouTube), some of it great (Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog). (Actually, as I was trying to link to Dr. Horrible, I discovered that the once free internet sensation is now available on iTunes for $2.99 an episode (for a total of three episodes). I find that strangely illuminating when considering the current topic . . .)
The fact is that for most of the internet's brief lifespan, there has been free material all over the place. Indeed, many of the youth of today probably don't realize there was a time when you had to pay actual money to read something, and so when someone proposes an End to Free, they start complaining and calling names (you only have to look as far as the comments on CrunchGear's article--but be warned: they get trollish quite quickly). When print was still king, having free websites made sense: it drove people toward the print material, which they would then pay for.
But now that e-versions of everything are taking off, content creators can no longer make a living selling in print what they're giving away electronically. Yes, they can do something as a bit of a stunt--get traction and create a sensation by giving something away for free, but it appears that soon after that--once they have a following and can get away with it--they inevitably find a way to charge for that content. Again, I'm not saying all people do this, but I think it's safe to say that when faced between doing something professionally and doing it on the side, professionals will win out in the end. And they need to get paid to eat.
Hulu, the online place for free television (with ads in the middle of each episode) recently announced Hulu+, the online place for television (with ads in the middle of each episode) that costs $10 a month to view. Magazines and newspapers are moving behind the paywall bit by bit. I expect the future will have many more things that people pay money for--they just won't pay as much for it. Take the music model as an example--people no longer buy that many CDs for $15-$20, but they buy plenty of songs on iTunes for $0.99 a pop. Is that because these songs are no longer free on the internet somewhere? No--they're still there. But why bother risking a virus or a lawsuit (and the hassle of figuring out how to steal the music in the first place) when you can pay a buck and have it in a few seconds. Legally? TechCrunch makes a pretty good argument.
But like I said, so does Scott Adams. But speaking as a hopeful one-day author, it's much easier for someone who's already established and making money as a content creator to sit back and say that other people will do the same, for free. People will--in hopes of one day being able to make money off that. Maybe that money will be from advertising. Maybe it'll be from donations. Maybe it'll be from selling apps. But money will be made, one way or another. Jonathan Coulton did the same thing--he started by giving away something that he now charges for (Well, you can still listen for free to all, and download some free, but it costs to download all and listen at your leisure. Great songs, by the way! Especially Re: Your Brains and A Talk with George.)
This all just confirms what we librarians have been saying all along: quality information costs. We get it for you via databases or ebooks, and you download it and think it's no different than finding something on Google. It's different. Hundreds of thousands of dollars different for some of the big databases. The pay model is already very firmly entrenched in academia. I don't see it disappearing in a flash of goodwill any time soon.
(And yes, I note the irony of me writing this on a free blog, which gets mirrored on to free Facebook and free Twitter. I'm not saying I'm going to start charging--no fear! But Facebook and Twitter? If the ad money dries up, they'll coming looking for their money, too. Don't kid yourself.)
Anyway--there's still more to be said on the subject, but I'm out of time for now. I'm happy to take any follow up questions or comments--I'd love to hear what you all have to say on the matter.
*image courtesy of Pirates of the Caribbean, but you knew that already, didn't you?