April 11, 2004

“Free Culture,” free book

By: Jerry Brito

Stanford law professor and Internet guru Lawrence Lessig has written a new book, Free Culture, in which he decries how companies like Disney have co-opted America’s copyright laws and transformed them into just the opposite of the limited protection our Founding Fathers intended them to be. Fittingly, the book is subtitled “How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.” But Lessig’s biggest statement may not be any passage in the book, but rather that he has put his money where his mouth is. He is giving away digital copies of the new book on his Web site for free.

“This is an experiment,” Lessig has said, “but it is my view that exercising less control over at least some content is a better way to drive demand.” He’s probably right.

Recently a friend recommended I read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which was published in 1908. Not wanting to wait until I found myself a paper copy, I downloaded a free digital copy from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg is a movement of volunteers around the world who painstakingly scan and proofread books that have fallen into the public domain. The result is an online library of thousands of classics from Austen to Yeats that is available to anyone with Internet access.

I read the first chapter of Orthodoxy on my computer screen, and I learned two things. First, that I wanted to read the rest of the book; second, that there’s no way I was going to do it off a laptop’s screen. So, I went and got myself a dead-tree version.

The lesson is that there isn’t yet a technology that can comfortably replace paper for reading an average-length book. Free Culture is offered in Adobe PDF format, which has the advantages of being universal, true to the original, and searchable. That said, no one but the most obsessive computer geeks will read Lessig’s book off their flatscreens or PDAs, so he isn’t going to lose too many sales to digital. What’s more, he will likely increase sales as people who might not otherwise pick up the book will do so after reading a few pages online.

Won’t people just print out the book? Printing it will cost as much, if not more, than buying the book. They’ll print it at the office, you say? First, it’s not easy sneaking off a 400-page print job. Second, you have to be incredibly hard up for cash to stomach flipping through a hefty, amateur-bound 8×10 document. Buying the book is just easier for the type of person who would be interested in reading Lessig’s book in the first place.

On the the Amazon.com page for Free Culture there is one link to buy the book and another to download it for free. Still, the book is selling briskly.

In fact, Amazon has been a pioneer in letting customers sample content before they buy it. It recently unveiled a new service that allows users to search the contents–not just the titles and authors–of over 190,000 books. Just a week after the program was launched, Amazon reported a nine percent increase in the sales of the books that are searchable as compared to those that are not. This is consistent with the results of several surveys that have shown that people who download music from the Internet (even illegally) are more likely to buy albums.

While the idea that freeing content will drive demand is probably doubly true for books, publishers continue to be skeptical. The Author’s Guild launched a campaign against Amazon’s new service after it found that users could download and print up to 20 percent of certain books in consecutive pages, or 108 pages of one best-seller. But again, you would have to be incredibly fixated to go to the trouble of printing out a book this way–and you would still only end up with less than a quarter of only some books and with poor print quality. Moreover, the increase in sales from the new service would surely make up for any sales lost to digital.

Strategically loosening content is a win-win situation for everyone involved. In Lessig’s case he sells more books and draws attention to his Creative Commons licenses that allow copyright holders to safely make their content freely available. The public gets a searchable preview. The market will ultimately bend to the much-maligned maxim that information wants to be free. There is money to be made in giving up on control over content.

Jerry Brito is editor of Brainwash and a student at George Mason University School of Law. His Web site is jerrybrito.com.