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Better Distribution by Giving It Away?

Piracy CrusadeA scholar on piracy gave his book away, and boosted his sales.

The great “intellectual piracy” debate is generally conducted without data, but a recent example provides an intriguing case study. Communication scholar Aram Sinnreich writes about piracy and copyright. His latest book, The Piracy Crusade, argues that the music business’ fight against downloaders has been bad for business and for creative expression.

And he practiced what he preached. He made chapters of the book available for comment as he was writing it, and got his publisher, University of Massachusetts Press, to make it available under a Creative Commons license.

Sales have been decent, but suddenly they jumped. He thinks he might know why:

On July 8th, file sharing software company Vuze released a free download bundle featuring a full PDF copy of my book and several videos of my public appearances. Since then, I've happily tracked the bundle's progress on BitTorrent, as the number of peers sharing it at any given point in time has escalated from about 100 to nearly 400 today. Both the Vuze bundle download page and the free PDF of the book include links to buy it on Amazon, so it seems clear that, though the majority of readers probably aren't buying the book, the free giveaway has boosted sales more than enough to offset any sales I may have lost to "piracy." 

Sinnreich is a social-science scholar, so he knows this evidence isn’t proof. But it sure is interesting. He says,

As I warn in The Piracy Crusade, correlation doesn't always imply causation -- so it's possible that other factors are at work here. But I can't really think of anything else that would cause my Amazon sales rank to climb so steeply in the middle of the summer. Can you?

And if it turns out to be better business practice for a scholarly author to give your stuff away, would it also be true for filmmakers?