My final offer is this: nothing


Recently I wanted to use a Creative Commons image in a project which was a bit blurry as to whether it constituted commercial use or not, so I contacted the owner and asked them as they had specified non-commercial. They asked for payment (which is of course their right), but I didn't have a budget so I declined and found an alternative image.

Similarly I was looking for an image of a bee a while ago for a school project for my daughter and found a nice one, but they wanted $200. After I had stopped laughing I went and found a free alternative.

And this is the problem for any online commodity – there is always a free alternative available. It may not be as good, but it'll do. I apply the same approach to articles and referencing – if I have to pay to access your article, I'll find an alternative which says more or less the same thing, and which I can access freely.

The question for anyone wishing to charge for an online product then is this "are there free alternatives available". If the answer is yes, then forget charging.

In this respect I was reminded of Michael Corleone in The Godfather 2. Senator Pat Geary is attempting to extract a bribe from him and Micheal responds:

"You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing"

Corleone has violence and intimidation to back up his offer of nothing – we have abundance of alternatives. I'm not arguing whether this is morally correct, maybe we should pay, but the point is about behaviour.


  1. This is a good point, though I have been surprised to find that some students are willing to pay for an electronic article, if it appears to be exactly the right topic. Even if there are an abundance of free alternatives via the Library’s services. This probably says something about the difficulty of using library resources vs Google.

  2. Michael says:

    My wife, a therapist, wanted to make CD recordings of hypnotherapy sessions for her clients.
    I downloaded Audacity, at no cost, to make the recordings. I downloaded CDburnerxp, at no cost,to make the CDs. Total outlay: zilch.
    People won’t pay for products or services online that they can get for free. Only Fredo Corleone would have fallen for that one.

  3. Carl Morris says:

    I think you *might* be extrapolating your own values a bit far.
    Free is highly competitive and does remove loads of the market that existed before, no doubt, particularly as the “competition” is very often not a company or not dependent on content for their money.
    That said, I have worked with a musician who absolutely had to license a specific high-quality image which turned out to be controlled by an image library – for use on tour posters and t-shirts (among other things).
    There is also the example of Spotify which is trying to compete with unlicensed peer-to-peer filesharing by offering something quicker, easier and probably less malware-prone. And licensed. And paid for, in its subscription version. Although that one is arguably still an experiment. (Interestingly, it uses peer-to-peer technology to improve streaming speed. One of the founders used to run an unlicensed service.)
    There are offline examples like mineral water. Once you’ve paid your bill, the marginal cost of the same volume of tap water is pretty much free. But still, people pay. Irrationality and vanity creates markets!
    So when it comes to online, it might depend on what you mean by “product”.
    Just testing the idea though… I think business tends to flow where the opportunity is, so enterprising people will find these markets if they do exist.

  4. Carl Morris says:

    What I implied by “and licensed” was that maybe legality is a feature. That is, maybe some people are influenced by the legality of a service?
    I don’t believe it’s been properly researched by the recording industry, the added promotional value of marketing a service as the legal option.
    Or whether it would backfire because people get a feeling of rebellion from illegal copying.

  5. R3beccaF says:

    “if I have to pay to access your article, I’ll find an alternative which says more or less the same thing, and which I can access freely.”
    Often, though, these articles are only free at the point of delivery. The university has already paid a substantial amount of money for us to be able to access them. As someone at the end of a short-term contract, I’m aware how many of my professional resources will be withdrawn if I have to give up my university library card.
    Typically, though, I think we’re cushioned from realising that much of the information we use freely isn’t available to the majority without a downpayment. To download one article from ‘Computers & Education’, for example, would cost you $19.95 (£12.19). Better value than the $200 bee, but still substantial.

  6. I think what’s happening in lots of areas like photography is that if you want to make money from it, you either have to be a) incredibly good so you’re producing images that are better than somebody can get for free so there will be a market for them (even if it’s not your daughter trying to do her homework) or b) produce something that is exactly what somebody who has money wants e.g. for wedding or corporate photography.
    This is similiar to programming – if you want to make money, you either do a really good job of producing software lots of people want that’s better than what’s out there for free and which there is a market for, or you produce custom software to meet somebody’s specific requirements like I do.
    I (obviously!) don’t have any problem with photographers or programmers trying to make money out of what they do. Both take time, knowledge and skill. They are also both things that people do just for the love of it so you’ll get CC images from folk like me as well as open-source software.
    As an aside, photography is also interesting because good lenses are expensive so I know quite a few non-professional photographers who try and sell images just to cover the cost of their hobby. I think for some amateur photographers, it’s also a means of validation – somebody likes their shots enough to pay for them!

  7. Alan woodley says:

    Free bee image? Just smear a little jam on your scanner, then, after bee arrives, lower lid (gently).

  8. Tony Hirst says:

    “I was looking for an image of a bee a while ago for a school project for my daughter”
    Sigh… ain’t that the truth… You gonna do her examined coursework too when that starts to arrive too? 😉
    One of the educational products that’s missing out there is the family qualification… it’s often the case that outreach initiatives that appear to tackle one thing are often interventions relating to something else (Dads and lads reading schemes being about improving adult literacy, rather than kids’ literacy, for example), but I think we’re somehow missing a trick by not piggybacking adult learning on top of kids’ learning. One thing I’ve noticed is just how much effort some parents put into school projects, and how much learning they do 😉
    Similarly with revision books – I wonder how many of those are bought as crib sheets for parents, as much as their kids?

  9. “if I have to pay to access your article, I’ll find an alternative which says more or less the same thing, and which I can access freely.”
    Surely the point of referencing another’s work isn’t just to back up one’s own views but to demonstrate that this is a considered opinion. If you can’t access the full document you can not be sure that it says ‘more or less’ the same as anything else, because abstracts can not be trusted.
    I know that not everyone writing a paper is doing a systematic review, but if what you say reflects an attitudinal change to the review of literature then I am concerned.

  10. Were you referring obliquely to the New York Times decision that just came out or are you just that prescient?
    There’s an obvious limit to how far I would go to avoid paying for an academic article (which I’ve done) but starting to put gentle and then not-so-gentle pressure on the publishers to lower their barriers to entry is certainly a good thing. This is an important issue of academic equity because at £25 for a paper that sort of thing is simply not an option for anyone outside the north-western system of subscriptions. I’ve never taken a product back to TESCOs because I was dissatisfied (even when I was) but if publishers introduced that policy, I’d probably return the majority of the things they charge these exhorbitant fees for (although, I get them for free, now). If the repositories introduced an ‘all you can eat’ or even tiered subscription for a week, let’s say, a lot of my qualms about contributing to the system would go away.
    But it would be interesting to do a survey of academics and find out how they deal with papers from journals their institutions don’t subscribe to.

  11. Martin says:

    @Carl – yes I think music and films are a bit different at the moment, and certainly legality (and ease of use – iTunes is just simpler than Isohunt) is a factor. In the case of the musician you mention that is what I was getting at – if there is something very specific in the commodity and you _absolutely_ have to have that one, then people will pay. And yes, ‘free’ is a loose concept, but Spotify is a good example – although you kind of pay through adverts it is the beginning of the free alternative – if I want to listen to an album that I’m not sure about will I buy it, or listen for free?
    @Rebecca – I didn’t mean free as in free to me as an academic, I meant freely available. I do quite often find myself looking for free articles that say what I need. Now sometimes you do need a specific article, but often an alternative that the academic or journal has made freely available is out there, and I’m prepared to make a bit of a sacrifice over the exact one I need and the one that is freely available. This in turn creates pressure on the academic (and then the publisher) – if you want your article cited, make it available.
    @Juliette – agreed the shift is paying for expertise (as in a good photographer to shoot your wedding) not product. But for generic items eg bee images, the abundance model beats the bespoke one.
    @Tony – I should have said ‘I was doing it with my daughter’ since she was there choosing the image. Mind you, some of those school projects look like they have been completed by teams of consultants. I like to think ours have a certain ‘amateur’ feel.
    @AnneMarie – see my response to Rebecca. Sure, if you are doing the review article you’re going to need the references in the field and if that means paying for them so be it. But that isn’t always (indeed is rarely?) the case. For example if I’m writing a student activity I might need to point them at a pro and anti article. If the free version is 85% as good as the paid for one, I’d probably go free. Don’t play the game – soon enough academics will want their stuff to be cited and will make it free.
    @Domink – no I wasn’t referring to the NYT – I’d missed that! I must just be spookily prescient :) I’d like to see how long the paid-for option lasts, taking bets now….

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