by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
competing, free, michael d. smith

Evidence Shows You Can, In Fact, 'Compete' With 'Free'

from the but-of-course dept

I've argued in the past that the claim you "can't compete with free," is entirely bogus, not just because people do it all the time, but because the very premise of the argument is wrong. Competition has always been about a lot more than price, and the "free" part is meaningless if a competitor can drive price to a lower cost then your marginal cost -- no matter what that price is. But, now there's actually some growing empirical evidence that the claim "you can't compete with free," is really, really untrue.

Modplan points us to a recent talk given by professor Michael D. Smith at Google. Smith is from Carnegie Mellon and is discussing some of his recent papers, such as one on whether or not "piracy" acts as promotion for movies and another one on how digital sales, when set up right, don't actually cannibalize other sales. That latter one debunks the silly claim from Jeff Zucker and many others that they're "trading analog dollars for digital pennies."
Some of the key points:
  • Contrary to the claim that free viewability of movies decreases demand, research shows that when a movie airs on TV for free, it increases demand for the movie both in DVD sales and via file sharing. And, on top of that, the greater demand for the content in file sharing does not appear to hurt the sales of DVDs.
  • One bit of research involved the natural experiment that happened when NBC Universal, due to a contract dispute with Apple, removed its TV shows from iTunes for almost a year before putting them back. So, what happened when the content got pulled? Well, first, piracy rates increased -- and not just in absolute numbers. The research compared piracy rates against the other major TV networks, and found that the rates tracked almost exactly prior to the content getting pulled from iTunes... but the second it got pulled, NBC piracy rates were noticeably higher than the other networks. In other words, not offering consumers a way to buy your content legitimately increase unauthorized access. No shock there, but nice to see the data to support that. Specifically, the data found that the "demand" for unauthorized versions increased by 11%.
  • Separately, the research showed a smaller, but still significant increase in demand for unauthorized content from those other networks. The theory here is that once NBC pulled its authorized content from iTunes, people who started getting it via BitTorrent suddenly realized they might as well do the same for non-NBC content. So, NBC's decision not to offer authorized content may have actually increased demand for file sharing on other networks as well
  • Here's where it gets interesting: what impact did this have on DVD sales on Amazon? Again comparing NBC data to other networks, there is no noticeable impact after the content is removed from iTunes as compared to other networks. In other words, while the action did increase "piracy," there's no indication that increased piracy decreased DVD demand.
  • Next experiment involved a move in the opposite direction. Looking at the "demand" for unauthorized BitTorrents of shows from ABC right before and after ABC added its shows to Hulu, again, as compared to the other networks. And here, there was a massive decrease in "demand" for the unauthorized works on BitTorrent.
  • Again, however, when the content went "free" on Hulu it did not harm DVD sales. Actually, DVD sales went slightly up (not enough to be statistically significant).
  • The final study looked at what happened to demand for movies that went on HBO, which created an interesting situation, because before HBO will air a movie, it requires the studios to remove that movie from video on demand or other digital distribution channels like iTunes. So, the content disappears from those other channels for a few weeks before it shows up on HBO. The research looked at where former iTunes and video on demand customers went for content in the window between the content being pulled from those channels and when it aired on HBO.
  • What the research showed was actually no statistically significant change in demand when the content got pulled from the digital distribution channels... but a big increase in demand after the movie aired on HBO.
It's an interesting talk with lots of great data. The key conclusions:
  • You absolutely can compete with free.
  • If you offer a convenient and reasonable offering, eve people who were getting content in an unauthorized manner, will often buy (i.e., it's possible to turn "pirates" into buyers). That is, it's not the "free" part that's the driving aspect of much of their behavior, but the convenience factor.
There's obviously a lot more that can be done here, and I do wonder if all of these findings hold up over time, but it's a nice look at some of the current research.

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  1. icon
    milesmaker (profile), 10 Sep 2010 @ 5:47pm

    Demand is perpetuated by supply

    I wish the numbers and sources were here to have a look at but I'll take your word for it.

    I've been waiting for a study like this to rear its beautiful head; to analyze and understand the inherent nature of content piracy and what its motivation stems from. After all, every pirate isn't prone to break the law at every turn. There's a compelling message being conveyed to the market saying, "Well, what did you expect me to do? You didn't offer me access to it, so..."

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