I have written several times about expectations regarding “free”. In most cases, my comments have concerned my reaction to what I consider the sense of entitlement that is sometimes evident. The argument that seems to occur most frequently references the music industry and suggests that the copying and distribution of music has not hurt the industry because musicians achieve greater visibility when their music is shared and this increased visibility offers new revenue opportunities when musical acts tour. I am not certain what musicians think of how others tell them they should earn their living, but I think drawing analogies from the world of musicians to justify behaviors involving other forms of content is an unwarranted stretch.
I have been reading Free by Chris Anderson. As the topic suggests, the book explores various ways in which businesses can profit from giving content away. By the way, Anderson does sell his book and he does address this point in the book. I think his argument is that free is up to the content creator and not the consumer (my interpretation). I did draw a personal insight after working my way through multiple examples Anderson provides. The consumer likely misunderstands free. There may be those who give content away as a personal contribution to the public good, but businesses are seldom acting on this motive. I think consumers would be better served to label no cost, online content or services as part of a barter system rather than as free. It may be difficult to take this perspective because it is not obvious just what is exchanged in this barter.
Consider all of the hoopla over online privacy. Just why do you think online companies who offer “free” services need that personal information? It is likely that personal information in association with the record of other online behaviors has value to the company providing the service/content or to other companies. There is money in a record of your likes and dislikes. You are offering your personal information and the record of your online activity in exchange for the services/content you receive. A second form of barter involves the exchange of “free” content/services for your attention to advertising. We have been willing to accept this exchange for years with commercial radio and television and information services such as newspapers have long been subsidized because of ads. Remember the uproar a decade or so ago when there was an offer of a free television channel to schools (Channel One if I remember correctly) and the channel contained ads aimed at young people. What did educators think – a free hour of content each morning?
Clearly the content creators are exploring many different compensation models and many traditional models will eventually lose out to some of these newer models. The point is that a business requires the generation of resources to support the work of employees. The assumptions that consumers have a right to free is misguided and often based on a misunderstanding of how the commercial online world really functions.