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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /21 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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When it's free, what
will the real price be? -- THE NEWS about Encyclopaedia Britannica is both heartening and troubling.

The news is that as of last week, the entire contents of Encyclopaedia Britannica -- widely considered to be the most distinguished and trustworthy general work of reference in the world -- is available for free on the worldwide computer network. Anyone who wants to take a look need only tap in, and there it is: the knowledge of the ages.

At least that is the way it is supposed to work. Demand was so great last week that it became all but impossible to gain access to the site; I tried off and on for three days, and never got a look -- the closest I came was getting an on-screen apology from Encyclopaedia Britannica, saying that the company was overwhelmed by the massive response, and promising that the site will be working smoothly soon.

That's the good news: In an era of confusing, cacophonous and often unreliable information ("data smog," in the memorable phrase of author David Shenk), people seem instinctively to want a source they can rely on. Computer users are figuratively knocking down the doors to Encyclopaedia Britannica -- hungry, in an on-line world of junk food, for a nourishing meal.

The troubling news?

It's that Britannica is giving the nourishing meal away for free. Not because the company wants to -- but because it has to.

It has to because the market for multi-volume hardbound encyclopedias, sold door-to-door, was dying. Families were no longer interested in paying up to $1,500 for a set of impeccably researched reference books. It didn't matter that Encyclopaedia Britannica was a work of quality and scholarship -- if a family had an extra $1,500 on hand, and wanted to do something for the children in the house, you know where that $1,500 was going to be spent:

Not on an encyclopedia. On a computer.

So Britannica is betting the business on the prospect that it will be able to sell enough advertising on its Web site to thrive in the new marketplace. If it can show that sufficient numbers of people will come to the Web site for knowledge, and persuade advertisers to spend money to reach those people, then it will prosper.

Which is where this gets confusing. Is it good for consumers to have free access to this exemplary body of work? Yes -- it's a great thing, and deeply egalitarian: the world's most authoritative scholarship, there for the taking.

But -- like the proliferation of newspapers whose content is available for free on the Internet (which was the subject of Monday's column) -- something feels vaguely off.

You're not supposed to get things of great value for free -- that's one of the definitions of value.

Valuable properties are supposed to cost something. All of this feels unsettlingly like some giant pyramid scheme -- newspapers large and small give away their product on-line for free because their competitors are doing it, Britannica takes a deep breath and posts its entire content for free because it feels it will expire if it doesn't -- logic would seem to tell you that this can't last forever. Advertising support notwithstanding, the world of business was not built on giving the product away.

I hope I'm wrong here -- I hope that more and more top-quality information is made available at the tap of a key. But it doesn't make sense. I was checking out of a hotel last week, and being given away at the front desk -- piled up like brochures -- was the current Newsweek. Free for the taking.

I have subscribed to Newsweek for years. It's an excellent magazine, and I choose to pay money for it. Now, though, I can also read it on my computer for free, and at this hotel anyone who wanted a copy could just grab one. It was a giveaway -- much like the newspaper USA Today is a giveaway at many hotels. You never complain when confronted by an offer like that -- something good, for free, you happily accept -- but it's difficult to understand the economics of it. Will it not all come tumbling down?

Oh, well. I'll continue to try to get onto the Encyclopaedia Britannica site to see what it's like.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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