Most copyrighted products are proprietary and closed source; such as books, software programs and all other types of copyrightable materials. The reason for this, and a very good one IMO, is to allow the author(s) to make a living on what they've created. While some are open source from the start, most are proprietary; which makes sense. After all, you wont be able to create future products if you can't afford to pay the bills.
When to Set it Free
However, there comes a time in the natural life cycle of a product where it is appropriate to set it free. A good time for this is when you can no longer make enough money off it to make the necessary support and maintenance of the product feasible. Another good time is when the demand for the product has decreased past the "point of no return." Every product reaches this "set it free" stage at some point.
Most people just stop selling a product, but keep it closed and proprietary; thus depriving the world of any further innovations. An extremely famous example of this is what Disney has done with their intellectual property that is Mickey Mouse and some of their other characters and movies. Rather than set those free for the world to benefit from and further innovate and create with, they keep it closed and protected. Disney has even successfully lobbied congress to modify the foundations of copyright law to allow this to happen pretty much indefinitely, but this is a discussion for another time.
Why Set it Free
If you can make money from your product, then why set it free? The answer to this isn't clean cut, but is still rather simple.
First, if you can make money from your product, then you probably do not want to set it free. Although, there may be times when you could potentially make more money if you changed your business model around a free product instead; but not always.
Second, if you can not make money from your product, likely because of low demand or too much competition or some other reason, then by all means set it free. It will likely increase demand for it thus either allowing you to make money with a business model surrounding a free product, or it'll help promote your brand/name thus helping you make money on other products.
Lastly, if the "product" isn't part of your core business, but rather in support of your core business then it may be appropriate to set it free. In this case it's really not a product in the traditional sense. Since it isn't part of your core business, and thus not crucial to your success it wont really give any competitors much advantage. However, It may help other businesses and thus help promote your brand/name by setting it free.
When you set a product free you allow others to take it and innovate in way you never thought of. The result of setting a product free may not be that intuitive but it benefits the world and thus you in the end.
Public Domain or Open Source?
Deciding whether to release as Public Domain or Open Source is up to you. Public Domain is REALLY setting it free. Once something goes into the public domain there's no way of controlling it in any way. However, if you Open Source it you can still maintain control over the main distribution, further development and overall branding; which could be beneficial in the future. The decision of which release pattern to use must take into account your goals for the "product" and how it relates to your core and/or future business.
Examples of "Free" Products that Benefit the World / All of Us
There are many free products that benefit us all. Some are public domain or some form of open source. They benefit us all in some way; whether the benefit is very apparent or not.
Below is a list of some products that have been "Set Free" in one way or another that benefit us all:
- Food Recipes
- Public Domain Books - there are 42,000 availabe at Project Gutenberg
- Services (ad-based but still free for users and world changing!)
- Basically, ALL open source software could be listed here!
There are FAR more example that could be listed, but you should get the idea.
My Personal Stance
Personally, I strongly believe in the benefits of certain products being either free and/or open source. I also believe in closed, proprietary products where appropriate; as I still need to make a living to be able to produce such products in the first place. A long term business goal I have is to release my own products to the world once it's not really feasible for me to make money off them.
I actually have some products that have been free from the start. Some are software developer tools, but one is for end users called Virtual Router; which I actually make a little money on banner ads on the project/download website even though it's free and open source. Other products, such as Web.Maps.VE, are closed source and proprietary, but I have full intentions of "setting them free" when the appropriate time arrives.