Information is Free?

I think the Web – and especially all the information that’s out there for free – is wonderful. But it does worry me that we’re developing a generation which thinks that everything is free – songs, music, books, etc.

I spent 20 years writing for a living, back in Scotland. I needed to get paid for my work, since I had a family to support and a mortgage to pay.

My old friend Peter May is a writer. We worked together in the Scotsman newspaper back in the 1970s. Eventually, he left to fulfil his ambition of writing books, and I left to help set up the European operation of Aldus Corporation, whose PageMaker desktop publishing application pretty much established that market. I eventually moved to the USA to work for Microsoft, while he bought a farmhouse in the Dordogne in France.

Peter writes detective/thriller stories, and he’s been successful enough to support himself all those years.

But what would have happened if instead of publishing printed books, he’d written on the Web? How would he have ever gotten paid?

People often argue that “free” content leads people to buy more. That’s a real crock. If you look at the effect on sales of music CDs when a whole generation gets its music for free, and the fact that paid-for music downloads have nowhere near filled the revenue gap, you can see we’re headed for trouble.

Or take an example closer to home. In his latest book “Stick To Drawing Comics, Monkey-Brain!”, Scott Adams, hugely successful creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, details what happened when he made a free copy of one of his books online after it had been in print fore five years, in the hope this would stimulate demand for the follow-up.

About 500,000 people downloaded the title from the Web. Only around a thousand ever went on the buy the sequel.

Guess what Scott Adams’ preferred book-publishing medium is for the foreseeable future? Print, of course!

This is a problem we have to solve sooner or later. How can people who write on the Web get fairly paid for their endeavors?

Advertising’s one possible answer. But it’s hard to see how that can support any reading material that’s longer than individual articles.

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