Louis C.K. turns a quick profit treating his customers well

Some years ago I attended a talk at “Ebertfest”, movie reviewer Roger Ebert’s annual movie festival held in Urbana, Illinois. The talk was held in the Illini Union’s Pine Lounge by the now late MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Valenti used a series of half-true emotional arguments to justify increased copyright power, maximal copyright length, and he also took some time to reject the notion of fair use.

After Valenti’s talk, I was first at the mic. I took my time to rebut as many of his distortions as I could recall. I ended on the point that the MPAA and its member companies didn’t have to treat people badly by suing copyright infringers. The Free Software Foundation has shown time and again that copyright infringers can be dealt with another way: seeking compliance not punishment.

Now comedian Louis C.K. seems to be doing well by dealing with infringers another way: ignoring the copyright infringers and treating his customers well.

Four days ago Louis C.K. released “Live at the Beacon Theater”, an hour-long standup comedy show he funded himself and sold online for $5.00 without digital restrictions management (DRM). It’s as simple as you pay $5.00 and you download (or stream) a copy of the video file. If you download the file you can play it anytime you like on any of your devices without subscription, registration, or notification.

Someone posted a copy of the concert recording to The Pirate Bay where apparently thousands of people have been seeding the file, sending copies of the file to others.

In a statement, Louis C.K. said he recouped the cost of production ($250,000) in the first 12 hours. Four days later he earned $200,000 profit.

There is no indication Louis C.K. is going after the copyright infringers. He acknowledges the infringers in interviews (misidentifying the infringement as “stealing”) but never castigates them. I suspect he knows that there’s no way to know how many people in the torrent are actually copyright infringers, how many purchased the recording, and how many never would have purchased the recording regardless of its price (thus no forgone money there). I think he also knows that he only stands to lose by treating the infringers with scorn.

Years ago, author Stephen King tried releasing a novel a chapter at a time where successive chapters would only be written and released if King reached a sales quota with the previous chapter.

Free software activist Richard Stallman gave a talk at MIT on April 19, 2001 where an audience question prompted a discussion what King had said and offered:

STALLMAN: Yes, it’s interesting to know what he [Stephen King] did and what happened. When I first heard about that, I was elated. I thought, maybe he was taking a step towards a world that is not based on trying to maintain an iron grip on the public. Then I saw that he had actually written to ask people to pay. To explain what he did, he was publishing a novel as a serial, by installments, and he said, “If I get enough money, I’ll release more.” But the request he wrote was hardly a request. It brow-beat the reader. It said, “If you don’t pay, then you’re evil. And if there are too many of you who are evil, then I’m just going to stop writing this.”

Well, clearly, that’s not the way to make the public feel like sending you money. You’ve got to make them love you, not fear you.

SPEAKER: The details were that he required a certain percentage — I don’t know the exact percentage, around 90% sounds correct — of people to send a certain amount of money, which, I believe, was a dollar or two dollars, or somewhere in that order of magnitude. You had to type in your name and your e-mail address and some other information to get to download it and if that percentage of people was not reached after the first chapter, he said that he would not release another chapter. It was very antagonistic to the public downloading it.

Louis C.K. and Stephen King are both famous artists. Both are willing to work to satisfy an audience hungry for new material. King’s approach didn’t go over well with his audience and that experiment quickly died. Louis C.K.’s approach was so successful he concluded, “I’m really glad I put this out here this way and I’ll certainly do it again.”.

Update 2011-12-28: On December 21, 2011 Louis C.K. wrote that he broke $1M 12 days after he released his show.
Louis C.K.'s PayPal account screenshot.