Most people start off in Second Life with the free basic account. You can see the sights, meet people and change your appearance without paying but after a while you realize that you need a proper account and a wad of Linden dollars to be able to do interesting things like creating objects or getting a more interesting appearance. The price tags on all these virtual clothes, furniture, skins, textures and works of art are very low indeed but people are perfectly willing to pay for them.
Similarly the success of low-cost text messaging has provided mobile operators with considerable income over the years with very little protest from the customers. People have been willing to pay relatively small sums for trivial downloads such as virtual pets, ring tones, icons, sound effects or screensavers. In Japan in particular this trend has been the norm for many years and the key seems to be buying pre-paid credits rather than charging a credit card.
A recent article in Tech Radar, How nanopayments finally came of age, argues that so-called nanopayments could be one answer to the problems caused by file-sharing and suchlike. If we paid very small sums of money (or even virtual money) for services on the net there would be income for the artists/writers/companies but at a level that doesn't make a noticeable impact on users' wallets. In Second Life many people "earn" virtual money in order to pay for their in-world consumption and maybe this would be possible on the net in general (fill in a questionnaire and earn enough to download a few free songs on iTunes).
Somehow the content on the net must be paid for and maybe it's better for millions of people to pay very small fees for a service than a few thousand paying today's commercial rate. The only problem is that such a solution requires universal consent; it won't work if there is still an alternative service that costs nothing.