Buy Now, Content = Free: Fred Wilson on Information in the Digital Age

VIDEO: In our cut and paste age, record companies sue eager college kids for their irrepresible downloading. Movie studios follow suit. Meanwhile, publishing companies scratch their heads wondering how they profit when digital ones and zeros are ripe for the taking. Flatfiron Partners VC Fred Wilson asks: Does Content Just Want to be Free?

Ever since Guttenberg created the printing press, the tension between content ownership and the inability to control mass produced copies has grown.

In our cut and paste age, record companies sue eager college kids for their irrepresible downloading. Movie studios follow suit. Publishing companies scratch their heads wondering how they profit when digital ones and zeros are ripe for the taking, and the public still clamors for that right to take.

Does information want to be free? Perhaps. Although we tend to think that information doesn’t have much mind of its own and just tends to be.

Instead, it’s the rest of us, forming networks of national and international copyright laws while simultaneously building technical channels that undermine those very laws, that still struggle with the question.

However, this isn’t 1999 when two kids released a little something called Napster that turned the music industry on its head as hundreds of thousands first downloaded the peer-to-peer software and then millions of of songs. For free.

While peer-to-peer file sharing programs still survive and thrive (google: p2p software, return: 45,900,000 hits), content producers have largely won the public relations battle over content ownership.

Where once upon a time many gave little thought to downloading some Hendrix, today, we look over our shoulders, make sure no one’s looking, and understand that what we’re doing involves an age-old form of theft called piracy.

Despite this, or because of this, music labels, film studios and publishing houses still grapple with the cultural shift driven by peer to peer networks and a little something that also happened in 1999: Netscape’s Ramanathan V. Guha created the first version of RSS.

The New York Times helped open the web syndication floadgates when it adopted RSS in 2002. And this wasn’t syndication between one publishing giant and another. It wasn’t Bloomberg or Reuters selling financial news to other papers. It was a means for the unwashed masses to aggregate information at their leisure, all in one place through feed readers.

Content providers have been scratching their heads wondering how to make a buck off all this ever since.

Which brings us back to the original question: Does Information Want to Be Free?

This also happens to be the title of Fred Wilson’s opening keynote at the Software and Information Industry’s January 2007 summit in New York City.

In fall 1984, at the first Hackers’ Conference, I said in one discussion session: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. — Stewart Brand, May 1985 Whole Earth Review.

In the keynote above, the Union Square Ventures Managing Partner dissects the economic conundrum of this digital age. If less information is being distributed in physical form, and if the cost of electronic distribution, at the margin, is zero, when does the price get driven down to the marginal cost? In otherwords, when does content become free?

Which is the worry of content producers everywhere. While they certainly know that although they don’t need to print magazines, hire fleets of truckdrivers and coerce and cajole national chains to give their product eye-level shelf space, they still pay editors, writers, marketers, business managers, IT staff and a host of others in order to get their product in the marketplace.

Of equal concern is the commodification of content: multiple competitors exist in almost all verticals. And if a “business” doesn’t exist there, it’s increasingly likely that an open source competitor operates in that space.

And when we say open source we’re no longer talking about software. We’re talking information. We’re talking the Wikipediafication of a Diggnation where everone Flickr’s as a Technorati if they haven’t already deliciously disseminated themselves over at GooTube. (No, we didn’t just write that sentence).

Here, Wilson explores:

  • Whether there’s such a thing as proprietary data anymore
  • How copy protection has largely failed
  • Price elasticity and information supply
  • How to monetize information if it’s free
  • Leverage points in an attention driven information model
  • The future of media/information
  • Syndication and business models
  • How free can pay

The keynote above took place at the 2007 Software and Information Industry Association Summit in New York City.

A copy of Fred’s presentation can be downloaded here.

About Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is a Partner at Union Square Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in New York City.

In 1996, Wilson co-founded Flatiron Partners. While at Flatiron, Fred was responsible for 14 investments including, ITXC, Patagon, Starmedia, and Yoyodyne. Fred currently serves on the boards of Alacra, Comscore, iBiquity, Return Path, Instant Information and Tacoda Systems. Fred has a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.