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An Ethical Dilemma? Selling Something That You Can Get For Free

At least once a week, I have someone point out to me that a big-name information marketer, software "developer," or company, is selling something that is very similar to a product that you can get for free. They see something fundamentally "wrong" with SELLING a product or information that can be obtained for nothing... if you search in the right place. Often, they point this out to me because they just feel the need to protest something they view as somehow "wrong."

First of all, if you search long enough and hard enough, you CAN find free software that will do just about anything. Some very intelligent programmers create lots of software, which they happily make open-source, shareware, or freeware. These programmers do this for various reasons that we won't get into. These programmers will also give or sell you permission to modify their software slightly and put your own label on it. Is that "wrong?"

There are thousands of documents explaining practically any topic imaginable. The Internet makes it easier to tap into databases and find this information. Some people compile this free information that they find into reports or ebooks and sell it. Is that "wrong?"

After certain intellectual property has been around long enough, if the copyrights aren't renewed through various means, it may become "public domain." That means anyone may then have the right to publish or distribute this material without violating copyrights or intellectual property rights. Is taking an old book that belongs to the public and selling it as your own "wrong?"

Having been trained as an economist, I try to see things as they are rather than as they should be. In economic terms this is looking at things in a "positive" rather than a "normative" fashion. It just means looking at things with a scientific rather than a moral or ethical eye. I don't avoid the moral or ethical issues, but try not to judge others based upon my opinion.

So back to the question... is selling something that you can get for free "wrong?" Since we've already said that you can find practically any software or information for free if you search long enough and hard enough, the answer actually lies in why people will pay for the same "stuff" anyway.

Free does NOT mean without cost. When you buy branded software or repackaged information, the marketer is theoretically reducing your risk. The marketer conducted the research, and located a product that met a specific need, and then made the public aware of it. The marketer investigated dozens of pieces of readily-available software, perhaps modified it, and then "certified" it as capable of meeting your needs.

Another very big reason that the market is willing to pay for something that can conceivable be obtained for free, is because of the search cost. There is a cost of time, energy, and other resources, in investigating options. The marketer has invested that search cost and charges you for that service. Depending upon how you value your time, you may gladly be willing to pay for something that you could have eventually located for free... and then tested to verify that it was exactly what you needed.

Very often, a creator of intellectual property is not a marketer... and doesn't understand the finer points of marketing. So a terrific piece of software, a book, or an idea, just.... sits. A marketer with an above-average grasp of human behavior and psychology can step in, "repackage" that product, and the market will devour it. Should that product have been allowed to languish rather than some marketer stepping in, fixing the bad marketing, and profiting from it. If the product improved the lives of end users, who would have otherwise never noticed the product, then clearly the marketer is providing real value.

So, where is the dilemma? The dilemma is in the perception that the marketer selling a product that didn't cost him anything... or very little, is doing something wrong. It is purely a perception. However, whether on-line or off-line, people who locate "stuff" that the market wants, and charge for that "service" are clearly serving a need. If they weren't serving a need, then the market wouldn't pay for it.

The reality is that people have marketed information since the beginning of commerce. Both on-line and off-line, there are fortunes being made ferreting out information that the market wants, and then providing it. It's the PERFECT way to make your online fortune. Provided that the product is of the right quality, it should certainly not be considered a question of ethics. Doctors, lawyers, realtors, teachers, religious leaders... they all charge you for readily available information that they have "repackaged" and put their brand, or seal-of-approval, on.

When you're doing research, and you discover a product very similar to one being marketed under a different label, it IS very eye opening. However, it is not generally a matter of ethics (in my opinion). It's no different than an off-line supermarket selling the identical product side-by-side for two different prices. Often the store brand is made at the same factory, with the same formula, as the name brand product. They are sold side-by-side for different prices. The higher price is justified by the brand identity and "certification" that goes along with that.

As an Internet marketer it is important that issues such as this be studied. Many people who start businesses on the Internet have never run or studied how brick and mortar businesses operate. This article is an attempt to fill in a bit of that missing training... or at a minimum - create discussion :-)

Copyright 2004 Willie Crawford

Submitted by:

Willie Crawford

Willie Crawford is a corporate president, published author, seminar speaker and host, tele-seminar speaker and host, retired military officer, karate black belt, master network marketing trainer, and lifetime student of marketing. He shows people how to actually generate substantial income on-line using very simple, easily modeled systems. An example of such a system that you can study and duplicate is at: http://ProfitMagician.com.


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