Zachary Knight of TechDirt writes:
It’s often said that people will just get stuff for free if they can. But, clearly, that’s not true. We’ve seen so many cases of content creators being supported by their fans at tremendous levels that there’s clearly more to it. And it seems that a key element is whether or not fans actually like you. Some people suggest that the disconnect with piracy is that people value the work, but won’t pay for it. But a more accurate realization may be that people value the work… but don’t value the creator if the creator doesn’t value them. When the two sides value each other, it seems people are more than willing to pay.
At the moment such discussions are heavily focused on movies, music, and games. But as digitization marches forward, people are going to be able to get more and more varied types of goods for free. Education is a good example of a good that is currently in the process of being digitized and will soon join the ranks of potentially pirate-able goods.
And yet current examples suggest that if you are likable enough, people will still pay for your products anyway. At risk of extrapolating too far, can we imagine this as a basis for a future economy? One where we just pay each other money out of good will? It sounds a bit absurd, and maybe it is.
One problem with drawing too many conclusions from the current crop of examples is that piracy is still hard for a lot of people. There are a lot of less computer literate people out there who simply aren’t aware of how to use a technology like Bit Torrent. So I assume a certain portion of the people who paid for Louis C.K.’s recent standup special, did so because they didn’t know how to pirate it.
It’s debatable whether or not piracy will get more or less difficult in the future. But my money’s on piracy getting easier, in part because every day I see a new article like this. However an especially aggressive enforcement regime might have the effect of frightening and slowing down a lot of would-be pirates.
In any event, a big distinction exists between two examples currently being thrown around. The first one, the above-mentioned Louis C.K. special, involves selling a pre-made digital product. The second example, the Double Fine Kickstarter success, is a different beast altogether.
True, there are similarities. In both, you have likable superstars in their respective fields appealing directly to their fans. But the Double Fine case revolves around a “promise to create.” Double Fine is selling a true scarce good, not one that can be pirated. What they are selling, in effect, is a future game that would not otherwise exist without fan investment.
I think this distinction reveals a key feature of a digitally abundant economy. Once you release a product digitally, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t control the sea of inevitable copies. You can still monetize the product after the fact, but not using traditional coercive means. You can only provide people a convenient way to support you and hope they will do so.
So another strategy is to time shift the digital sale to before the product release. This is essentially what Kickstarter does. The creator has a promising idea in his head that the fans want. The creator then ransoms the idea, saying “If you want to see this idea come to fruition, you will need to pay up.” Frankly, I think it’s a great model with perhaps more long term potential than the “please pay” Louis C.K. strategy.
Looking ahead, I think the reality of digital abundance will cause more and more creators to try selling a “promise to create” rather than a creation itself. This scenario favors creators with a proven track record, those who can reliably create new and appealing products on a reasonable time schedule. And yes of course, being likable certainly doesn’t hurt.