An American Editor

March 30, 2010

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free

Repeatedly commentators write that information wants to be free in the Internet Age. In my own contrarian way, I’ve concluded that information doesn’t want to be free; rather, it wants to be universally accessible.

Okay, I know this isn’t the popular perspective but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, information doesn’t have its own life. Someone created that informational bit that you seek — it wasn’t just there waiting to be grabbed.

A story is information. The information is contained in words. I’ll grant that the words may be just there for the grabbing — but not in the sequence of the story. You can grab “car,” “she,” “thus,” “red,” “motor,” “bought,” “the” — all the individual words, perhaps for free — but what you can’t grab is the construction that takes those words and puts them in the sequence “Thus she bought the red motor car.” The words themselves, absent their sequencing, are meaningless information; it is the sequencing of words that provides meaning, which is the information we seek.

Someone needs to take those words and sequence them. If the person who does it is a writer and the sequence is part of their Great American Novel, they may well want to be paid for their effort. The words are indifferent to whether they are free or costly; the writer/sequencer of the words is not indifferent.

The consumer, given the choice between paying $10 or $0 for the sequenced words will generally choose $0. That’s the way of life. Given the choice to pay $10 or not have access to the sequenced information,  the consumer will balance the value of the sequenced information to him or her against the price. The closer the two are to being in equilibrium, the more likely the information will be paid for; the more in disequilibrium, the less likely the information will be bought or the lower price that the information seeker is willing to pay. But nowhere in this formulation is the sequence screaming “set me free!”

The original statement that information wants to be free is attributed to Stewart Brand, at a 1984 hacker’s conference, where he said:

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.

When read in complete context, the free was referring to the ability to adapt and use the information, not the price of the information or whether or not it should be paid for.

What happened is that a pithy slogan was created by taking words out of context. The slogan became a rallying cry with consequences that were unintended by the originator of the idea. The information wants to be free rally took on its own force through repetition without any consideration of what the underlying concept really was (reminds me of the more recent political slogans Death Tax and Death Panels — two misleading slogans that rally people to oppose a cause while preventing discussion of the important underlying issues).

Some ebookers have adopted information wants to be free as their slogan, with the meaning that ebooks should be very-low-cost (to no cost) and DRM-free. But it ignores the value of sequencing and the right of the sequencer to be paid for his or her work and protected from theft of his or her efforts. In this regard, sequencer includes both the author and the publisher, not just the author. It might be better to say information wants to be available — today and tomorrow, which would better reflect what the vast majority of ebookers really want.

Most ebookers I communicate with are uninterested in the problems of DRM except as it may limit their future ability to read an ebook on the device of their choosing. Their primary concerns are price and availability, and it is not until the discussion turns to the idea of future reading devices that DRM joins the discussion. These ebookers do not think information wants to be free, they think it wants to be available.

Rather than sloganeering that information wants to be free, ebooker efforts might be better spent in rallying support for a universal DRM scheme similar to DVDs. A universal DRM would reduce DRM costs and would ensure that purchases were device agnostic. It is certainly a more winnable cause than that of setting information free.

We know that the publishing industry is a little slow in focusing on the real problems of ebooks and ebookers, but this is one lesson that the panjandrums of publishing can readily learn simply by looking in their own living rooms. How happy would the CEO of any publisher be if he or she had to own and have connected 5 different DVD players in order to play movies they purchased or rented because each movie studio used its own DRM scheme? How happy would they be if they upgraded their DVD player next year only to discover that the 200 DVDs they currently own all had to be replaced because the new players couldn’t play them?

If movie studios can recognize that a single, universal DRM scheme is necessary, and if publishers can look in their own living rooms to see the value of a single video DRM scheme, how big a leap is it to conclude that ebooks, too, would benefit greatly from a single, universal DRM scheme? Seems to me that it’s really a baby step, not a giant leap — what we used to call a no-brainer — but with current publishing industry thinking patterns, a mountain is being made out of a molehill as an excuse not to act in both the publishers’ and the consumers’ best interest.

Rallying around a universal DRM scheme that lets us buy ebooks and transparently use ebooks today and tomorrow strikes me as the single most beneficial thing ebookers can do to enhance the their ebook reading experience.



  1. Information may want to be free, or at least widely accessible, but we who make our livings by creating and refining it – the writers, editors and proofreaders, or at least the professional ones – want to be paid. And paid fairly. But that’s probably a whole other post!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 30, 2010 @ 8:40 am | Reply

  2. […] and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB Digg us. Slashdot us. Facebook us. Twitter us. Share the […]


    Pingback by Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home — March 30, 2010 @ 9:17 am | Reply

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