Will fans bite? Can they be trusted?
Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater is available now for $5 on the web. It's a one-hour standup routine that is predictably excellent. (And if you're not watching C.K.'s TV series Louie on FX, you're missing out, though I get that his brand of humor is a bit too honest and uncomfortable for some.)
"I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice," Louie C.K. writes in a note on the site. "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."
C.K. says he paid for the production and posting of this video with his own money, and that if this video is successful he'll do so again.
But again, I must come back to the same questions. Can fans be trusted to do the right thing?
I doubt it.
This isn't the first such attempt from a content creator. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few well-intentioned and high-profile self-publishing episodes, none of which went particularly well.
Back in 2000, writer Stephen King engaged in two self-publishing experiments. First, he published an electronic book called The Plant in serial format--that is, in pieces, from time to time--to see whether readers could be trusted to purchase content piecemeal and not pirate it rampantly. That experiment wasn't entirely successful: King never finished The Plant, complaining that downloads decreased to an unacceptable amount over time.
He also published a novella called Riding the Bullet, which Wikipedia calls "the world's first mass-market electronic book," to great success, with over 400,000 downloads in the first 24 hours. But stung by rampant hacking of The Plant, King's publishing company had bogged down this title with onerous encryption, causing mass issues with people's PCs. (Riding the Bullet is available more broadly today, on the Kindle and in a newish hardcover edition.)
(King, too, has been involved with his publisher's hatred of more modern eBook platforms, where recent books have been delayed on the Kindle so that consumers would be forced to buy the more expensive hardcover editions if they wanted to read his books right away. King has distanced himself from these decisions.)
And of course the rock band Radiohead infamously released an album called In Rainbows in 2007 as a DRM-free digital download, allowing fans to pay whatever price they liked. The album was the result of two years of work, according to the band's producer, and has now "sold" over 3 million copies. But "most people paid nothing for the download," again according to Wikipedia.
I hope Louis C.K. is successful, not just because he's an excellent comedian and a tremendous talent, but because those doing things the right way should do well. If you're fan, please do buy a copy and enjoy the video. If you're not, please don't pirate it.