The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

THE CULTURE OF FREE
If your favorite TV show, or favorite sports team's televised games, suddenly went to a pay-per-view format, would you: a) cough up the dough for each episode, b) find a new favorite to follow, or c) give it up and take up needlepoint?

Well actually, if you're like most people living in this Internet Age, you'll take recourse against what you consider to be a transgression on your person by finding some method of stealing your favorite content--or, semantically speaking, simply not paying for it.

This article is probably the most enjoyable I've read on the subject of the average person's perception of entertainment programming. It still floors me how people use the "information wants to be free" idiot mantra as specious reasoning to justify bootlegging movies, music, books, photos, etc. I haven't decided whether people just can't wrap their minds around the concept of creative ideas having a value that deserves compensation and protection, or whether they choose to ignore it in favor of convenience.

Part of this is the perception that entertainment information has been widely available for decades for what's considered to be no cost--"free" (or broadcast) television, for instance. The commerical breaks you have to sit through aren't considered to be a form of payment, although that's exactly what they are. The only reason television and radio weren't constructed on a more regular user-payment basis was because the techonology to enable that just wasn't there. In many ways, it still isn't; that's why e-commerce still hasn't really taken off.

Some choice quotes from this article that I especially like:

But people are not committing fraud simply because technology has made it possible. Their acts, say observers, are partly a defense of long-held expectations. For more than 50 years, Americans have been conditioned to expect entertainment services, in particular, that are cheap or free...

But studies show that even adults minimize the significance of stealing services as opposed to tangible products.

In several surveys over the past decade, University of Mississippi marketing professor Scott Vitell found that half of all consumers believe that it is OK to steal a service that can be replicated elsewhere - like cable programming or digital music. Yet nearly all of those people said stealing a can of soda, for example, was wrong. "There's some notion that if the original is still available, you haven't done anything wrong [by copying it]," says Mr. Vitell.

Consumers' failure to recognize the value of intellectual property, as opposed to a tangible product, is rooted in historical precedent.

"For most of the 20th century ... consumers grew accustomed to receiving [TV and radio] broadcasts for free, once having made the initial investment in the receiver," says Michael Rappa, a professor of technology management at North Carolina State University...

Rather than sue their own customers, businesses must adapt their own practices so they better fit consumer psychology, experts suggest. "Folks who sell intellectual property have to adopt models that make accessing entertainment feel virtually free," says Michael Carroll, a law professor at Villanova University.

One example: Charging customers a one-time subscription fee of $5 to download digital music. Under that scenario, music distributors will be more able to replicate the feeling people expect of unlimited access, without penalties.