The phrase "Information wants to be free" gets 92,000 hits on Google.
As wikipedia notes, Stewart Brand (then editor of Whole Earth Review, and a clueful chappie) uttered the fateful words at the first hacker's conference in 1984:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.He subsequently reformulated it slightly:
Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive ... That tension will not go away.
The condensed version — and it's almost always quoted in the condensed form, much as those who quote "my country right or wrong" almost invariably miss out the second clause ("when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right") — is an attractive slogan because it's simple, but ambiguous. It's worth noting that English, the language in which "information wants to be free" was coined, makes no distinction between two usages of the word free: free as in "civil liberties", and free as in "no payment expected". "Information" is also ambiguous; Brand's explanation of the coinage uses the word "information" to mean both content and bandwidth, but this nuance is lost in the shortened form.
Richard Stallman also reformulated it in a way that puts a different spin on it:
I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By 'free' I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one's own uses... When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.Stallman's reformulation is transformed into a statement of political aspiration by the substitution of "should" for "wants", and it's an aspiration that I can't object to on moral grounds (although in practical terms, I see obstacles).
Here's the rub, though: it's a slogan. Stripped of their social context, slogans are a great way of motivating people — but they don't put food in your belly. More to the point, slogans with ambiguous wording or implicit subtexts are lethally sharp double-edged swords. "Let a hundred flowers bloom" had [probably] unplanned consequences; so, too, does "information wants to be free". It has, as Jaron Lanier notes in this interview, become the governing ideology of a large and vocal segment of internet users:
He blames the Web's tradition of "drive-by anonymity" for fostering vicious pack behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. He acknowledges the examples of generous collaboration, like Wikipedia, but argues that the mantras of "open culture" and "information wants to be free" have produced a destructive new social contract.I'd put it another way: it's the tragedy of the commons in action.
There's a big difference between a gift economy (where items are given freely, as gifts) and a theft economy (where items are taken without offer of recompense, be it monetary or participatory). While "information wants to be free" remains a valuable insight, the freetards who are its loudest proponents these days seem blind to the flip side of the coin, which is the obligation to create and release information of use to others.
I'm big on obligations, because it seems to me that they're the flip side of rights. The right to not be murdered in my bed imposes on me the obligation not to murder other people in their beds. Human beings are social animals; we do not exist in isolation, and if we desire some specific behaviour from our peers, we, too, are required to abide by it. The alternative is tyranny, a state in which some individuals are exempt from ordinary rules and may exercise their liberty at the expense of others.
So it follows that if you want information to be free you are taking on an obligation to make information, and give it freedom. An obligation to work to better the lot of humanity, not to merely sponge off the labour of others.
Next time you hear someone invoke "information wants to be free" as a justification for demanding free-as-in-no-payment-expected content, ask them: precisely what content have you released for free lately?
Note: buying an ebook, stripping the DRM from it, and uploading it to usenet does not count (unless they're the author). The point is recipricocity in creation.
Finally: this posting was prompted by the fact that just before the Amazon/Macmillan custard pie fight broke out, my editor and I at [name of publisher withheld] were discussing the possibility of releasing another of my novels as a free download. I'm now wondering — in view of the huge number of Kindle cheapskates yelling that $14 is too much to pay for a bestseller on the day of publication, it must be $9.99 or less, even if the publisher can't make a profit at that level and subsequently publishes fewer books — whether this would merely encourage the perception that my books are valueless. I'll probably get over my dog-in-the-manger mood soon enough — I tend to take an optimistic view of human nature — but right now I'm a bit annoyed. (PS: yes, I use open source software, and yes: I have in the past written and released software under an open source license — it's on CPAN if you want to look for it. See "obligation", above.)
What have you created and released lately?