Information wants to be free?

by Jason Preston on February 11, 2009

When I talk about people paying for online content, I tend to hear a lot from people who think that charging for information is bogus and inherently wrong. They have a rallying cry that reads: “Information want to be free.”

This is actually half of a quote, and it’s taken a little out of context. Here’s the full quote, as cited in Wikipedia, from Stewart Brand at the first Hackers 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.

Now that’s a much different—and far more accurate—sentiment than the first statement.

I’ll go so far as to say that information itself does want to be free. If I go look outside the window, I can see of my own accord what the weather is like, and it certainly shouldn’t cost me any money to find out. Furthermore, distributing that information wouldn’t cost me much either. If I tweeted what it looked like outside: no charge.

But what does cost money is the work put into preparing the information. If any private citizen chooses to do the research that is put in to any given article produced by any given newsbrand, then they are free to do so. Once that article is put together, howerver, that citizen (or company who paid for its production) has every right to charge money for it.

That is, in fact, the basic principle behind our whole economy. Here’s John Locke, a moderately intelligent guy from way back when, in his Second Treatise of Government (1690):

In the state of nature ‘nobody has originally a private dominion exclusive of the rest of mankind.’ Yet by ‘the labour of his body and the work of his hands…whatsoever then he removes out the state that nature has provided…he has mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it is property…

By my reconing, his logic is this: certain things are freely available to everyone, but once a person “puts work into it,” by, say, putting together a structured news article, they then earn a right of ownership over it, and by extention then have the right to charge money for access to it.

Without this, the economy crumbles.


1 Justin Boland 02.11.09 at 12:11 pm

…that’s it? You’ve got clean style and clearly a lot more on your mind than this. This felt like you stopped just as you were saying something.

Also, things have changed since Locke, and the example you quote barely exists anymore. There is no homesteading movement anymore, no heroic frontier man hewing handmade property out of raw nature. We live in a built, bought and sold environment and we work on huge urban plantations.

There’s a market for good writing, always. Writing isn’t just information, though: it’s perspective, it’s art, it’s presentation and pitch. I think that’s the real dividing line — anyone should be able to access Census and USGS data, as well as corporate reports and the CRS documents that recently got “leaked.”

But people will still gladly pay $10 for a Kurt Vonnegut book, even if they’ve read it before.

2 Wendy Parker 02.11.09 at 4:30 pm

Jason wrote:

“But what does cost money is the work put into preparing the information.”

Now this is finally getting a bit beyond the subject of the last couple weeks and toward a greater understanding of what goes into the news and information that’s theoretically urging to be free.

As a longtime reporter trying to forge together a post-newsroom writing/blogging career, this is where this conversation needs to keep going. And not just for my sake.

In order to determine how much we might want to pay for content, or even how to evaluate quality content that we might want to pay for at all, it’s important to understand what it costs to do journalism. And what journalists must do to commit acts of quality journalism.

To the first comment here I would add that journalistic writing, above all, is about reporting. Lots of good reporting. It ain’t easy and it don’t come cheap.

3 Allan McDougall 02.12.09 at 10:59 am

“Information” as you use it here is too vague; equally so is Justin’s “it’s perspective, it’s art, it’s presentation and pitch.”

Locke wasn’t far off at all. You’re talking about intellectual property the same way that Locke spoke of tangible property.

4 Jason Preston 02.12.09 at 12:39 pm

Justin – Funny that you say that, since I actually lifted this post (with a few edits) from my previous post about Metered Content because it was just too long, and a little unrelated.

And I think the Locke analogy/argument is still intact. Take your own example: “it’s perspective, it’s art, it’s presentation and pitch” – those are all the result of someone “putting work into it.” 😉

Wendy – I agree that we need to talk about the “cost” of good reporting, but unfortunately it’s less straightforward than just sitting the unruly public down and telling them how much it costs. Just understanding the cost doesn’t mean that readers (users) will want to pay for it.

There are market realities that can’t be ignored. It’s not just explaining the cost, it’s also making people want to buy it.

Allan – Yep!

5 Justin Boland 02.12.09 at 12:49 pm

Yes, and the key is “work into it” — Intellectual Property is not just about us making money from brain work. After all, most of what I’d call my “style” as a writer is entirely stolen material, a second-hand bag of tricks I’ve collected over more than two decades of voracious reading. I’m not about to pay royalties to Hunter S. or William Irwin Thompson, though.

I do fundamentally agree with you, I just don’t see any feasible way to enforce this. If our work is any good, it will get pirated. Fighting that is wasted effort, take it as the compliment it is.

It’s also a great ecosystem driver! It reminds us to focus on creating really useful, concise material. It’s way too easy to “pad the product” with devices and re-statements. A good example is how David Allen’s productivity bible, Get Things Done, can easily melt down to a seven page Wiki summary.

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