Is Free Free?

Wired editor and Long Tail author Chris Anderson sees free things everywhere — Google, YouTube, even The New York Times — and concludes that $0.00 the price has revolutionized the modern world as much as zero the concept revolutionized the ancient world. Anderson’s book on the subject, Free: the Future of a Radical Price, goes on sale next week for the decidedly un-radical price of $26.99. You can, however, read Malcolm Gladwell’s not-so-friendly review of the book online for free. Free, except of course for the price you paid for your computer, mobile device, electricity, and internet connection. This hitch is just one problem Gladwell has with Anderson’s idea. (Separately, Anderson seems guilty of Wikiplagiarism.) [%comments]

Mike B

You're right, if Anderson really wanted to prove his point with the book he would have offered online copies for free.

Eric M. Jones

All this points to (but ignores!) Ray Kurzweil's Singularity.

In short we will see, in a very few years (about 2030), the cost of computer memory will become essentially zero and the performance will be essentially infinite. What strange results will we see. And all essentially free...!

For one, we will see computer intelligence so powerful that they will be indistinguishable for gods. The computer on your desk will be far smarter than any human brain. It will CLAIM to be conscious and we will believe it.

Data point--One Terabyte of hard-drive memory is now below $100. That's 0.000000001 cent per byte. Business plan indeed!


Here's a little something refuting Malcolm:

ambrose pierce

Gladwell is brilliant and sums up where the freetard culture's unbridled race to the lowest common denominator has brought us. With all the grandiloquent speech and flexing of grey matter that Anderson offers, he has yet to suggest “Free” as a business model that is truly viable. The problem with the “Free” thing is that you can't compete with “Free”, unless of course you are a student, a college professor working under the auspices of a university, or have a trust fund. When the newspaper market made its content “Free” on the internet, they rendered that very content worthless. Now why would they do this? They did it because the competition was doing it, which is why the entire newsgathering business is moribund. They were trying to compete with “Free”, which you simply cannot do. If there are any ironclad laws at work, it's that “Free” doesn't work.


he could have offered the book for free (on and off line) in way of paid ads just like magazines/newspapers and articles online.

Fred T.

Try explaining to the RIAA that the music you downloaded isn't free because of the price of your computer, electricity, internet connection, etc. and see just how far you get.

Mike D

Marginal Cost <> Average Cost


The paper version of the book, the rights to which are owned by the publisher who is spending the non-marginal cost to have it printed, distributed, and marketed the old-fashioned way, will not be free for obvious reasons. The audiobook version, the rights to which Anderson owns, and which Anderson has produced on his own dime, WILL BE FREE.

marty isaac

It's so refreshing to see someone argue succinctly the issues associated with Free. I tire so much from hearing that information wants to be free and that everything wants to be free. The reality is yes, consumers want everything to be free -- but free is not a model. It may subsidize something else you plan ot sell -- but don't confuse these 2 things.

Broadcast TV is free, because advertising subsidizes the model. Now the supreme court says there may be legal ways to eliminate commercials. Not sure ultimately what this means -- but you can't remove the revenue side of the equation and assume the free side stays the same. I would imagine this will ultimately mean consumers have to pay directly for their service (e.g., $1/month for CBS, etc). We'll see ...


If you read in between the lines, everything still has its cost. Who would have imagined paying for cable. The world still lives on $$. It's usually a matter of time before free needs a fee.

Michael Turro

This implied notion that something (like Gladwell's article) can't be considered free because of the "...the price you paid for your computer, mobile device, electricity, and internet connection" is kind of silly. By this standard nothing is free. If I go to see a "free" concert in the park I'm just fooling myself - I had to buy clothes to wear in public, spend money on transportation, and pay taxes to make sure the park is clean. you can follow that logic all the way down the rabbit hole until the very act of being born is no longer free either.

I prefer a simpler take on free. If I want to consume something - ice cream, music, ideas, anything - and the person who has that thing in their possession is willing to give it to me without taking anything in return - I consider it free.

Michael Sherrin

No one, including Anderson, is arguing that you never pay anything. Free is a tool for business - it's a part of a business model. The New Yorker puts its articles online for free and sells advertisers your eye balls to make money. Same for television. Other companies offer buy one, get one free. Thus you are always paying, whether in time or actual money.

What Anderson and I (and others) argue is things we used to pay for, because of technology and economics, are being forced to a retail price of $0. There is so much competition now, it's almost impossible to make money selling songs or news articles. This is not bad nor does it mean the end of music or news. It means business models need to change. Instead of charging money for the songs and news, you charge money for the concert or advertising or merchandise or any one of the hundreds of business opportunities artists and journalists are already embracing.

Free is a tool for business, not a price.



Although the criticism of Anderson may perhaps be apt, Brand's original thought is a bit more balanced than Gladwell lets on:

"Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better." - Steward Brand, 1985 / 1987 (from Wikipedia, appropriately enough)


I'm sure replicators in Star Trek aren't cheap to build, either.

I think a lot of the point of these kind of books is to get people thinking about the implications of a post-scarcity economy, and how it can interact with an economy based on scarcity. It seems naive to assume that we won't reach that point, or that there won't be a painful transition where some things remain hard to duplicate (starships) while others are trivial (food cubes) -- but possible models for how it'd actually work seem to remain science fiction, despite the analogues to the Internet and the way it effortlessly duplicates things that can be digitised suggesting that in many ways we're already there.


If Malcolm accepts that distribution costs more than raw materials for the power industry, why does he support the "incredulous" response when this is applied to journalism?

Whether it "feels" right that Amazon takes 70% cut is quite irrelevant when nobody is reading your writing.


This seems to be of similar theme to's article on 'free' as a force.


It's an interesting but blurry line. If I win a free lawn mower, but have to pay $20 to have it shipped, is it free? If the sponsors cover shipping, but I have to drive to the post office to pick it up (time+gas), is it free? If it's delivered to my door, but I need to put gas and oil in it, is it free? If you nitpick enough, only the air I breathe is free, and even then I'm out the opportunity cost of developing gills.

P Cause

Anderson came to fame writing about the Long Tail. His thesis there has been thoroughly debunked, but not before lots of people raised lots of money using his book to justify their business plans (or really lack of business plans). Shame on VCs and others for believing him that time.

This new book is yet another attempt to create / justify businesses without business models. Yes, we might find one or two companies that can make this work, but overall it is as specious as the long tail. I am hopeful that this time investors and inventors will ignore Anderson and build real businesses based on real business models.

Of course, the Web 2.0 wave showed that the VC community learned little from the Web 1.0 bust, so my hopefulness is tempered by experience.


It is true: Google does not make money from Youtube. But Google is still a giant and makes a lot of money from their other 'free" products like their search engine and email. So just becaue one of their ventures does not bring a return doesn't mean the "free" model does not work. It actually works for them quite well.


You've missed the point. See “Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell And A Look At Free”: