17 October 2007

Who says you can't steal what's already free?

When opponents of the recording industry and operators of several music downloading sites argued that people would not be so inclined to steal music if it were made available online in a form they wanted at a reasonable price, I thought that seemed like a reasonable proposition. The success of Apple's iTunes store and similar sites seemed to support the argument -- good quality digital songs were selling in astonishing numbers at prices between $0.79 and $1.29 or so even though those same songs were likely available at no charge on any number of unauthorized sites. Even I, a person who hadn't bought a record in several years, bought a considerable number of iTunes tracks simply because it was easy and relatively inexpensive to do so.

Considering all that, one might think that if a popular band were to release an album online and charge nothing for it, people would have no reason to "steal" it by getting the music through unauthorized channels. One might think that, and one would, it seems, be wrong. Via Slashdot, Forbes columnist Andy Greenberg reports that for many listeners of Radiohead's new In Rainbows album, the preferred price is less than zero:
Piracy, it seems, is about more than price.

That's one of the surprising discoveries to come out of an experiment by the British band Radiohead last week. On Thursday, the group made its latest album, In Rainbows, available for direct downloading from the Web at an unusual price: whatever fans feel like paying. Downloaders who want to pay nothing can enter "zero" in the site's price field and download the album for free.

But for hard-core music pirates, even free hasn’t been enough of a draw. According to music industry analysts, hundreds of thousands of Web users who frequent copyright-infringing file-sharing sites, including The Pirate Bay and TorrentSpy, have chosen to download In Rainbows illegally, distributing their contraband around the Internet just as they might with any other pirated album.

. . . .

[F]or Doug Lichtman, an intellectual property professor at the UCLA School of Law, the volume of piracy following In Rainbows' release erodes the success of Radiohead's innovation. "If the community rejects even forward-thinking experiments like this one, real harm is done to the next generation of experimentation and change," he says.

Lichtman speculates that users may have interpreted Radiohead's offer as a giveaway and so felt more comfortable downloading the album from other free sources. Fans may also have been turned off by the band's requirement that users register by providing their name and e-mail and postal addresses.

The ultimate lesson may simply be that it's hard to compete with free, Lichtman says. "Registration is a small barrier," he says. "Sadly, even that little bit of cost might too much."

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