Today was a bad day to be free. It all began when marketing guru Seth Godin announced on his blog he was opening a special “tribe” club only for people who spend $14 on his next book. Seth’s move drew cries of outrage from social media intellectuals offended at the idea of a new pay-for-access walled garden.
Next up, toymaker Hasbro finally twisted Facebook’s arm into shutting down the hyperpopular online game Scrabulous in the U.S. and Canada. Scrabulous, which now attracts 500,000 users daily, is a free knockoff of Scrabble created by two Indian brothers and has become a flashpoint in the debate over fair use and trademark protection in the wild world of the web. Hasbro is hoping to lure users to its own version of online Scrabble, now in beta.
Let’s pause and consider this. Both Seth and Hasbro have a point. Seth creates ideas, has to make a living, and so wants to charge money to attract a fan base of loyalists … for whom he’ll provide more access and special content. Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in North America and had a legitimate claim that Scrabulous is an unfair copy.
So why the turmoil? Don’t you expect to get paid for your work? Would you be happy if someone stole your idea?
Consumers in just a few years have grown accustomed to getting everything for free. The challenge for content producers who hope to profit is this groundswell of “free hunting” is almost unstoppable. If a newspaper web site charges admission, users flow around the barrier to find it free elsewhere. If Seth charges for access, odds are his blog readership will decline and intellectuals will flap to another bright candle. (Bloggers seemed most upset over Seth’s move, assuming that someone who writes about building communities would understand that communities no longer want to pay admission.)
Today’s reality is almost comic: People get upset if they can’t get knowledge, content, or transactions for free. Seth and Scrabble have rights. The entire economy is based on expending energy to create something in exchange for assurance you will get paid. But that old model is starting to slip, perhaps driven by the easy access the internet and Google have provided to all the world’s information. Seeing a bar that low, humans now resent any higher barriers.
And it’s a test for your business as well. What will you do when your competition gives it away?