We've written many posts on business models that involve giving something away for free, and one of the points we've tried to hit home is that giving things away for free is not some utopian, un-capitalist notion. It's often an important component of a solid, profit-making business model. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today looking at how universities are increasingly embracing this concept, with many top schools offering things like class notes and lecture videos free to the public. Some schools, like MIT, have been doing this for awhile, but what's interesting is how many schools are now pushing more and more free material out to the public. Ostensibly, the reason for doing this is to "democratize education", but there's clearly self-interest as well. Schools compete with each other for students, professors and money, and they hope that by showing off their academics in this way, they can do better at acquiring these things. Individual professors also recognize the potential for increased prestige, which is evidenced by the number of professors that are now blogging. Of course, there remains a big gap between the value of free downloadable lectures and that of a paid university education, so there's little chance that doing this will eat into their core business. For other business -- and the music industry is a prime example -- the challenge should be expanding this gap, by offering something of real value above and beyond what's available for free.
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