Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /21 Mar-Cheshvan 5760
When it's free, what
will the real price be?
THE NEWS about
Encyclopaedia Britannica is both heartening and
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 www.britannica.com, 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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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