Whether you are aware of it or not, there is a raging battle going on about the concept of free vs. paid content on the internet. Big names in media like Rupert Murdoch have drawn the line in the sand– they are going to make people pay for news content. Others have embraced the Google model of an advertising-based system of free content. Last week Seth Godin took the debate to a new level. He is firmly in the free camp while Malcolm is in the the paid camp. Of course, most of Seth’s income comes from consulting, speaking, and book proceeds– so Seth may be in the free camp for some things, but his paycheck comes from paid content too.
Inside the church the same debate has just begun. And all of these questions lead back to the same two central questions that newspapers are wrestling with, “Since creating content isn’t free, who is going to pay?” “In a world of free content, where is the ethical line?”
Two Sides to the Content Coin
1. Gospel-oriented content should be freely available. As someone who has successfully started an internet business in the last five years I know the power of free. Ask Tim Schmoyer. Ask Ryan Nielsen. Nothing draws traffic to a youth ministry website quite like free. In the youth ministry world there is an expectation of free content. There is a righteous indignation when you question the ethics of free, too. No one cares that it costs me thousands of dollars to create, host, and market “free” content. There is a general consensus that stuff about youth ministry should be free and you shouldn’t expect anything in return for free lessons, videos, music, etc. “Don’t ask me to click on an ad. Don’t ask me to sign up for a newsletter. I need something free because I don’t have budget to buy stuff.” I’ve gotten nasty emails from folks who insist that all content about ministry should be free. These same people often are in paid ministry. So they want to get paid for using someone’s free content. Talk about wanting your cake and eating it too! Sheesh.
2. Gospel-oriented content should cost something. Of course, the ironic thing about the free thing is that the people who think ministry content should be free want to get paid by their churches, ministries, or non-profits. If I told you that you shouldn’t get paid for being a youth pastor you’d get angry with me! There is a certain immaturity to the free thing. At the end of the day there is no such thing as free content on the internet. Someone sits down to write something, they save it as a PDF, they post it on a website, and they offer it for free to anyone who wants to download it. It seems free when it isn’t. That computer cost you something. The education that powered your thoughts cost you something. The time you spent creating it… was it for work you were being paid for at the church? If so, does that content even belong to you? If it was your free time, isn’t that time worth something? If you don’t think your time is worth something why should I use your stuff? When you posted it somewhere on the web, who paid for that server space? If it’s on a well-known site, who is paying for the building of that site/brand? Who is paying for maintaining it? If you added graphics to the content, who paid for that? If you had someone proofread it, who paid for that persons work? That doesn’t seem free to me.
There is no such thing as “free” content, even Gospel-oriented content, so people should expect to pay something for the works they use. The real question is, “Who should pay?” In the old media world the user was expected to pay for the content. You subscribed to a newspaper to get the content and the profit in the model came from advertising. You wanted a book so you went to a bookstore and bought it. In the 1980s and 1990s most of us in ministry would have thought it immoral to copy books and give them to friends, copy cassette tapes and give them to students, etc. But now there is an expectation that advertising will somehow pay for all the content I want/need. That’s the new media age. Free to me, let advertisers foot the bill. Wouldn’t it be funny to see a pastors salary supported by advertising? He’d preach in an outfit that resembled a Nascar driver’s suit! It’s always funny to think about real world applications of stuff we do on the internet everyday, isn’t it?
Digital media has created an ethics dilemna for people in ministry, hasn’t it? There seems to be a feeling that the parable of the talents can’t possibly relate to actual money. People who advocate for free content will concede… “It’s OK to break even, just don’t get rich!” So if content cost me $500 to produce a lesson… why is it wrong to want to return $1000? (Like the parable) Don’t you remember the parable… Jesus called the man who just broke even a wicked and lazy servant. What then would Jesus say to people who intend to invest $500 in content and give it away? Super wicked and super lazy?
We would never walk up to an auto mechanic and expect him to change our oil for free simply because we are in ministry. We would never go to the dentist and insist that he give us free dental. We would never go to the grocery store and expect the grocer to pay for the pastors food. And yet we have no problem with this when it comes to Gospel-oriented content. Something is out of whack, isn’t it?
As with all things that seem to leave us in a quandry– I am wondering if there is a 3rd way. Is there a way that is both ethically satisfying and free? Is there a way that is both affordable for ministry folks and pays for itself?
Chime in. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. If you’re in the paid camp– speak up! If you think everything should be free, give me a counter-punch.