Do I own these words? What are they worth?

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When I started writing this column, I have to admit that the notion of “owning my content and selling the content as a product” was as ludicrous to my Generation X brain as the idea of Land Ownership was to Native Americans when the settlers started buying it from them. I mean, seriously, who can own content?

And I say that not because I think content piracy is a good idea — I say it because in my mind ‘content’ isn’t a fixed entity; it’s like air — it moves and shifts constantly. Trying to own content is like trying to hold water in your hands. For me, the value creating content is in the ability to continually generate more, not in the protection of what you wrote in the past.

I got paid and everything changed

Once I received my first paycheck for writing, I got greedy. Real greedy. I started planning an empire of writing and distributing my proprietary content, and a business model formed. The model was based on simply writing my thoughts each week, and then raking in some serious cash. My first profits went toward buying a bigger mailbox to hold all the checks that were sure to pour in.

But I’m not really a writer for a living; I’m a Web developer. And it turned out that it was a better business objective to use my content as a way to generate more Web development customers than to try to convince hundreds of newspapers to run my column. I’m parlaying the attention generated by writing (not my core business) into core business revenue.

The fame effect

It has been proven by the music, film and newspaper industries that any content that is embraced by the masses and takes on a life of its own on the Internet actually generates more revenue for the content producer than items that are only viewed legally. It has been part of the magical ether of the Web since the very beginning.

It’s the ‘fame’ effect, where the copyrighted material is used to generate awareness of the artist, actor, or journalist. Once that entity gets ‘famous’ the attention is something they can monetize. It cuts in half (or maybe tenths) the time it used to take for people to get famous. The Internet brings more average people into the national spotlight faster than any talent agent ever did. (In your face, Simon Cowell)

The recommendation effect

I can promise you that there are millions of people who will not actually pay for content of any kind without a fight. I am frequently one of these content curmudgeons. I spent many years receiving many newspapers for free through their RSS feeds, and I listened to Pandora’s free version for as long as I could possibly stand it. But here’s what I did in exchange for this free access to content: I promoted the content to my friends who do pay for content. And I did it without even realizing it. I just told them how much I enjoyed the free service.

Based on the Recommendation Effect, Pandora gained ten customers versus simply me as one customer. I’m sure they were pleased when I did eventually start paying for their service in order to get rid of the commercials, but earning my measly $35/year in revenue was hardly the point.

So the big question for content providers is this: will you ultimately make more money by offering a pretty good chunk of what you do for free, or is the incremental revenue of every single person you encounter more important? It’s something to think about.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.