The Internet is Not Solely Populated by Pirates and Thieves

Comedian Louis CK conducted an experiment this past week that could change the InterWebs forever. At least, it may change how people promote and consume content online, as well as how they feel about file swapping.

Rather than go the traditional route of signing up with a major production company to film his standup routine and sell it to HBO or some other pay cable outlet, Louis CK decided he would produce the show himself and sell it himself, via the Web.

On Dec. 10, "Louis CK Live at the Beacon Theater" went on sale. For $5 a pop you could stream the film (twice) or download it (three times). And that's it. DRM restrictions? Distribution monopolies? Information hoarding? Fahgeddaboutit.

On the site, he placed the following message:

To those who might wish to "torrent" this video: look, I don't really get the whole "torrent" thing....But I'd just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without "corporate" restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea.

The experiment in a nutshell: If you give people a good product at a reasonable price without getting too much in their face, will they pay for it -- even if they could finagle a free copy in other, less legal ways?

The answer? Yes, they will. Four days after posting the file, the comic posted a statement detailing what has happened so far: 110,000 legal downloads, over $500K in revenue. Minus production expenses, a tidy profit -- though not what he would have made if he'd gone the traditional route.

Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

I had to stop and let that sink in for a bit. A vendor who takes my money and doesn't feel like he now "owns" me and my data from this day unto the grave? I really like the sound of that. And it makes me much more inclined to purchase from this vendor again.

A big reason why this experiment has been successful comes down to Louis CK's down-to-earth persona. He's not a Kardashian. He comes across as an honest, blue collar guy who's at least as screwed up as any of the rest of us but manages to be very funny about it.

I think a lot of file sharing isn't driven merely by extreme stinginess or even the desire to feel like you're getting away with something naughty. It's because the people who run the companies that control most of the content we consume are enormous flaming a**holes. It's payback for decades of being ripped off.

Louis CK? Not an enormous flaming a**hole. Or if he is, he manages to hide it well. So if you decide to rip him off just to avoid paying $5 -- or enable thousands of others to do it -- what does that say about you? You're a pathetic loser. That's what it says.

Of course, I was able to find illegal copies of the same show. A quick search of PirateBay turned up at least six torrent sites where it had been posted. One of the file swappers even wrote an apologia, of sorts. I repeat it here in all its inarticulate and ungrammatical glory:

yea its the new one yea i kinda feel bad putting it here but people like louis ck gotta realize without torrents and the net he wouldnt be anywhere bc honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal , not everyone has credit cards, some people use net lounges, some have barely money for food, art = comedy should be shared with the mass , and Believe me u can judge the popularity more from the torrent downloads then the paypal sales, also if people like it , its easier to buy on there ipad/ipod or personal/work computers... more buzz = more fales [SIC ad infinitum]

Four words: Dude, get a job. That is, if anyone will hire you.

What's new isn't the concept of artists distributing some of their content for little or nothing online as an enticement to buy more stuff. That's been done for years. What's new is that the seller of the content is also one of the good guys. And the people who rip off his content for free? They're the enormous flaming a**holes. That's a sea change that could ripple across the Net for years.

Would you pay $5 for unrestricted downloads like Louis CK's? Post your thoughts below or email me here: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "This just in: Internet not solely populated by pirates and thieves," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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