Fixed fee versus unit pricing for information goods; competition, equilibria, and price wars

Peter C. Fishburn, Andrew M. Odlyzko, Ryan C. Siders


Information goods have negligible marginal costs, and this will create possibilities for novel distribution and pricing methods. The main concern of this paper is with pricing of goods that are likely to be consumed in large quantities by individuals. For example, will software continue to be sold at a fixed price for each unit, or will it be paid for on the basis of usage? There is substantial evidence both from observing marketplace evolution and from surveys that customers overwhelmingly prefer subscription pricing. It turns out that even if we ignore this factor, per-use pricing is not a clear winner, and therefore when the preference effect is taken into account, subscription pricing is likely to dominate.
We model competitive pricing between two companies that supply essentially equivalent services (such as movies or word processing software). One company charges a fixed fee per unit, while the other charges on a per-use basis. Each is interested in maximizing its revenue. We consider instances of the models that have stable competitive equilibria between suppliers along with situations that are unstable and, in the absence of collusion, lead to ruinous price wars.

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