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'Free' is here to stay on the Web

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Music publishers seem to have the upper hand for the moment in cracking down on free sharing of music files. But the future of commerce on the Web continues to look as though "free" will be a theme for a long time.

A Friday morning session at PopTech centered around "Digital Freedoms" and brought together three speakers who spend a lot of time thinking about the economy of the Web.

Online, attention (visitors) and reputation (links) have currency. This is the Google economy, says Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. You can think of Google's Larry Page as the Ben Bernanke, the central banker, of this Web economy, he says. Mr. Anderson, author of "The Long Tail," a seminal book on how the Web economy operates, wrote an article for Wired called "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business" and has a book by the same title on the way.

Free, of course, isn't always "free." There's money to be made around the core "free" offering. One example is the ABC NBC show "Heroes," which is "one of the most pirated TV shows on the web," says Matt Mason, a former pirate radio deejay in London and author of "The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism." While "Heroes" episodes can be found for free online, the show earned about $50 million from other sources last year, including comic books (using story lines that didn't make it on the air), webisodes, fan sites, and merchandise sales. The fans essentially took the core story and created a bigger universe for themselves.

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