Reading about (and recommending again) Seth Godin’s Free Book and the Future of Intellectual Property

Seth Godin
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3:31 PM Tuesday December 15, 2009
by Chris Meyer & Julia Kirby

Nonfinancial rewards. That’s not one of the big terms explored in a new publication called What Matters Now — and that’s odd, because everyone contributing to it clearly believes in them.

When Seth Godin invited us to participate in his latest publishing project, a cobbling together of passionate missives into a single .pdf file, we took interest on two levels. First, of course, we were happy to contribute. The assignment, as given to 70 different business thinkers (including our fellow HBR bloggers Michael Schrage and Bill Taylor), was to write a short essay reflecting a strongly-held belief, and title it with the one word that summed it up. For us that word came easily: it’s re-capitalism. We argue on our page of the collection, as we will in our forthcoming book, that capitalism can and will change fundamentally as the emerging economies increasingly become the engines of wealth creation.

Second, we were struck by the project itself, and how consistent it is with one of our beliefs about how capitalism will change. Seth has done something interesting here: he’s essentially created an open-source book, pulling insights out of a busy group of people accustomed to being paid for their intellectual capital, and not paying any of them financially. Yet none of them, we are willing to bet, feels undercompensated. Their returns come in other forms: the attention and credibility that comes with inclusion in such a collection; the gratification of supporting a worthy cause (the file contains ads and links to drive potential donors toward one of Godin’s favorite charities, Room to Read); and the pleasure of reading 70 other takes on the same assignment. Rewards like these can be more than sufficient — when it’s also true that the impresario behind the project is not himself making money in the deal.

Call it a barn-raising model applied to book publishing. And don’t mistake it for a one-off. Seth did this before, five years ago, in a book called The Big Moo. That, too, featured contributions by key members of his network (would the term for them be Godin nodes?) and no single theme. The economics were a little trickier then, though. Thanks to writers’ exclusive arrangements with publishers, the items went individually unsigned and royalties had to be paid, only to then be donated to charities. Most important, the 2005 book had a price tag on it — $21.95 — and the new one is free for the taking. This time, in other words, the route from value input to value output is more efficient. It bypasses all the publishing bottlenecks where cash used to change hands. It combines the free availability of a blog with the editorial imprimatur of a prestigious magazine like, you know, HBR.

There are plenty of other examples of goods being produced in open source fashion, and made available without fee. But this one, next to its earlier incarnation, is a terrific object lesson. In recent years, the conventional wisdom has been that when China (or an independent rock band) starts creating intellectual property, they will stop ripping off music, software, and DVDs because the enforcement of copyright will benefit them. We don’t believe it. The central economic fact of the information era is that a valuable form of capital — knowledge — can be reproduced essentially infinitely and instantly for free. We cannot believe that as India, Brazil, China, etc. build “digital native” economies they will construct systems that artificially restrict this. More likely, they’ll find ways for everyone to share in the benefits, cash and non-cash. “What Matters Now” is pointing the way.


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