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The FREE debate

Updated on July 18, 2009

Does "Free" make sense

This lens is a watercooler and discussion hub for the debate about Chris Anderson's new book. All proceeds go to charity.

Check below for the chronology of some of the posts, then chime in with your own take. It helps if you read the book at some point.

Part of what Chris, Malcolm and I do for a living is make sweeping, provocative statements that don't always include every nuance. It's the only way to make a point effectively in a short window of time. I don't think anyone (including Chris) believes that we're about to enter an era where everything (even everything digital) is going to be free. My take is that this is one of those moments when things change, and fast, and this change represents an opportunity.

The sad thing is that the people best prepared to take advantage of this opportunity (those that create digitizable content already) are not only ignoring the opportunity, they're fighting it.

Their intransigence is your opportunity...

Free by Chris Anderson

Free: The Future of a Radical Price
Free: The Future of a Radical Price

Chris, editor of Wired and author of the "Long Tail" is back with a new book that goes deeply into the economics and marketing of free.

The argument is complex, but I summarize it as a price that has marketing built in. Free leads to virality, to trial and to attention.

In a marketplace with low marginal costs and many competitors, it feels inevitable for most digital goods.


The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

You know what this book is about, but have you read it? You should.

Not overrated. Not one bit.


What do you think?

What's the future of 'Free'?

I don't need to like it to know that it's happening

I don't need to like it to know that it's happening

Submit a Comment

  • socialcx1 3 years ago

    Everything comes for free, it's just man that puts a price on it.

  • cheech1981 5 years ago

    I disagree with some of the comments about free having no value. I have gotten a ton of free information off the Internet in general. I've also gotten onto my fair share of business and marketing lists, and of course they try to sell you stuff, but most good list-owners will give you 3-5 free messages for every 1 sales message...I've learned so much from the free reports and you get better over time of filtering out the crap and getting off the lists that are not valuable.

    Plus, even if free does lead to buying something, if what you buy is valuable then the free thing that got you on the list served the extra purpose of leading you to something useful that you might not have found otherwise. I'm a pretty cheap guy and I love to save but at the same time if something is worth it, it's worth it. :)

  • georgeqq20 7 years ago

    Free is bait and one has to be smart enough to eat the bait an not get trapped. If you can't read the fine prints and well organized to cancel the paid goodies attached with freebies , stay away from bait. But why not be smart and enjoy freebies !

  • gblask 7 years ago

    The irony is that "free" is the fuel of this argument... with out all the free blogging etc this argument would hardly exist, let alone have any coverage.

    And you have to wonder how all this FREE coverage is helping the sales of Malcom Gladwell's books (for sale above).

  • oxenrider 7 years ago

    Mr. Godin does not "disprove" any of Gladwell's arguments. Reading and re-reading both articles it seems as if they work in almost a parallel fashioin--never quite meeting up, but never contradicting. I believe that by framing the article "Gladwell is wrong" was merely a gimmick to get me to read Mr. Godin's work. No real problem there, except that I was hoping for a well constructed argument. The only thing of interest is that he states that all information already is free--which it isn't. I believe that Godin tries to rephrase Anderson's argument to disprove Gladwell's. Unfortunately, it doesn't work because Gladwell already addressed this in his article.

    Free will never be "free" no matter how much we want it to be, this doesn't mean that it isn't an important discussion, or trend, but the newspapers won't die out anymore than the radio did when t.v. came to be. They will simply change. I've yet to hear Cassandra accurately depict what it will be.

  • anonymous 7 years ago

    Free is good. People have passed on vegetarian recipes to me (which I've enjoyed) without the expectation of payment or reward. The payback comes when I can pass something their way.

    In this way they are rewarded for their initial contribution. If people offer useful information for free then they build more meaningful relationships with the people they interact with, which will lead to greater opportunities for both parties. But they have to have the courage to put themselves out there first and free is the way forward.

  • jielin 7 years ago


  • KentE LM 7 years ago

    Free is OK as an introduction. Like test driving a car or tasting a new sauce in the supermarket. But I have tons of free stuff on my harddrive that I haven't got around to reading. But if I paid for something I make sure I read it - unless I soon discover it is hogwash.

    One can't give away the whole answer as free stuff. Very few will appreciate it. Information MAY be an exception to some degree. If you give away free information you better sell it really well first, or it is not going to get read.

  • Comradity 7 years ago

    The communication industry needs thought leaders to debate ways to improve value. Mass media has responded to increased competition for audience by resorting to the lowest common denominator. The idea that new technology should be used to perpetuate the race to the bottom is just saying what so many hope is still true - "you don't have to give up on 'lightening in a bottle.'"

    The truth is there are more sustainably profitable possibilities. Subscriptions to premium channels grew to new record highs in 4th quarter 2008 even while consumers were finally informed of the economic collapse that had been threatening for over a year. Consumers will pay for value. They know you get what you pay for.

    Anderson says the Free theory is inspired by the Monty Python example in the preface. An alternative implication is that there is an opportunity to drive up the sales of a "Long Tail" brand to #2 sales on Amazon by reaching out to your fans. Sure they got a list of fans from YouTube. But there's lots of ways to engage fans to give you their names. Free is by no means the only or the best way.

    Katherine Warman Kern katherine (at)

  • jeremylichtman 7 years ago

    A whole bunch of items in my house cost me a lot of money a few years ago. They're all selling for less at the retail level, and if I hunt around I can get them for a fraction of my original purchase price. Not only that, but the underlying manufacturing cost has plummeted as well. Think that Free is only an online problem?

  • micronauta 7 years ago

    Granularity is the only way: if we increase signal/noise ratio and use contextual content-aware ads will make it all sustainable again.

  • Spook LM 7 years ago

    As it turns out I can't seem to put my head around most of this although I realise it is happening. If it's free then how can one make any money from it? Or are only some things free? The concept puzzles me.

  • pylemountain1 7 years ago

    Chris is right and Malcolm is having a hard time accepting the future of marketing, for some reason. Very un-Malcolm-like. Malcolm is normally spot-on, but he totally misses all the important points in that article. Very surprising.

  • JudyBradt 7 years ago

    Free for all, or free for the qualified?

    When I met Seth in a green room in Waterloo at a conference where we spoke in May, he was feeling under the weather but kindly asked me about my business -- I'm a strategist for people who want to win government contracts more easily -- and he said, "Give it away. Do a one-day free seminar for a hundred people. Make it your best stuff. You pay for it. Watch what happens."

    I have not forgotten. I am mulling: give it away to the first hundred who answer the call? Or the first hundred who qualify as prospects? Or just trust in the giant all-knowing universe, and see what happens?

    If YOU want to win government contracts, would you place more value on an expert seminar you PAID for, or one that someone was giving away?

  • cpruett7 7 years ago

    I recently re-read Chris Anderson's Wired article of the same topic (I have yet to read the book) and agree with the author. Digitized industries (right now, primarily those that are in the content business) have to reinvent their business models and focus on distribution, experience, community (both inclusive and exclusive, online and offline) and other factors that affect the customer's perceived value of their products and services.

    Music was one of the first large and established industries to deal with the "Free phenomenon." After the birth of the MP3 and file sharing services like Kazaa and Napster, the industry started to do a cartwheel - everything got turned on its head. Tower Records went bankrupt, famous artists sued their biggest fans and Napster was shut down only as others services like Limewire popped up to fuel the free fire. But the cartwheel continued and things started to look up as some opportunistic companies and savvy artists started to get it. Who would've thought that a computer company (Apple) would emerge as such a power player in the music industry? And what about bands like Wilco that were dropped (or never picked up) by their stuffy labels (Warner subsidiary, Reprise) only to build an online fanbase that eventually propelled them to Grammy status? I'm excited to see what will happen in other established industries that have already started the cartwheel process, such as journalism, television/movies, and publishing.

    Anderson's Wired article:

  • jeremydelrio 7 years ago

    Ironic that the great Free Debate rages on Independence Day eve.

  • TARAdactyl LM 7 years ago

    Humans hate change and at the same time we work towards it everyday! I see lots of small business owners who are frustrated because they just learned the "rules" of marketing from the start of this decade and now are having to learn new rules. The point is that the rules are changing whether we like it or not and we have to be able to keep up, either ourselves or through trusted sources like Chris, Seth and Malcolm. THEN share info to our tribes so they can keep up too!

  • mekala 7 years ago

    Do you have a choice?i do not think so but as well explained by seth commodity may be free but you still need brilliant people to write brilliant things.

    If the content or product is unique people will definitely pay upfront for it!!

  • NewHighScore 7 years ago


  • JonDiPietro 7 years ago

    I work with a non-profit trade association that is being double-victimized by "Free" and a down economy. Historically, their value proposition was as an aggregator and provider of information to its members. As such, the primary revenue model was paid advertising and vendor sponsorships. The members don't need them (as much) anymore for information and the vendors don't need them (as much) to get in front of the engineers.

    I am watching it happen and hoping the leadership gets it (I'm trying to help them get it). The "information wants to be Free" theorem and the analogy of water seeking its own level is a potent and, in my opinion, accurate description of this phenomenon.

The laws of physics don't change

Submit a Comment

  • LaptopLeader 4 years ago

    The cheese on a mousetrap is free. But you still have to pay a price... Unless you're a really smart mouse.

  • BorisStewart 4 years ago

    Free is to come like a "FREEDOM"

  • anonymous 6 years ago

    the same as the past, there is no real FREE.

  • access2 7 years ago

    Free Mp3 Downloads

  • magicmakereview 7 years ago

    Free is the gateway to the priced ones where every body will like to enter. Free establishes an initial repo. and trust which can be cashed in later.

  • Benedict_Roff-Marsh 7 years ago

    The waters are muddied by the misuse of Free:

    Here is my whitepaper valued at $79 for free if you give me your email address (so I can bully you with spam) is not the essence of free at all.

    That is just a grubby payware transaction.

  • anonymous 7 years ago

    Other than donating to a cause and feeling good about the idea of giving. It didn't take long to understand that FREE means "absolutely no value" to the recipient. Especially in the corporate world.

    The more you give the more people expect. It's only when you stop giving for free that you realize you've created a monster. How unfortunate that the two very small words of "Thank You" are becoming a thing of the past. Maybe with this universal cleansing, things will come around.

  • DavidMouriel 7 years ago

    There is a popular phrase among economist: There is no free lunch. It is my opinion.

    David Mouriel

    forex metatrader

  • Kazooli LM 7 years ago

    It will become more expensive :)

  • submerged-arc 7 years ago

    Somebody is paying for it. Look at adwords. You are using Google search for free because people on those listings are paying money per click, and they are making their money back. You can actually make money from offering a free service. It doesn't have to be like gambling where most people don't make money. Everyone can win...except for the chumps who click on the scams on the adwords columns. I'm going free for sheez. Advertising pays for it!

  • bagsfull1 7 years ago

    I find this topic quite interesting as I am now part of the "free" generation of writers out there as I begin putting articles up on sites like Getting a penny a click is about as close to free as you can get, but.....

    I think the word Free is abit misleading. If information transfer is now free, then why transfer the information. Because it is the right thing to do? because it passes the time?

    I might initially provide information for free, but if I can gain an audience then my free information is no longer free --- it has a value -- a financial value that I can request of others who want to be associated with my free writing/information. An advertiser will no long consider what I do free. Free is in the eye of the beholder (or reader I guess)

    Also, you can't look at 'free' without considering 'cost' and 'profit.' There is very little cost to put out free writing compared to a decade ago. The cost of technology has gone down and the requirement of a four year degree in many cases no longer can be factored into the equation. I can charge a whole lot less and still take home a tidy sum aka PROFIT. When you think that up to 80% of newspaper costs are tied up in paper, drivers, trucks, and production, it is hard to really feel sorry for their "loss." Industries die and change - c'est la vie.

    And, if you think that information is free, then I suggest you think again. I have a computer which I could afford that I can collect and read this information. There is a cost of entry even in this new age of technology. President Obama wants to make wifi hubs available to everyone, and we will pay for this free service with our taxes. But, even with these free hubs, there will be some who still can't get at the "free" information.

    So is free the right word at all? it really seems to be more about barriers to entry, a social shift in what has value and what is the conversion rate of exchange, what does the "free" flowing of ideas do to the country and more importantly the world (think Africa and Iran) -- and ultimately the idea that information is power and we somehow have snuck up on the power brokers and taken it away from them while they stand their blinking and confused

  • Dan74 7 years ago

    I don't understand the objection to the concept of free. This isn't something new and groundbreaking. I've been working for free publications for the past 12 or 13 years, giving away our content for nothing and some of them made rather large amounts of money. As an editor, I've taken advantage of writers who want nothing more than to see their name in print, made straight swaps of articles for promotion or advertising space with writers, and paid professional writers as well. The only difference I can see now is that the economy is so bad that advertising revenue is in the toilet. I suspect that if the economy had continued trucking along like it had been four or five years ago, you wouldn't see so many people bemoaning the inability to monetize the internet. The mainstream publishing industry is guilty of a lot of things, most obviously arrogance and short-sightedness, but the suggestion that giving away content for free is destroying the industry is absurd. It's a long-standing and historically successful approach, even in print, and it's a matter of time and a better economy before it proves itself to be that on the internet as well.

  • ahoving 7 years ago

    Looking forward to a technological solution to this theoretical debate, one that enables content providers to easily accept payment while enabling users to easily support their favorites. The model I offer is

  • vincentbackhouse 7 years ago

    Everything is getting Speeded - Up these Days and Free is always going to be seen as a Constant.

  • messel 7 years ago

    I've been writing about this for at list a few months. Information will be free, those that organize, filter, and present it to us in the manner we like it will profit.

  • rharbridge 7 years ago

    Free isn't new. It's always been around. This is just new mediums that are becoming "more" free. Traditionally they weren't and now they are a mix or shifting to free models. It won't be an all or nothing, and (IMO) I don't believe it will be as significant a change as many people make it out to be.

    Think about it this way: How many things that used to be free now cost money? Such as water, driving on roads (more tolls), plastic bags (5 cents per bag in Toronto, Ontario, Canada), and so on and so forth.

    Think about the rest of the world too. Sure here (in North America) we have a lot going 'free' but is it happening everywhere else?

    I would be more focused on what is now COSTING money, than what is becoming free. If you are interested in monetary value, then that's probably the place to keep an eye on. If your interested in possibilities then sure, focus on the free.

    Just a couple thoughts, RIchard Harbridge

  • Hankscott 7 years ago

    When Chris Anderson and Jeff Jarvis make their books available for free download (and when Wired is free of charge in print) then I will give their arguments for "free" some attention. Until then, I'm puzzled why they think other content creators shouldn't be paid for their work while they are.

  • paulstapes 7 years ago

    "Free" sounds like the 80/20 rule (were a 20% of the customers account for 80% of the biz) turned into the 99/01 rule. Now is 01 > 20 in absolute dollars? Could be.

  • updatesmbs 7 years ago

    Resistance is futile. It is always hard for early adapters to figure out why the late majority doesn't "get it".

Chime in!

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      jaredsasser 7 years ago

      Add to 'free' a highly profitable niche product with little competition and you establish yourself in a much stronger position than someone using 'free' with a commodity-based product. Gladwell caught hold on one point and never let go, thus distorting the legitimate point Chris Anderson raised. Free is happening in specific segments and those in that segment must adjust accordingly or they will be in search of another business, sooner than later. The market decides which business model it wants, and we either adjust or fail. See my post at

    • CoCreatr profile image

      CoCreatr 7 years ago

      Free is a workable method of risk reversal. 100% satisfaction or your money back!

      Go try it, within sponsor's limits and with a business model to achieve fair compensation for the value you deliver. Ultimately your customers and society decide your profits.

      Disclosure: I have yet to read either book. So much for free advice.

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      This looks like an interesting book. It takes a lot of getting used to the whole "free" thing since we've been programmed for so long the other way. Plus it takes a little more creativity to utilize "free" to your advantage. There's no going back now though - we all have to embrace it.

    • profile image

      MarcusRiedner 7 years ago

      The issue is that content production has become so cheap, and the skills so available, that the value for content is nothing. As a designer I've seen my skillset spread like wildfire, and my value drop like a rock, over the last 10 years. When people talk about 'free' I think they mean that the actual content is free, and that you need novel business models to drive earnings. Take the company I work for, Sharing Books ( ) as an example: ebooks for kids, free. On top of that 1/3 of revenues donated to charity. We make money right now through donations and sponsorship. Making money in the content game is about novel business models, including donations and pay for extras.

    • profile image

      messel 7 years ago

      What's the future of 'Free'?

      I wasn't clear on the distinction between choices. I agree with both Seth.

      Freemium is a model that appears to work. Some free stuff that cool to create a community, and then paid extra stuff to support the business.

      Attention -> dollars via ads and affiliate sales.

      Content creators that help connect visitors to other businesses can monetize without charging their readership directly.

      I'm working on a personalized/customized ad agent that is powered by people's public social media status updates. Not only that, but this simple framework (standing on the shoulders of some powerful semantic tools) will help find content customized to you (not just ads). Imagine dynamic web pages composed of aggregated data that your virtual assistant discovers for you. check my blog for more info (intelligent advertising or monetizing web2010),

    • profile image

      SirMalcolm 7 years ago

      "Free" is just a smokescreen for "Greed". Look at Gladwell's example of Amazon offering the Dallas Newspaper only 30% of the pie AND insisting on the right to further license it for its own profit. How about ringtones? iTunes pays out 70% to the content provider other online stores pay more. Big Comm Corps charge $2-3 for just a piece of your song and throw you only 30-50 cents. Sure--we're between paradigms and the new one requires us to provide more handouts, but marketing has always had loss leaders and today content is getting paid for somewhere--but it seems only big dollar operations are netting the profits at the expense of content providers.

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      amievoltaire 7 years ago

      Makes sense ~It already is isn't it. Squidoo?

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 7 years ago

      An interesting take on things but I will stick with, it doesn't seem to make any sense to me. Not at this time anyway.

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      micronauta 7 years ago

      Granularity: The industry has not yet successfully made use of the interactive and contextual dimensions available through the web.

      If we make ads more valuable to the user, increase the signal/noise ratio, content can become a sustainable business again because users will stop ignoring the ads.

      Users have always ignored ads, on paper and on the web, but clients have only figured that out recently thanks to the web.

      AdSense and adwords are just the first step. We now need more granular, better tagged, highly semantic and lower noise content sites.

    • profile image

      nri2ibh 7 years ago

      Lots is free in the internet and things get cheaper as mass use or mass production takes place. History proves this aspect. So a lot of what has been said is true. But then surely FREE does attract attention and is a attention grabber for sure , particularly in these recession hit tough times.So lets say fifty fifty agreement and disagreement.

    • profile image

      jeremylichtman 7 years ago

      The bad news (for just about everybody reading this) is that Free isn't just effecting the monetary value of content and intellectual property. The bad news is that virtually everything (I'm talking stuff in the physical world) is starting to go the same way. Don't believe me? Read the article I wrote on Open Source Manufacturing on my blog ( We're only seeing the opening shots in this war. Your job/business is at stake here too.

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      naturalbody 7 years ago

      Yeah I believe free is a overused word these days, its more about credibility. When talking to a freind recently on the sunject they said yeah it says free, but it in the end you end up spending somewhere.. Its more like a free test before buying these days..

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      neca 7 years ago

      There are free electronic versions of 'Free' available free that might be useful to add to this lense.

      I recommend audio.

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      Benedict_Roff-Marsh 7 years ago

      Many things have always been free and always will be. Water itself is free. It falls out of the sky that way (which of course means it isn't free of gravity!) but we pay for the service that makes it clean and pipes it into our houses.

      To the traditional Industrial Revolution business, water in nature is a non-thing. Water running out a tap is thing. However the Industrial Revolution period is passing. Digital gives us another age where non-things are equal to or more important than things.

      There is fear and misuse as we transition, just as in the early days people were treated as things, cogs to use, break and replace. The old boss doesn't like change. The new boss needs the power. The old boss calls it stealing, the new boss calls it his by right. The new boss is really the old boss trying to take advantage.

      I give all my information free (on my site and now a lens) because my expertise in action is what I can say is mine.


    • profile image

      themerchant 7 years ago

      You know whats funny, powerful people, specially the ones in politics always use the word FREE... but it never ends up how the word really means.

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      Dreamzanstuff 7 years ago

      Life is not free, it costs breath. Love is not free, it costs kisses. I wear my eyes out blinking. I wear my ass out thinking.

      .ti fo ekas eht rof tsuj, woc elprup a si ecnetnes siht

    • LaptopLeader profile image

      LaptopLeader 4 years ago

      The cheese on a mousetrap is free. But you still have to pay a price... Unless you're a really smart mouse.

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