Page last updated at 06:59 GMT, Sunday, 23 August 2009 07:59 UK

The end of clicks for free

London Paper distributor

By Clare Spencer
BBC News Online

The London Paper is given to commuters without charge and is an example of the "free economy", but it is closing. Is this the death knell for the idea that we are entering a world where time and recommendations are traded instead of notes and coins?

On James O'Malley's personal blog , you'll see an unusual plea: "Enjoy my blog? Then stop freeloading and help me pay my rent." We tend to take for granted the notion that we don't pay for what we consume on the web. The idea that one day everything will become free, in money terms at least, was started by Lawrence Lessig in 2005, with his book Free Culture . This year, an online debate began between what the Times has labelled two heavyweight "pop-thinkers" about the future of getting the internet for nothing.

In the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame has been laying into the ideas expressed by the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson, in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The idea in Anderson's book is that the money economy is on its way out as technology allows many things to be produced for almost nothing, leading to a flood of free goods. Gladwell took exception to this, citing YouTube: a free service which makes hardly any money for Google who bought it in 2006 for $1.65bn. Gladwell says Anderson has not taken into account that although technology is almost free per user, when 75 million people use it, that pushes up the cost of almost free quite a bit.

This has caused an internet furore, with Seth Godin on Anderson's side and, as Slashdot puts it , the Times awarding the prize to Gladwell on points. The last word in this debate could go to Amazon - £8.54 is the price of Anderson's book Free. Then again, Gladwell's article arguing that we couldn't consume everything without paying for it directly, was free to look at on the New Yorker's website.

PAYING FOR THE WEB

Teenagers using the internet
Many are used to using websites free-of-charge

A perfect example of changing morals can be seen in attitudes towards downloading music and films, and more generally what we're prepared to pay for online - a topic discussed in Phil Gyford's blog . Mr Gyford (he of Pepys' Diary ) seriously considers which websites he would be prepared to pay for and lists just three - Daring Fireball , which puts together articles about Apple, Kottke , and David Smith's Preoccupations . The snarkmarket blog has been looking specifically at what the prospect of "free" would mean to people working in the liberal arts. Guest writer Matt Penniman thinks eventually people will do fun jobs for nothing:

Now, in the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free. But the internet drastically reduces that barrier. Imagine trying to find people to write a computer operating system and all the associated applications without expecting payment before the internet - now look at Linux. I wonder if we're heading toward an economy where, to put it bluntly, people don't get paid for doing fun things. If something is fun - for someone in the world who finds it fun enough to become good at it, and to do it without expecting pay - it will no longer pay.

In the New York Times, a senior editor at Harper's and author of And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Bill Wasik backs up the idea of free work. Wasik says that the annual migration of people aspiring to work in the creative industries to New York is no longer necessary. Technology keeps the costs down, allowing people to work free:

"Wherever young creatives physically reside today, in their endeavors they are increasingly moving online: posting their photos, writing, videos and music, building a 'presence' in the hope of winning an audience. Monetary rewards on the Internet are still scarce, it is true, but the cost of living is cheap and, more important, the opportunities for attention are plentiful"

HIDDEN COSTS

The Sun website
Many news websites intend to start charging a subscription fee

Cory Doctorow, formerly of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writing in the Guardian , disagrees with Gladwell's reasoning but agrees with the conclusion - free is impossible - when considering future costs in combatting piracy, since it is so cheap for members of the public to copy material.
Where there's change you're likely to find resistance. As the Guardian's Polly Curtis has noted , the work-for-nothing trend has been highlighted by industry watchdogs. Curtis has accused employers and MPs of exploiting work-for-free interns. And as the Guardian's FAQs explain , the nature of the work given to interns could mean that some employers should be paying them the minimum wage. One point of view must be older than the idea itself - that the problem with offering labour free is that it leads to class discrimination in professions. Jonn Elledge in The First Post gives his personal view on the issue:

I am a journalist. I live in Islington. I listen to Radio 4. I have even, in my darker moments, been known to talk about house prices. I am, in fact, a symptom of the problem I am about to discuss, and what follows is quite appallingly hypocritical. But I am going to say it anyway: the media is too middle class. The rise of the unpaid internship is to blame. And no-one seems willing to admit it.

The industries that are already offering free stuff are becoming reluctant to give away their goods for nothing. The latest in the list is the London Paper. Rupert Murdoch's loss-making free evening newspaper is given out on street corners and outside train stations free-of-charge to commuters on their way home but has announced its closure. Murdoch's News International previously announced its intention to introduce charging to all his news websites, including those for The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, by next summer.

This casts a shadow on the prediction that we will stop paying directly for our products.



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