Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

What We Can Learn From Louis CK

by Bill Fitzgerald, FunnyMonkey

In December of 2011, Louis CK began selling videos of his most recent standup show – Live at the Beacon Theater – on his web site. For $5, the purchaser could:

  • Stream the video up to 4 times; and
  • Download a copy of the video up to 4 times.
  • Later, he added an audio-only version of the show; people who had already bought the video had the audio added to their list of purchased items.

Both versions are DRM free; so, you can actually play this video anywhere you want, on any device, without dealing with arbitrary regional restrictions, or other studio-induced hassles getting in the way.

Louis CK

On the page where you can buy the show, he addresses how the lack of DRM could enable people who wanted to torrent the show:

Look, I don’t really get the whole “torrent” thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way. But I’d just like you to consider this: I made these files extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without “corporate” restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can’t stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the show, and let other people find it in the same way.

I had heard about this in passing back when it launched, but hadn’t made time to check it out. But last week, we were talking about this at FunnyMonkey World Headquarters, and Candice said something that made it click:

I was able to buy it, stream it using my phone, and play that stream on my television, right then.

This is the way things should be. The technology required to make this simple exists. The things that get in the way are the result of distributors not being able to figure out their business strategy. The rhetoric of studios (and really, of most media organizations, including the press) is that they are looking out for “the artists” but the reality is that they are still struggling to figure out how to adapt to a world where distribution, marketing, creation, and curation are a whole lot easier due to the internet.

(It’s also worth noting that individual recording artists have been slowly moving away from traditional labels. Radiohead is probably one of the more visible/more recent to play with different types of releases outside a major label, and Nine Inch Nails have also released albums online for much less than the cost of storebought, label-distributed CDs. Damian Kulash, Jr, also described the failure of traditional labels in the current space. There is a lot of prior art here before Louis CK.)

In reading through Louis CK’s original announcement, he defines one of the key differences between what he did with the release of Live at the Beacon Theater versus doing comparable work for an entertainment company:

The material in the video was developed over months on the road and has never been seen on my show (LOUIE) or on any other special. The risks were thus: every new generation of material I create is my income, it’s like a farmer’s annual crop. The time and effort on my part was far more than if I’d done it with a big company. If I’d done it with a big company, I would have a guarantee of a sizable fee, as opposed to this way, where I’m actually investing my own money.

He also lays out some of the ways that a standard video distribution would differ from his web-based sale:

(T)hey would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely.

He also has some interesting things to say about the relative value of money:

I learned that money can be a lot of things. It can be something that is hoarded, fought over, protected, stolen and withheld. Or it can be like an energy, fueled by the desire, will, creative interest, need to laugh, of large groups of people. And it can be shuffled and pushed around and pooled together to fuel a common interest, jokes about garbage, penises and parenthood.

And, from his follow up post, when he describes how they hit one million in sales over the first 12 days:

I never viewed money as being “my money” I always saw it as “The money” It’s a resource. if it pools up around me then it needs to be flushed back out into the system.

In 12 days, in 5 dollar increments, 200,000 sales combined to create one million dollars. And that’s a nice piece of change; admittedly small by entertainment industry standards, but a good payday for a reasonably sized, talented team. And, in this case, the money was split 4 ways: a quarter to recoup expenses, a quarter as a bonus to his staff, a quarter given to five charities, and a quarter for Louis himself.

The example that Louis CK provide here is one that we can all learn from – and when I say “we” I mean people working in education and educational content distribution.

  • You can make money selling content without DRM;
  • When you treat people like rational actors, most will respond like rational actors. There will always be people who make bad choices, but if the expectations are rational, the behavior relative to those expectations will also be rational;
  • When your business model gets between what you produce and the people who want to use it, you need to examine your business model. DRM and restrictive licensing impairs the ability of people to use and interact with information. Information doesn’t need to be free, but the exchange of ideas needs to be free, and the underlying information needs to be accessible;
  • In 2012, ease of use is held hostage by business models. With venture-funded education startups on the rise (aka, more private companies looking to feed on money set aside for public education), people are looking at education as a niche to exploit, rather than a means to empower individuals and improve our society;
  • Greed gets in the way. As Louis says, “money can be a lot of things.” In our search for the big ideas that will scale almost infinitely, we overlook smaller scale examples that are excellent. We need to find the things that are “like an energy, fueled by the desire, will, creative interest, need to laugh, of large groups of people.” If we prioritize excellence and access – rather than scalability – we have the potential to help more people, more quickly. Premature scaling can be fatal;
  • Never back away from an experiment. It’s how we learn.

Technology is work, education is work, business is work; all areas are filled with smart, creative, people doing innovative things. Our desire to fetishize “the best” or “the first” or “the thought leaders” (cult of TED, anyone?) blinds us to the excellence we have around us. We can be comfortable without being rich, be successful without disrupting the existing paradigm, and enact meaningful change without ignoring the historical achievements of those who have come before us. Louis CK’s successful – and ongoing – experiment gives us another example of sharing information in a way that empowers the creator, empowers the consumer, and uses technology effectively. He allows things to stay simple.

Image Credit: “Louis CK” found on Comedians Looking Awesome.

This article is licensed under  CC NC-A-SA.

Author Bio: Bill has worked in education as an English and history teacher, an administrator, and a technology director. Bill initially discovered the Internet in the mid-1990’s at the insistence of a student who wouldn’t stop talking about it.


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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