Free or Fee? Or Change?


Change

Last week I was talking with Victoria Stodden at a conference about how the model of copyright and intellectual property has changed over time to be 180 degrees opposed to its original purpose. To drastically oversimplify, the original purpose was to create a dynamic and responsive relationship between the creative person and the consumer of their creative works, with an ultimate goal of benefiting society through encouraging the creative person to continue being even MORE creative. The reward system directly coupled the creator and the consumer, with rewards for both. There was no middleman in the model, and protecting the middleman (a.k.a. publisher) was the furthest thing from their minds. The closest model we have now of the original vision of copyright is probably something like shareware blended with the open source software forums.

This week, Ed Vielmetti posted the following link to a group that is a blend of geeks and the general community, which is in Ann Arbor a lot of awfully smart folk. This has generated quite a bit of conversation.

Pinboard: Don’t be a Free User: http://blog.pinboard.in/2011/12/don_t_be_a_free_user/

The most provocative part of it is probably these two paragraphs.

“Someone builds a cool, free product, it gets popular, and that popularity attracts a buyer. The new owner shuts the product down and the founders issue a glowing press release about how excited they are about synergies going forward. They are never heard from again.

Whether or not this is done in good faith, in practice this kind of ‘exit event’ is a pump-and-dump scheme. The very popularity that attracts a buyer also makes the project financially unsustainable. The owners cash out, the acquirer gets some good engineers, and the users get screwed.”

One of the events that inspired this missive was the recent acquisition of Trunk.ly by the folks who now own and manage Delicious.

I use Trunk.ly. And Delicious. And almost exclusively free online services, paying only small amounts for Google, Flickr, and sweettalked the office into paying for Mindmeister (which I use heavily, but which I really can’t afford). Part of the reason I focus on free services is that there are a LOT of services and types of services to try, and it is my job to try lots of services. My office does not have a budget for paying for me to testdrive lots of services that we don’t know yet are worth money. I’ll try them if there is a free door. If it is amazing, I’ll pay a small amount to extend functionality out of my own pocket. If they reserve all useful functionality for paying customers, I won’t use them at all, and will complain about them.

Pinboard is one of those. I hear great things about it, and know a few people using it, but there is no way for me to testdrive. If I don’t testdrive, I don’t buy. If the cost to try is super cheap, I will sometimes but rarely pay to testdrive. Pinboard did not fall into that category. They want $10 to testdrive. $25/year to really use. I pay $25 for TWO years for Flickr, and I use Flickr heavily. That has become my benchmark for costing. Flickr has monetized nicely, has a decent testdrive option, and extends very well at a very reasonable cost. These things add up quickly if you use a lot of services, as I do, and until my office offers to pay to testdrive new services without proof of need, I have no intention of doing so myself. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe someone else can explain why they pay to play with some of these services, but the argument provided by Pinboard doesn’t yet persuade me.

That said, he’s right about services failing being a pain. That is why I use BOTH Trunk.ly and Delicious, as one example. I try to duplicate content across similar free services so that if one fails, I still have stuff. I also believe in backups, and am hugely less trusting of any service that doesn’t provide a way to get my stuff back. I know. I said I use Flickr. Flickr does not make it easy to get your content out, and they don’t promise to keep it safe for you. They have a bad reputation for closing accounts and deleting content without document provocation or advance warning to the account owner. I back up BEFORE I put things in Flickr, or copy them to Google, and duplicate in Picasa. Ideally, I like to have a hard drive backup, when possible.

Backup, duplicate, disseminate, diversify. That is my content management philosophy in a nutshell. Obviously, I do pay for services that I find of sufficient value. But I try them first. Regarding his issue of monetization strategies for online services? Yes, please, do charge for advanced features, more use, more power, more storage, etcetera. But I have no faith in the free or fee model as a binary choice. We need to change those models. So I believe in change, not just as making a new way of doing things, but also in the sense of using micropayments (pocket change?).

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