How do you value things that are freely obtained?

Amanda Palmer talks about how she’s monetized her art in a non-traditional manner, and how much success she has had and how much money she has made despite giving her music away for free.

Her husband had some words about piracy that dovetail beautifully with Amanda’s philosophy. They got me to thinking — how much do we really value the things that we get without paying for them?

I’ve got some thoughts floating around in my head about this, as it relates to blogging on the internet and about the inevitable fund-raisers we end up doing for one thing or another, and how generous the readers of this free content are even in the face of frivolous fundraisers like my drive for funds to go to Women In Secularism. They may coalesce into a post of their own, but for now, all I can say is this: It’s more than reasonable to give content away for free and ask for money in return based on people’s abilities to donate. It still eats at me when I do it, but I’m always surprised at how big-hearted people are — especially the people who probably couldn’t really afford that $2 donation they just gave you. (And really, those make my heart sing the most.)

How do you value things that are freely obtained?

19 thoughts on “How do you value things that are freely obtained?

  1. 1

    And as was mentioned in the previous post about this, you have the Baen Free Library that has been around for years.

    Read Eric Flint’s description of the timeline and reasons at his introduction to the Baen Free Library. Posted in October 2000, and the Library is still there. He points out two things: first, most people prefer to be honest than dishonest, so long as the price still seems to be reasonable; and that there’s certainly still a demand for new fiction, which requires new writers.

    Baen has got enough publicity and word of mouth from this (and from the e-books on CDs they put in hardcovers) that it has far more than paid for itself.

  2. 2

    She’s made a fairly black eye for herself, though, after the bit about using volunteer musicians. She has a valid point that it was only made an issue after her Kickstarter campaign because people didn’t realize that the money was already all spoken for and that she’d been using volunteer musicians for a long time. However, she phrased (and phrases) the request as “we can’t afford to hire a band, so people come and play with us for free!” That doesn’t go over well with professional musicians, and rightly so. It’s the same thing as “design our logo” contests because businesses don’t want to pay graphic designers, and “give us lots of free pictures because it will be good exposure for you” for artists.

  3. 3

    carlie: I wonder how much of that black eye was identical to Anita Sarkeesian’s experience after funding her Kickstarter. e.g., hatred that someone would dare ask for money and actually receive it.

  4. 4

    So… I am oddly intrigued by Amanda Palmer and have been for quite some time. I like her music a bit, but I’m not a huge fan. She’s done some stuff that has been considered somewhat rude towards folks with disabilities. (Her bit where she is a conjoined twin.) But she has gotten people to WORSHIP her. That is how she obtains these items and money from people. I don’t know that she is the right person to look to for this topic.

    I’m more apt to give to someone more humble and not as free to actually ask for things. I think you can cross a line when you seem to have people at your beck and call.

    I do agree that it is interesting how we value things which are free. The “donation only” Panera Bread locations seem to do very well. They’ve opened another location this year.

  5. 7

    “in the face of frivolous fundraisers like my drive for funds to go to Women In Secularism. ”


    I’m going solely because I was generously given a grant to go. I don’t consider that frivolous.


  6. 10

    Side note: I think that “frivolous” things get a bad rap. Some of our most wonderful memories and experiences come from frivolous activities. Things don’t need to be serious, important, sensible, and weighty to be glorious beyond all measure. Going on a picnic, for example, is not serious, serves no practical purpose, and is in general aimed at relaxation and levity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on picnics.

    I also think that activities that are associated with women tend to be more likely to be named as “frivolous” than things that are associated with men, and that makes me sad. Women wearing makeup and going window shopping? Frivolous. Men painting themselves a rainbow of colors and going to a sports game? Well, I’ve heard it described as many things (stupid, immature, etc), but never “frivolous.”

    Ah well. /tangent?

  7. 11

    Perhaps that should indicate to you that -other- people don’t consider it frivolous.

    That fact has definitely not escaped me.

    Hope to see you there too!

    I also think that activities that are associated with women tend to be more likely to be named as “frivolous” than things that are associated with men, and that makes me sad.

    Hmm. Is this perhaps where Janice’s annoyance at the phrasing comes into play? Didn’t intend that dog-whistle meaning, but some words are indeed tainted that way now. Hmm.

    And yeah, I’d call sports in general frivolous. Spectacles. Bread and circuses.

  8. 12

    carlie: She also modified her position in the face of argument. People explained to her how, given her massively successful and public Kickstarter campaign, continuing to operate on the same principles, while the principles remained good ones, had the unintended effect of contributing to the problem of devaluing the work of musicians and she modified her tour budget to accommodate paying the musicians who joined her at each show. While some people might consider the incident a “black eye” I would suggest that it is anything but. A willingness to modify your position takes a lot of strength.

  9. 13

    When asked to set a price for activities I find intrinsically rewarding, it sometimes feels like I’m being asked to gauge my willingness to deny that person, instead of assign value. And the more beneficial it would be for someone, the more it feels like threatening to withold it with a high price.
    Granted material costs, if they exist, set a minimum, but still…
    I guess the things I routinely do for myself are free, so I don’t see them as valuable. Or that things that need to be done, ought to be done by whomever can. And customers should be making offers/rewards instead. : /

  10. 14

    My friend Bob Blakely has a similar take on his blog ( ) regarding intellectual property protection for media giants – SOPA and PIPA. His point is that the media giants are producing a gigantic running sewer of shit, anyway, and if the copyright wars really bother us, we can shut the whole thing down by supporting artists who do what they do for free.

    I’ve been providing high quality stock photography for free for the last umpty years, because it’s fun, and there are some parts of the world where artists can’t find models who’ll pose nude or seminude, and it gives me an avenue to play with surrealism. It’s not even a self-sustaining hobby but it’s gotten me lots of artworks to hang on the wall of my studio, along with a few artworks featuring Benjamin Franklin in green ink.That doesn’t matter but it’s a great “thank you!”

    The main thing we have to remember is that if we do value the things people give us, to give back. And one of the other things I learned is that money is a convenient and portable way of saying “thank you” to those artists and creative people. I’ve stopped buying CDs from big media but I’ll go to a small show and buy a copy of every CD the artist has for sale (and usually give them to my date because I already have them from the last show I went to…) it’s part of a beautiful underground economy that leaves the forces of capitalist greed completely out of the picture.

    Some of the artists I enjoy or support, I ask them, “is there something you need that would help you do more of this?” That’s why I sent my old DSLR to a budding photographer in Lithuania – who shot a portfolio with it that got her into a scholarship at a high end school in London, where she is now shooting kick-ass fashion stuff. That’s why I keep buying older model Wacom art tablets on Ebay and mailing them around the planet. Etc. Sending creative people the gear they need to do more or be more creative enriches us all!

    What kind of crystallized this stuff in my head was my buddy Gary McGraw (who has a high-paying IT job but plays violin for his own group and has concerts and donates all the money they make to various causes*) who pointed out that if you pay $20 to see one of his shows, that’s $20 you’re not going to pay to Justin Beiber’s media backers. Which means more good music and less bad music**

    (* all my opinion)
    (** the bitter liberals: )

  11. 15

    The best things in life really are free. This is especially true if you are poor.
    Libraries and sex come to mind as things I appreciate very much.

  12. 17

    Heh, those fundraisers operate on the Marxist principle (edited for gender neutrality), “From each according to hir ability, to each according to hir need.” Capitalism continues to be a shitty system for mediating human activities and the distribution of resources; also, water continues to be wet. Various forms of socialism work really well, but sadly the most famous historical examples of movements or states that have claimed the labeling have categorically been lying – “Communism” has been entirely planned-economy state capitalism in a single-party authoritarian state (pretty much the same thing as serfdom, except a party leadership instead of royalty and aristocracy), which in no way looks like workers owning the means of production (for example, quotas cannot exist in actual communism, since the people actually making product X are the ones determining how much of product X they’re supposed to make, as they – the workers – control the means of production). We lack a vocabulary to discuss alternatives to our current system, because every time we come up with new ideas and new terms to describe them, the terms get hijacked and coded to mean something radically different (and sometimes the opposite, in downright Orwellian fashion). The truly shocking thing is that our present form of global corporate capitalism is mere decades old and capitalism itself only a few hundred years – the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever existed have lived under alternate economic structures, many of which we (some of us at any rate) know about, yet one is routinely and roundly derided for suggesting anything other than a further concentration of wealth and power (just look at the sneering discourse from most people who aren’t destitute around #Occupy).

    I’ve run a bit off-topic, so let me reel this line back in: the idea of intellectual property – much like that of corporate personhood – is an absurd construct that is only intelligible – let alone remotely reasonable – in this specific cultural-historical context. However, technologies (I use the term in its most broad sense, such that a story or a particular arrangement of pigments on a canvass count) – those things considered intellectual property within our system – are the most valuable things we make. We quite literally could not survive without them (language, for example, is really important to human survival). In fact, they’re so necessary that they defy attempts to monetize them in market terms entirely (part of this is also a function of the fact that ideas tend to derive value from their spread – an encryption cypher only works if someone can decode the message; the value of a water filtration method is a function of the use to which it can be put; the value of a work of art is a function of how many people it can impact; etc.), which is why we will ALWAYS have ‘piracy’ of our cultural products. With respect to Jason’s questions: if we’re talking about “value” in terms of money, I look to the Marxist principle outlined about – these things are so valuable they should be freely available, and I want to make sure they keep getting made, so I direct what money I can toward them such that everyone can enjoy the benefits to the extent of hir own need (and take what I myself need of the products). If we talking about value in terms of human utility, it’s either highly subjective or a function of the sum total, as I asserted above.

  13. 18

    Sky Captain @ 13:

    When asked to set a price for activities I find intrinsically rewarding, it sometimes feels like I’m being asked to gauge my willingness to deny that person, instead of assign value. And the more beneficial it would be for someone, the more it feels like threatening to withold it with a high price

    Yes. I am am independent publicist in the music industry and you described what I feel but have never been able to articulate. Thanks!

    With regard to Palmer, it’s great that she’s made this model work for her, but it won’t work for everyone. Some people do need the major label deal to achieve their goals, and not everyone has the personality that allows them to go couchsurfing everywhere. Working with independent musicians, I look for whatever works for each act. I like what Palmer has done, but she shouldn’t hold this up as what it should be like for everyone.

  14. 19


    The government isn’t taxing language (yet) is because they haven’t found a way to do it. As soon as some bright young bureaucrat figures it out there will be a compelling ‘reason’ to tax it.

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