Last week I got back from a three week trip to South Africa, Mozambique and (briefly) Swaziland. I bought books (of course), and tried to get a sense for these countries and cultures. As you might expect, crossing the border from South Africa into Mozambique we saw quite a stark economic contrast. Where South Africa appears very western, despite its significant problems, Mozambique faces significant economic challenges and is sixth to last on the Human Development Index.
These economic issues are, of course, a major problem for the expansion of Mormon culture. Mormonism continues to expand quickly in less developed countries, but our culture isn’t keeping up with that expansion. LDS books, films, music and other cultural elements are largely not available outside the US and Canada, leading many to suggest a radical solution:
Just give these products away for free!
Unfortunately, I don’t think this will work in the long run. Its not sustainable, it doesn’t help local members grow, and it often cheats authors and producers of any way to make a living from their work.
I’m not against free. It is a great policy in many cases. You don’t seek compensation when someone is starving. Free is also generally good when you are teaching the gospel.
In the business world, free is also frequently part of a business model. Products are given away free to get consumers to purchase other items or to increase awareness of a business. But free can also be used competitively — to put a competitor out of business or to dissuade them from competing.
So, free can be both a postitive and a negative force. In fact, I believe that both positive and negative consequences follow whenever things are given away for free. Giving something away for free means not only that you aren’t selling it, but also that others aren’t likely to sell it, or may have some difficulty selling it.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have run into sites that try to solve the lack of distribution by taking books, movies, etc. (often regardless of copyright law) and posting them to websites where supposedly anyone can download and read them. Free certainly covers the economic difficulty that many local church members face.
The tactic of making ebooks and electronic versions of products and distributing them seems sound in other ways also. The use of the internet as a distribution mechanism is still in its infancy, and its use, even in the third world, is still growing. Many people also believe that ebooks will soon replace most printed books.
But, there are costs to this tactic. Free may be good for a single title, or a single business or distributor. But it isn’t necessarily good for all titles or for developing an infrastructure that helps new titles to exist in the future. Its similar to the proverb about teaching a man to fish instead of giving out fish. If you give away products, where will future products come from?
In thinking about this sistuation I do make some assumptions. I assume that at some point in the future LDS products will be distributed all over the world, at least in part by companies trying to make money, and that authors will somehow be compensated for their work. I don’t claim that this will happen in the same way that the book industry works now, nor am I assuming that everything will be produced in traditional formats. I assume that whatever system exists will differ somewhat by language and perhaps even by country.
I think that some kind of system like this is necessary, so that, in the future, local authors can write or produce their works and have those works find a Mormon audience — one that they can’t reach now because the LDS market is only in English and mostly inaccessible outside of the Intermountain West without an Internet connection.
So, ask yourself these questions:
* Does posting free ebooks to a website help or deter the development of some kind of system for distributing LDS products?
* Is it fair that the author may not be compensated fairly for works distributed for free – at least some minority of which could have been sold?
* If a local author writes or produces a work for the LDS audience, how will that work get distributed?
* Is it better for local members that some LDS cultural works be produced locally? Or should all of them be translated from English?
Perhaps my assumptions are wrong, and distributing works for free is the best way to go. But I’m not sure how that would work.
And given the questions above, I believe that free will actually cost quite a lot.