Monday, November 30, 2009

The original Free

Chris Anderson's book Free: the Future of a Radical Price is getting a lot of buzz for its thesis that companies can make a lot of money by offering free digital products. As soon as I started hearing about this stuff I thought, "Someone has been reading Abbie Hoffman."

Hoffman was the original free-ster. He published under the name Free, and took "Barry Freed" as an alias when he was on the run from the law. His book Steal this Book was an underground classic. He was more than talk, though. He helped organize free stores in inner city neighborhoods that gathered cast off goods and gave them away to people in need.

He also was responsible for some of the greatest marketing gimmicks ever invented, not for the purpose of making some company a lot of money, but to bring attention to causes. During the Vietnam war he and his little tribe announced that they were gathering at the Pentagon and would levitate the entire building using witchcraft. The gathering there to participate in the ceremony was probably the first flash mob. He closed down the NYSE one day by throwing dollar bills into the pit from the balcony, causing traders to stop trading and start chasing the bills. During his trial for conspiracy to riot in Chicago he regularly lectured the judge in his Groucho Marxist voice: "In all my years as a defendant that's the most ridiculous ruling I ever heard."

In a sort of sad application of Free, Anderson and others have ripped off Hoffman's riffs and used them to market consumer products. His famous epigram, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," from his 1968 book Revolution for the Hell of It, adorns countless greeting cards. As Stephen Colbert noted in his interview with Anderson, "So your book Free costs 26 dollars. Well done, my man." Colbert was being more than just a little ironic.

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