Give It Away and They'll Buy It


You can pay $25 for Lawrence Lessig’s new book. Or you can download it for free.

What’s the catch? None, according to Lessig, a law professor who specializes in intellectual property and is the author of Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. A memo Lessig wrote to his publisher convinced Penguin Books that releasing Free Culture online actually would increase sales of hardcover copies. Which may be true: there have been more than 180,000 downloads—and Penguin is on its third printing.

Lessig’s bottom line has to do with cannibals and converts. People who decide not to buy a book because it’s free online represent the cannibalization rate. The conversion rate reflects the number of people who hear about a book because it’s online, but decide to buy the hardcover because it’s easier to read than the downloaded version. “If the conversion rate is greater than the cannibalization rate, then you sell more books,” Lessig says.

In Lessig’s ideal world, more literary and artistic works would be in the public domain, copyrights would be considerably shorter, and digital technologies would encourage creativity. In 2001, he co-founded Creative Commons, an online service that allows writers, photographers, musicians and other creators to tailor their copyright protections—allowing a song to be copied and redistributed but not sampled, for example, or permitting an essay to be republished only if the purpose is noncommercial. The bottom line: a Creative Commons license yields “some rights reserved,” not “all rights reserved.”

“Everybody knows about media concentration in an increasingly small number of firms that control the pipes and channels through which people get access [to the public domain],” Lessig says. But he argues, in his latest book and in person, that it’s even more significant that a decreasing number of people own “ever-expansive rights of copyright.” The result? “What I call free culture is shrinking as these legal regulations expand.”

Lessig is now watching the progress of a congressional bill he helped write, the Public Domain Enhancement Act, which would shorten the copyright period to 50 years (it’s currently the life of the author plus 70 years) and require only a $1 fee to extend that term. The legislation has the support of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Lessig says he’s “optimistic” something will come of it. Just don’t suggest that he try and copyright it.