Free Monty Python Videos on Youtube Lead to 23,000% DVD Sale Increase

 By Shamus Jan 27, 2009 51 comments

Tired of people uploading low-quality versions of all of their old material to YouTube, the guys behind Monty Python put up a huge chunk of their material in clean, organized, high-resolution* glory. People then bought the DVDs by the truckload.

This sort of thing does not exonerate pirates, but it does suggest that perhaps DRM and lawsuits isn’t the best way to fight them. Not that I needed convincing.

Related: I wish Joss Whedon would tell us how Dr. Horrible did.

* High resolution being somewhat relative when it comes to streaming videos. You’re not going to mistake this for Blu-ray or anything.

20201151 comments. It's getting crowded in here.


  1. Minor nit: Whedon.

    I was going to delete my minor nit of a comment, but can’t, so now you’re stuck with it!

    HAHAHAHAHAHAH! (ahem.)

  2. Nixorbo says:

    Wheadon: the evil clone made from the combined DNA of both Joss Whedon and Wil Wheaton.

  3. Shamus says:

    What? What typo? No, you are wrong. It has always been correct and I never went back and changed it after someone pointed out my mistake!

    No typos. Nothing to see here. Move along.

  4. Adeon says:

    Baen books does a similar thing. They have a free library online that contains quite a few books. They also distribute CDs with a lot of their hardbacks that contains the rest of the series (and normally some other works by the same author).

    I can’t say how well this works for them in general, but the large quantity of their books on my shelves suggest that it works well for me.

  5. nilus says:

    Well judging by the fact that the DVD was on the amazon top buys list for a week I believe and there is a sequel in the works. I assume Doc Horrible is doing pretty good.

  6. Mari says:

    It’s not the only instance of such happening. Musician Janis Ian wrote a much discussed article on music downloads several years ago. She took the “devil’s advocate” viewpoint that internet music downloads were not the heinous thing that the RIAA and NARAS paints them to be. In the wake of the resulting publicity she put her money where her mouth was and made her own music available for public download. Then she wrote a follow-up in which she professed that her album sales were UP over 300%. They had gone up around 25% based on the publicity of the original article alone, but the big increase happened when she made her own music available.

    You’re right in saying that it doesn’t exonerate pirates but it gives some interesting insight into realities of the issue when one steps away from the highly charged political speech surrounding it.

  7. TehShrike says:

    I’m not sure where Shamus discovered this, but I noticed it a few days back on Techdirt. Techdirt reports on many such subjects, I’d recommend it for anyone who has any interest in intellectual property at all.

  8. roxysteve says:

    Hmm. When I tried to follow the links embedded in the linked article in the hopes of seeing actual proof that the sattement Free Monty Python Videos on Youtube Lead to 23,000% DVD Sale Increase was more appropriate than Free Monty Python Videos on Youtube Precede 23,000% DVD Sale Increase I got caught in one of those always-so-pleasant-to-encounter nowhere pages that back-buttons to itself. This alone makes me doubt the premise of the article and wish total vodoo revenge death on the website author.

    Not for nuthin, but wouldn’t the fact that a new compilation set had been issued have something to do with the sales? Without actual figures it’s a bit difficult to extract any meaning from the confluence of the facts, and even more difficult to postulate from them that the Bad DRM Witch of the West was done in etc etc.

    23000% is a huge and impressive number. Unless sales were abysmally low to start with, of course, in which case it might simply represent a tiny fraction of the Python fans doing the collector thing. Then there’s the period over which the sales are derived. One can’t make any meaningful statements if one is comparing sales in late october to those around Christmas.

    Having been gifted with a “complete” Python collection this year, and having realised that my wife and I were so inured to Pythonness years ago that we had “outgrown” it and never introduced our teenager to it, and therefore having revisited the material only last week in an effort to correct that oversight, I would like to believe that this iconic stuff (some brilliant, some good, lots completely, cringe-inducingly awful) has gained a lot of new viewers.

    But these sales figures can’t be analysed in any really meaningful way the way they’re presented. I’ve no doubt the YouTube footage affected sales in a positive way. I just have no evidence from this material that the sales were entirely due to the webverts or even numerically startling.

    I bet nobody was expecting a Spanish Inquisition.

  9. Factoid says:

    I need to go buy a DVD copy of Holy Grail. All I have is an ancient VHS and a DivX rip. I don’t think I even have a working VHS player in the house anymore. If I have one it’s because I used to use it as an RCA->coax converter.

  10. McNutcase says:

    Well would you look at that. People being treated as honest adults acted as honest adults.

    Just as you keep saying, Shamus, the way to defeat “pirates” is with miniguns and a strictly enforced free-fire radius… oh, wait, that’s actual pirates. Pirates by the [RI|MP]AA definition, you defeat by offering a better product.

  11. Takkelmaggot says:

    Baen’s clever deployment of free e-titles certainly drew me in. Reading the first book of a series, gratis, drew me into a half-dozen (and counting) paperback purchases.

  12. krellen says:

    I hadn’t realised Dr. Horrible had finally come out on DVD. Just bought it. Thanks, Shamus.

  13. Erik says:

    I was going to cite Baen Books and the Baen Free Library as well. In at least one clear instance, Mercedes Lackey, an established writer with a large back catalog, put an older book up for free download. The next quarter, her extremely predictable catalog sales jumped by 300%. As if, she said, a bunch of readers had just discovered her work for the first time and decided to get more of it.

    This points up the real lesson: for all but the media celebrity figures in the top 1% of their field, the biggest problem for artists is NOT piracy – it’s getting noticed by an audience in the first place. Free sharing helps them overcome this problem; that’s what lending libraries and friend recommendations and loans DO. They help folks discover new artists without risk. Once someone knows they like an artist’s work, they’re usually willing to spend money on it.

    Only for the top 1% is piracy a real issue… but that’s where the publishing houses make the biggest profits. So instead of growing the pie, they concentrate on protecting the slice they have, and in the process they actually hurt sales on what they are selling. It’s a short-sighted decision, but more and more companies are short-sighted these days. I suspect it took private firms without quarterly Wall Street targets to keep an eye on the long road and to cultivate new talent until they could flourish.

  14. roxysteve says:

    [Baen Free Library]

    I’m glad that that particular experiment worked for someone.

    I was reading the Honor Harrington books, but started to get a bad feeling around #5. I began reading them electronically and never bought another paper one as a result (they were available on a Baen-produced disc with one of the hardbacks).

    I am a paperback collecting nut, but I used the electronic form to avoid spending money on stories I felt weren’t worth “full whack”. I might have bought them at half-price, but free was even better.

    It would be interesting to see how Charlie Stross evaluates his experimental web/paper experiment.

  15. My favorite note about Mercedes Lackey’s experience with the Baen Free Library is that her backlist books from other publishers also started selling better.

  16. ngthagg says:

    I’d also like to see what the sales on the DRM-free tracks on iTunes and other online music stores are like.

    As roxysteve points out, correlation is not causation. But as data accumulates it makes it easier for someone to sit down and take this beyond speculation, and prove that DRM encourages piracy, rather than fighting it.

  17. ydant says:

    I’m a bit skeptical about these big names profiting by releasing things for free. Radiohead, Monty Python, etc – these guys have market share to begin with.

    That doesn’t mean I am negative about the idea at all – I absolutely love it, I’m just not sure how well it unscales.

  18. Robyrt says:

    I agree; I think a marketing campaign involving a free release of older material works very well to revive an ailing brand, but not to create a new one. The consumer is more likely to check out something which is known to have had value in the past (because they charged money for it) than something else at random. You feel like you’re getting a deal, you’re less likely to waste your time, and you can now join snobbish discussions with the cool kids about Radiohead, Monty Python, Jane Yolen, etc.

  19. J Greely says:

    With book publishing, one obvious reason that free/cheap downloads of older books sells new ones is that you usually can’t find the first N books in a series. For instance, Baen is releasing PC Hodgell’s fifth novel soon, in a series that started in 1982 and has drifted in and out of print ever since (mostly out). Without re-releasing the first four, only hardcore fans would buy the fifth, and committing to a print run for obscure 25-year-old fantasy novels just doesn’t make sense. So they released them online first, and now they’ve got a hardcover collection of the first two that got a nice link from Instapundit.

    -j

  20. Daosus says:

    There were some articles on copyright written by Eric Flint. They used to be on Baen Books’ website, but I believe they got lost in the re-organization. The articles basically described exactly the issue Erik brings up: the problem for most authors, especially in a saturated field like Sci-Fi, is not piracy but recognition. Putting things up on the web for free brings down the commitment threshold from $5.99 for a paperback to ~3 minutes for a download.

    He also talks a lot about how current copyright lengths are too long and should be set right around 40 years, but I don’t remember the argument in full, so I’m not going to mess it up by paraphrasing it.

    edit–Found it. The article in question is called “Adventures with a Search Engine.”

    http://baens-universe.com/authors/Eric_Flint

  21. Hotsauce says:

    Fear L’enfant Terrible and her Death Rattle!

  22. Miral says:

    So, Shamus, have you picked up the Dr Horrible DVD yourself yet? (You should, it’s great. Both Commentary! and the easter-egg hunt are well worth the price of admission.)

  23. Nillo says:

    Can anyone link to the source of these statistics? Shamus’ link leads to a blog, which links to another blog, which mentions another blog… I read about this Monty Python sales thing on Slashdot a while back, but I don’t know if I should believe the numbers or not.

  24. Attorney At Chaos says:

    Whether an electronic free library or your local bricks-and-mortar library, getting a free sample leading to additional purchases is a very old thing. It may be more prevalent in SF circles, though, since SF readers tend to accumulate large SF libraries in their homes. This is not true for all genres. But when I started out getting books for free from the library for a couple of weeks I decided I not only wanted the ones I hadn’t yet read, I also wanted copies of the ones I =had= read. (SF readers are often re-readers as well.) In my room, on my bookshelf, whenever I felt like revisiting it (or part of it).

  25. scragar says:

    It works with books and other content as well, I read Cory Doctorows books in PDF for free, and I have bought every one of them to be released in the UK so far(only two of them so far), I even bought an extra copy of Content so I could anotate and stick notes on one of them and leave the other clean.

    If his books had never have been released for free I would never have read any of his works.

    I pirated Jonathan Coulton’s music at first, but after listening to them I paid and downloaded them all again from his site.

  26. Veloxyll says:

    Adding on the points Daosus’ Eric Flint talks about, in The Economics of Writing he also points out how he broke the traditional book sales pattern by putting some of his works up online. And really, the movie and book industries aren’t that dissimilar. Cept movies are more expensive to produce.

    So yeah, I can accept that Monty Python saw a sales increase when they released some of their best bits online with links to shops where they can get the whole lot legitimately. It’s not like public libraries don’t offer the same service for books anyhow, and publishers/authors haven’t wound up begging on the streets yet!

  27. Zaghadka says:

    My sister-in-law, who spends most of her time on a boat, because she is a ship’s steward, got me Dr. Horrible’s Blog DVD for Christmas.

    I was thrilled. I said, “Oh, I didn’t think I put that on my Amazon wish list.”

    I hadn’t. She spends most of her time on a boat, Shamus. That’s how well it did.

  28. ngthagg says:

    I disagree that free materials are more likely to be profitable for established artists rather than new ones.

    I confess that I don’t the publishing/distributing business at all, whether it’s books, music, games or whatever. But it seems to me if I were an musician trying to land a contract, being able to go to the record company with a proven ability to attract an audience would greatly improve my chances. And the payoff, of course, is considerably greater.

    I think there are other industries to look at if we want evidence. Mike and Jerry at Penny Arcade are likely doing well for themselves considering their main product is offered free. I think Rich Burlew of OOTS makes his living off his webcomic now. I’m sure Scott Kurtz at PvP does.

    Shamus, I believe you have said that Stolen Pixels is a paid job. Do you think you could have made money off a webcomic before DMoTR?

  29. @ydant: Heard of Jonathan Coulton? Geeky folk-rock musician. Not real good odds of getting a big deal with a record company. If he could have gotten a deal at all, it would have been the screw-job most artists get. So he went on his own; gave away a free, new song every week for a year. Still gives piles of his music away. In 2007 he was pulling in “a reasonable middle-class living” and I’m reasonably confident he’s doing even better today. As Erik pointed out, for the average artist the real risk is being noticed by your audience at all!

  30. henrebotha says:

    @ydant and Robert:

    I hear what you’re saying, but consider this: every artist needs to be discovered somehow. If the only music people bought was by artists whose music they’d bought before then no-one would ever buy any music. See? It’s circular reasoning.

    A brief download (chosen based on recommendations by the media, other bands, and fans) is a lot smaller of a listening investment than paying $15 (or however much ze Amerikanskis pay for CDs) for an album or entry to a gig.

  31. nah says:

    23,000% is just silly number (23,000.000%!!!!!1), it’s 230 times more than before. But I too would like to see those numbers myself.

  32. JKjoker says:

    while the awesome increase is probably because they went from nothing to something its nice to know that at least SOMEONE realises that if you give ppl a taste of your product, they like it and you dont set the price too high they will probably buy it, great, its like the oldest trick in the book … reloaded …

    the main problem tho is that doing bussiness like this would cause problems with trying to sell shit to your customers, that means no quick cheap and dirty franchises cash in (Lucas and Stevie might have to actually do something good for a change), no more quick game clones released as “sequels” (hey, resident evil 5, im looking at you), worst of all, they will have to make stuff actually fun, its a big problem!, EA and co are definitely not prepared to go though with this, i loved the Activision-Blizzard dude saying “all we care about are franchises we can milk for sequels” soon before blizzard mysteriouly announced that starcraft 2 single player experience would get sliced in 3, because, you know, the fans want to pay 3 times the cost of 1 game.

  33. Scourge says:

    Its over Ninethousand!

    *cough* Sorry, couldn’t help that.
    Ahm, to the topic:

    @8: Probably javascript forwarding, meaning you need to click twice on it to get back to your page before.

  34. Rats says:

    While I find 230 000% hard to beleive, but i can easily beleive it boosted sales. Most of the people I know (admittedly quite a ‘techy’ group of people) have stopped listening to the radio and watching the television in favour of finding tracks/programs/films they know and love online. Allowing free downloads shows these people what you have to offer. Its advertising where traditional advertising fails (this is where i rue my loss of pandora.com and its radioey goodness – i’m from England). Anyone else find this with people they know?

  35. Old_Geek says:

    Think about how low the Monty Python sales were before this youtube gimmick. 30 year old movies performed by a comedy team that has done nothing in 20? How much do you think they sold last year? 23,000% increase of such a low starting number might just bring their sales close to the point you’d expect of a new dvd release.

  36. Anaphyis says:

    What I don’t get: Yes, there will always be people still pirating stuff, even if they get a (descent) offer. So what? These people will never be customers, ever. So you can either build your DRM fortress and burn huge piles of money on lawyers so these jerks get a slap on the wrist and a fine or simply accept this and move to cater to the people actually willing to give you money.

    Why companies chose the former, I will never understand. And neither why this low percentage of jerks are the counter argument to pretty much everything. We have those in every aspect of life and we can deal with them without holding the descent folks property hostage. We can give out free cheese at the market without everyone becoming cheese pirates.

  37. Mari says:

    When my husband and I were talking about this yesterday he pointed out something that I hadn’t thought of before. He remembers (and I did too, once he brought it up) way back in our dinosaur-driven youth (the mid-80s) when give-aways were a normal part of the publicity for new IP offerings. Radio stations gave away copies of new albums, book stores had drawings for free books that had just hit the public, etc. I don’t honestly remember when that went away, possibly because I was a starving college student at the time and didn’t frequent “mainstream” places that did stuff like that, but I know it just doesn’t happen much any more. Radio stations still do give-aways but they’re for event tickets, food, or station t-shirts, not CDs. Book stores don’t give away doodly squat anymore. Heck, even grocery stores around here hardly give away things like free cheese anymore. I’m guessing that somebody did focus studies and determined that sales didn’t go up from giving stuff away, but I have no idea if that’s fact. Either way, it’s an interesting thought.

    I can attest to the fact, though, that giving me a taste for free has induced me to buy things recently. Lacking the television feed, I missed Heroes until this winter when I discovered it online via a friend’s recommendation. After watching some episodes, I’m now the proud owner of Heroes seasons 1 and 2 on DVD. Also, after having watched some fan-subbed anime and waiting out the fallout of Geneon shutting its doors, I’m now the proud owner of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha series 1 and 2 on DVD as well.

    And finally @ Old_Geek (36) – I have trouble imagining Python’s sales are that low due to obscurity. Maybe I just travel in weird circles, but I don’t actually know anybody who is unaware of the Pythons. In high school they were standard viewing at slumber parties, in college the first dorm-wide “event” was a screening of The Holy Grail in the rec room, my husband came into our marriage bearing The Holy Grail on laser disc (Criterion edition…and yes, we still have it), and we’ve bought up copies of all of their releases onto DVD (although we skipped the first release of The Holy Grail since our laser disc was better).

  38. briatx says:

    Meh. They made some of the most popular material available in a streaming format in the hopes that it would encourage people to buy DVDs that include the free content and more.

    This is very different from, say, offering a torrent of the exact content you want people to pay for.

  39. roxysteve says:

    ydant said: I’m a bit skeptical about these big names profiting by releasing things for free. Radiohead [snipsnipsnip]

    It was my understanding from reading around about that experiment that Radiohead concluded they lost money on the deal.

    Steve.

  40. roxysteve says:

    Daosus said: There were some articles on copyright written by Eric Flint. They used to be on Baen Books’ website, but I believe they got lost in the re-organization. The articles basically described exactly the issue Erik brings up: the problem for most authors, especially in a saturated field like Sci-Fi, is not piracy but recognition. Putting things up on the web for free brings down the commitment threshold from $5.99 for a paperback to ~3 minutes for a download.

    The commitment for a paperback has been at least 33% higher than that for over three years now, and that goes for all non-promo mass-market format skiffy including Mr Flint’s. The point is that no-one who collects science fiction (and most keen readers of it can be classified in that way) will buy a download over a book, since the joy of ownership is in the entire package.

    That and the bewildering inabililty of the e-format books to duplicate the stuff you commonly get in paper versions, like maps, diagrams, nice fonts, cover artwork etc etc.

    I looked forward as much to a new Bruce Pennington cover to the story within while collecting my Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Samuel R Delany and Brian Aldiss books, and Chris Foss’s art was part fo the deal when buying from Panther Books.

    Steve

  41. Daosus says:

    There’s really two issues here, I think. For small artists, getting noticed is REALLY important. So much so that people pirating your stuff is a good thing. For large corporations with large advertising budgets, getting noticed isn’t a problem. The problem is squeezing every cent out of your investment in the property. Piracy cuts to the bottom line in this case, and that’s what they’re worried about. Or, so the case would be if the stuff that’s advertised heavily is consistently good. The “try before you buy” thing with small artists is sadly just as relevant with larger conglomerations because very often the stuff they put out is just as bad, just as often.

  42. Zukhramm says:

    Piracy have increased CD purchases made by me by ∞%.

  43. Miako says:

    Piracy can be a good thing. Although I’ve only bought one Japanese Language anime (i will pay money for good voiceacting in english), I advertise heavily.
    Word of Mouth counts.
    Particularly when what I’m advertising is things like Kodocha, which someone else is not likely to hear of otherwise, even if they would really really like it.

    Now, let’s put that paradigm into a different market. Movies. If I advise you to buy “Switching — Goodbye Me” (my current favorite movie), what do you do? You go to netflix, and you get it mailed to you.

    Because it is easy and convenient for you to consume movies at your pricepoint/timecommittment, you are happy to pay.

    If everyone who reads this site does this, there is a real net profit.

    Also, consider that college students are the ones with the free time to read and then recommend things.

  44. WanderingGrapefruit says:

    Well regardless of how low sales were before this fabled 23,000% increase, it is still a huge increase. I mean, c’mon, if they had sold ONE DVD before this, then they would have sold 230 now. Unless I’m rusty on my percents.

    My guess is that they sold significantly more than just a single DVD before.

  45. SomeGuyInABikini says:

    It appears the blog quote came directly from the YouTube blog, which has mysteriously (at time of writing) disappeared(?). http://au.youtube.com/blog?entry=n-q9Enl2O2Y

    Linked below is the Google cached version:

    http://209.85.175.132/search?q=cache:74Cmr__SUkIJ:www.youtube.com/blog%3Fentry%3Dn-q9Enl2O2Y+%22when+Monty+Python+launched+their+channel+in+November%22+youtube&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=au

  46. SomeGuyInABikini says:

    It appears the quote came from the YouTube Australia blog (21/01/2009). Oddly the original blog appears to be missing(?) but can still be found in Google’s cache.

    Wayno, with the linky link

  47. Telas says:

    Give away MP3s.

    Sell the .FLAC or .WAV or other lossless formats.

    Really, it’s a no-brainer…

  48. Kaeltik says:

    Didn’t know where to put this and didn’t want to interrupt a running thread, but I’m guessing you catch comments on old threads. Anyway, speaking of Joss Whedon, will we see a post with your take on Dollhouse?

  49. Kaeltik says:

    Never mind. Just remembered that you don’t watch TV.

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