On Saturday, comedian Louis CK did what was arguably a stupid thing. He made his latest concert video, Live at the Beacon Theater, available for streaming and download at his website for five bucks. The stupid part, depending on your view of human nature, is that he put up a version of the video that had no copy protection—you download it, you can watch it on your computer, burn it to a DVD, do as you wish. In theory, there was nothing preventing you from simply paying five bucks once and burning DVDs for everyone you know, or, more likely, making it available somewhere for people to download for free. Nothing except your theoretical desire not to be a jerk.
Surprise of surprises: the video went live, and it turns out that people—well, at least more than a hundred thousand of them, according to the comic—were not jerks. As Louis CK reports on his website, though he had been told that his means of selling the video was naive, it worked, well enough anyway:
The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.
I really hope people keep buying it a lot, so I can have shitloads of money, but at this point I think we can safely say that the experiment really worked. If anybody stole it, it wasn’t many of you. Pretty much everybody bought it. And so now we all get to know that about people and stuff.
I bought the video, by the way, and it was unsurprisingly well worth the five bucks, an hour-plus of Louis CK-ian observations on sex, parenting and human nature. That last subject is especially relevant here, by the way, because the special includes a lot of on-target material on the subject of selfishness: how people would rather greatly inconvenience other people than slightly inconvenience themselves, how there’s really nothing stopping you from just dropping all social pretense and being a prick to everyone around you—and, probably, getting away with it.
That last is something Louis CK says, in his routine, that he understands: he goes into a story about how once, late for a flight, he simply drove his rental car up to the terminal, left it by the curbside, got on his plane and called the rental counter to say they’d need to send someone to pick it up. And they did:
I realized: I could do this every time. Every time I rent a car! Because of course they want you to do all that shit. But if you don’t, they still want the car back. They’re gonna send a dude. You could drive a car until you don’t want it, just get out of it while it’s moving and just walk away. “Well, I don’t feel like being in that car any longer.” I can just call Hertz, “Hi, your car is drifting into the intersection of 28th and Broadway, if you’re interested. It’s now your problem.”
Most people don’t do this, of course, which somewhat inconveniences them but has the practical benefit of not having to live in a society in which you have to dodge driverless cars in the street. Sure, it’s the oldest moral lesson on the planet, but one we evidently need to keep relearning. In Louis CK’s own routine, he comes down on the darker side of the argument: “Most people don’t care. Most people are pretty selfish.” (For a more optimistic take, see his bit, in the video above, on how love got humanity through the Ice Age.) But in real life, he bet on people following the Golden Rule, and shockingly, it worked.
Hey, I don’t know how many people ended up torrenting the video for free, but enough did pay up to make this a reliable model for a comic—at least one at Louis CK’s level—to do a funny show, get handsomely paid, and let the rest of us enjoy it fairly cheaply. Here’s to the people who return their cars at the rental counter.