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October 16, 2006

To Buy or Download Free: That Is the Question

Download this book! An author invites you to read his book online.

My latest book, Capitalism 3.0, is out this week. It’s about how to upgrade our economic operating system so that it protects the planet, shares income more equitably, and makes us happier, while preserving the strengths of capitalism as we know it. The key to my proposed upgrade is to rebuild the commons, that dwindling set of natural and social assets that benefit everyone.

In the spirit of enlivening the cultural commons, the book’s publisher, Berrett-Koehler, has agreed to an experiment. They are selling the book in the usual places – in bookstores and online – but they’re also allowing readers to download the book from this web site for free. Just click on the link to the right.

BK is publishing the book under normal copyright with a Creative Commons license. That license allows reproduction for non-commercial purposes without permission. So if you download the book, you can read it, share it with friends, even print it and hand it out on street corners if you want. What you can’t do is sell it, or create a derivative work from it. (Sorry, Hollywood!)

The free availability of the book – or at least of the words and ideas in it – raises an obvious question. The printed book costs $22.95 at most bookstores, and $15.61 at Amazon.com, plus sales tax and maybe shipping. Those prices aren’t prohibitive, but they’re a notch or two greater than zero. So should you buy the book in the usual way, or download it for free with a mouse click?

There are several factors to consider here. The liberation of words from paper, like the liberation of music from vinyl, allows for easy dissemination of creative works. This is a potential boon for readers, but a potential problem for publishers and creators. If all books were downloaded without payment, publishers would go out of business, and authors would have a hard time eating. On the other hand, ideas would circulate a bit more freely. And it’s conceivable that free downloads could increase sales of printed books if downloaders like what they see and opt for a product they can read on the subway, at the beach, or in bed.

As the author, here’s what I hope will happen. I hope many of you will download and skim the book. If you’re intrigued, you’ll read the preface and first chapter either on the screen, or by printing just those pages. You’ll then decide you want to read the whole book, give a copy to a friend, or keep it on your bookshelf or coffee table. So you’ll go to your local bookstore or to an online vendor and buy the handy, long-lasting version, printed on acid-free paper.

If you’re a teacher, you might buy the book yourself and assign a chapter or two to your students. Your students could then download and print the assigned chapters without violating the author’s copyright.

In any case, I invite you to peruse the downloadable version, post comments here, and if you’re so moved, engage in a commercial transaction that microscopically boosts GDP.

Here, then, is to happy reading – on screen, or paper, or both!

Peter Barnes is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute. His latest book, Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, is now available on this site, in bookstores, and from online vendors.