Exercise: What do you sell when copies are free?

The nature of the Internet, and its impact on our products and workflows, means that we have to start thinking differently. This exercise will help get us talking and thinking in new ways.

Imagine that you run a business that makes and sells a manufactured, physical product, like hosepipes, spectacles, car tyres, roof tiles, toys, and so on. Pick one, and picture the business in your mind. It’s likely that your business sells a product. That product was once a prototype, and now you manufacture it. That is, you now sell copies of the prototype over and over again.

Now, imagine that one day you wake up and everyone has bought themselves a 3D printer that can instantly produce anything manufactured, anything at all, right in their home. These objects are now essentially free for anyone to make for themselves: TVs, cars, clothes, furniture, toys, building materials – anything manufactured. Millions of designs for these things are available online for people to download – some paid, some pirated. A user just has to download a design and print the item for themselves on a 3D printer. If they use a free design, their only cost is electricity and cheap, raw plasma.

If you think I’m fantasizing about a galaxy far away, check out Makerbot Industries, where you can buy yourself a 3D printer for $900. Or Shapeways, a company in the Netherlands that will 3D-print your product for you – they sell 3D-printed lampshades, jewellery, machine parts, crockery, and more – in plastic, sandstone or metal.

These 3D printers have been getting cheaper and more sophisticated for many years, so that world is coming. If it arrived tomorrow, how would your business make money? What would you sell?

Remember, your business can’t charge for printing or delivering physical objects, because anyone can ‘print’ their own in their home.

In groups of two or three, take five minutes to think of how your business is going to stay afloat. What are you going to sell? Think carefully: your business idea must not rely in any way on selling or controlling the act of making a copy of something. Copies are free.

Copying is at the heart of anything digital: when information moves from one place to another, it replicates. The Internet itself is made of copies and copies of copies, all of them essentially zero-cost, bar the raw materials of cables, terminals, bandwidth and power. As publishers look to adjust their business models to cater for a digital world, they have to find business models that don’t rely on controlling copies of their work.

And yet it’s still hard to think of business models, especially in manufacturing, that don’t control the distribution of copies, where each copy is sold for a unit price or a subscription.

In 2008 Kevin Kelly wrote an important piece on this. His insights and predictions are still remarkably accurate. He lists eight things you can charge money for in such a world:

He calls these ‘generatives’:

A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time. In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.

By now you’ve realised, of course, that book publishing has been up against cheap home and office printing and photocopying for years – 3D printing is really no revolution here. We’ve had a long, long time to figure out what to sell when selling printed copies of books is no longer a viable business model. It may be that publishers and retailers will keep selling copies of books one by one for many years. But it is going to get harder. Publishing companies that will thrive are building on their generatives now.