Dr. Freelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love $0.00

It seems like everyone’s talking about free information again: The old meme that "information wants to be free" appears to be recycling in the web’s hive-mind. I am still not convinced that information cares one way or the other, but I do know that content owners and providers have widely divergent views on whether or how they should be compensated.

Lots of digital content is obtainable for free, although mention BitTorrent to Hollywood executives and watch them start twitching. My favorite example of someone needing a ticket on the clue train is Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group. He was quoted in Wired as saying, "If you had Coca-Cola coming through the faucet in your kitchen, how much would you be willing to pay for Coca-Cola? There you go." Um, dude, water comes out of most people’s faucet, yet the bottled water business is going strong. Sadly, this is the argument used by the music and video industries; if any of their content is available for free, they will be bankrupted. If so, it would be a case of coincidence, not causality.

As iTunes, Netflix, and most newspapers have learned, there’s revenue in content that could be obtained for free. In the case of iTunes, people are willing to pay a small price for a painless and integrated way to obtain high-quality audio files. Netflix knows that most people would pay $20 a month to view the DVD of a movie rather than suffer through viewing a pirated version. And most newspapers have realized that they can generate revenue by positioning ads around their web content, just like they do in their print product.

Unfortunately, some information providers don’t grok that they are (or at least can be) offering more than just bytes. Obviously, they are offering a simple way for customers to pay the royalties for the content they download—that’s a service that is built into the fee structure. But information providers tend to suffer from myopia; they see their content apart from its surroundings and context. We info pros pull information together from a number of sources, for a number of reasons, with the intention of massaging the information in a number of ways.

So, to help econtent providers avoid ever comparing their own product to tap water, here are some thoughts on where you can offer more than what we can get for free.

We don’t want no stinkin’ syntax. Yes, your search syntax allows us to conduct all kinds of complex searches, but it’s also as unforgiving as Sister Dolores was in grade school. We are accustomed to using the web to search, and it is insanely easy to construct even a complex search on any of the search engines. There is an advanced search page, one-click context-sensitive help, and automatic suggestions if we get the syntax wrong or come up with no results. We want to see something similar from you.

We want you to know what we drink. We go to our regular after-work haunt and the waitress knows that we would like a pint of Never Summer Ale. We use iGoogle to set up our highly personalized Google experience. Why can’t we do that with your service? We want to be able to log in and see, on the front page, information about newly added sources, the five collections of frequently used sources that we can pick from, a pull-down menu with all our saved search strategies, and the top headlines from our most important news sources.

Don’t be afraid of what’s free. There are some great free reference sources on the web; Wikipedia, PubMed, HowStuffWorks, and the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract come to mind. Help us use those sources while we are searching on your service. Believe me, we already know about them, and they aren’t a threat to your business model. But there are times when it would be really handy to be able to click a link on the side of your search page to confirm the spelling of a word or the name of an expert or to identify a few synonyms for our topic. We promise, we’ll come right back to you. We just don’t want an exclusive relationship.

We are willing to pay for bottled water, but we need to see how your product is better than what comes out of the tap.