"Information wants to be free" - What do people who use this term really mean?

I keep hearing this in all sorts of debates about copyright law and related items. I tracked it’s origin down to this site that gives it’s history

“Information Wants to be Free …”

While the background origin is interesting, I get the impression that most people currently using this phrase in discussions and debates are trying to make some moral or philosophical point that I’m not quite grasping, as the term is pretty silly on its face if used to complain about the evils of controlling access to, or charging for information in the form of music, or video, or books, etc.

So what do people really mean when they say “Information wants to be free”. Is there a larger substantive point being made or it is just pseudo-philosophical chattering to justify the notion that “I like free stuff”?

9 times out of 10: “I am a cheap bastard who produces nothing of my own and I have stumbled onto a conveniently glib meme.”

1 time out of 10: is preceded by a long bong hit.

Occasionally you run into somebody who actually gets the theory described in the long quote in your OP, but they’re very rare.

It’s statements like these that make me despair for the future. There are larger issues involved than “free stuff”. Unfortunately, many Americans and Europeans tend to uncritically accept the dogma of “intellectual property”, without understanding the historical, economic and social issues involved in setting policy for copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

See the Intellectual Property Page for a different view.

Thats really the latest incantation of the evolution of information dissemenation, for the most part , information has always been controlled to a certain extent . The most historical situation that I can think of , is Gutenberg’s primitive moveable typesetter. For the simple crime of copying a bible , he was put to death, and he thought he was doing the RC a favor.

The fact is that copy righted material theft is just a fraction of what information is being flooded on the internet. We all agree that this is bad, but no one seems to mind that they use some sort of points card for various purchases , with the percentage off , or the rewards being the transaction price for collection of data , which is then mined for tailoring business plans according to region , season ,and financial demographics.

As well, the Tianamen square masacre was also widely reported under the table by various chinese students and others who used a variety of electronic media to report to the world that an atrocity had been committed by the ruling elite in peking.

Rodney King , anyone ?

Heck , even the straightdopers provide information for free ,depending on the questions asked in GQ.

So yes, information wants to be free.


I most often see the phrase used for griping about having to pay for entertainment. Information may want to be free, but entertainment wants to make its author a living.

Umm, I don’t believe that’s correct.

If you’re really lucky you get recycled Proudhonisms from nose-ringed crypto-anarchists who live in their parents’ basement and don’t want to pay The Man for music downloads because that would cut into their beer money.

It’s the free stuff. That’s what people really mean.

You get a few people claiming that it’s got some deeper meaning than that and that there are important considerations and blah blah blah, but 90% of those people are just trying to rationalize why they should get stuff for free. There are a few issues that are genuinely important and that those types have some points on, but just about anyone who would say “information wants to be free” is undoubtedly just talking about stealing from people who make things because they are cheap and immoral.

And, yes, I know there are a large (or perhaps just extremely vocal) group of people here who try to argue for this, but from what I’ve seen of their arguments when you break it down into parts is not caring about whether the people who make things get money or not for their work as long as they can steal it. Sorry anti-copyright Dopers, but that’s it.

Where on earth are you getting those comments? The first is just wrong in every sense of the word and the last two are so not related to what’s being discussed.

This is totally, utterly false. Possibly you are confusing Johannes Gutenberg with John Wycliffe {1329-1384}, who first translated the Bible into English - not in type, needless to say. He had considerable trouble with the Church authorities, yes, but this stemmed more from his ur-Protestant teachings, which in many ways anticipated Luther’s.

Briefly, Wycliffe criticised corruption within the Church, questioned the literal interpretation of transubstantiation, and taught that the Bible, unmediated by priests or papal authority, should be the foundation of the church {small ‘c’}. His translation of the Bible from Vulgate Latin into English was an attempt to further this, however it was his doctrines rather than his translation that earned the Church’s ire, although his Bibles were often the target of ecclesiastical wrath both during his life and posthumously - although his Old and New Testaments were produced between 1380 and 1382, only shortly before his death - and many were burned.

However, he was not put to death, although the Church applied considerable pressure to have him removed from his post at Oxford, which met staunch resistance from his many supporters. He was posthumously condemned for heresy, and suffered the indignity of being exhumed and his remains burnt, but that’s not the same thing as being executed.

If you are confusing Gutenberg with Galileo, suffice it to say that he wasn’t put to death either.

Can I put the tension in economists’ terms? If you think about how much of something to produce and who should get to consume it such that total benefits to society are a maximum (or, equivalently, so that you reach a state where it is impossible to make anybody better off without necessarily making someone else worse off) then you want the following for each good:

!. Produce up until the point where the cost of one more unit of the good just equals the benefit of having that unit; and
2. Distribute the good so that this is true for each consumer.

Now part of the fuss about about free markets is that for certain types of goods this happens automatically in competitive markets. But for information it doesn’t. That’s because the marginal cost of supplying an extra consumer is close to zero. If it’s zero (or sufficiently costly to exclude them from consumption) then it’s not efficient to exclude anybody from having the information. The optimal price of information is zero.

This is standard economic theory, no bong hits involved. Information is a public good.

The tension, of course, is that whilst the marginal cost of producing information is close to zero, the total cost isn’t. So if the price were optimal, it wouldn’t be profitable to produce information. But if the price is sufficent to give an incentive to produce, people will be inefficiently excluded from consuming. Intellectual property rules are - amongst other things - an attempt to find balance betwen these competing considerations.

The reason this is such a big deal at the moment, of course, is that technological change has made the marginal costs of letting another person have access to a piece of information a lot closer to zero than than they used to be. Some people think the balance between competing interests should be revised. Some want to grab all the benefits for themselves.

I feel that the “natural” state of information is to be free. Freely known, freely shared, freely used. Once information is presented pubicly, it cannot be taken away. Information is not like a physical item. George Lucas can gather up and destroy every single physical copy of the original Star Wars movie. He cannot make us forget that Han shot first, that information is out, and will never go back.

We need laws to make information less than free.

The information contained in the latest Harry Potter book is completely open and available to anyone who shells out $25 for it. Buy one copy, and you can print 100,000 more for sale.

The information contained in the latest Britney Spears single is completely open to anyone who spends $15 on her CD. Buy one copy and you can press 100,000 more for sale.

The information used to make the latest whiz-bang technology is open to anyone who buys one and can reverse-engineer it.

The only thing preventing this is copyright/patent law. It is a very necessary law, because without it, the natural state will take over and that’s not a good thing.

This seems weird to me. As an academic who hangs out some with open-source programmers, the vast majority of the time I’ve heard or used the phrase, it’s to explain why we’re giving information away for free (freely available or “copylefted” research results or open-source code, pro bono editorial work, assistance to researchers, etc.), not why we’re trying to get stuff for free.

So I think there is definitely a valid moral principle involved that many people adhere to, rather than just a rationalization of intellectual property theft. (By the way, I never illegally download music or other proprietary stuff off the internet. I don’t even download music legally, for that matter; I buy CDs.)

I suppose you are correct, as far as it goes. But brushing off all debate as camouflage for freeloading doesn’t really leave us anywhere.

I tend to agree that information wants to be free. Not because I like free stuff, though I do, but because it is trivially easy to copy and share even huge amounts of information. Whatever the motivations of the argument, the anti-free info side always wants to pretend that this is not the current state of affairs. It is too easy to share info, and the harm too intangible to most people, to simply hand-wave away- and frankly, enforcement efforts to this date have been fairly anemic, and lagging behind sharing technology.

Is it so crazy to suggest that modern technology calls for a different economic model with regard to information?

IIRC I first encountered the phrase in Steven Levy’s “Hackers” about the early days of the computing industry. Back then the phrase meant that the more widely distributed and easily obtainable information was, the more useful it was. Remember, the prhase arose in a community of academics and hobbyists who were exploring a technology whose commercial potential at the time was widely considered to be limited to mainframes so expensive that only large and medium-sized corporations could afford them. “Information wants to be free” was a theory of software architecture, of arranging your data so that it could be easily accessed by many sources.

I’ll also point out that the people saying that phrase were the same ones that built the very Internet we are using and that has improved so many lives and created so much commerce. There is more to IP activism than free stuff.

Oh, come now. What’s being discussed is “information”. You may be using the term to mean “materials that can be copyrighted”, but that’s an overly narrow view. I’ll assume that you’re correct about Gutenberg, but are you really trying to make the claim that news is not information?

In my view, the phrase “information wants to be free” parallels the idea that if more than two people know something, it’s no longer a secret. Once “information” is available, it is very difficult to stop its propagation. No more, no less than that.

I make no claims about what the majority of people mean when they use the phrase.

Odd. They way I always heard it is in reference to reporters writing exposé stories.

Exactly. Before I read the OP and had only seen the title, I understood this to mean something like “the truth will out”, i.e. information that is hidden will find some way to reveal itself (in a manner of speaking, not intending to attribute intent to an inanimate entity like “information”).

Mmm. If the saying {I refuse to use the word “meme”} weren’t applied to something as nebulous, ill-defined and with so many attendant emotive associations as “information”, it would sound plain stupid: “Treacle wants to be free.”

For those who would argue that information - if we’re talking about information such as computer software, books and music - is not analogous to treacle, consider that they both take time and money to produce.

I just finished that book recently. Great nostalgia trip it is.

What’s interesting is that there is a renewed interest in some of that old computer and game software now, almost 30 years after it came out. Some is distributed for free around the net accompanied by emulator software, and many of the creators are fine with it, but it retains an air of illegality.

Funny thing, though. If the US had not altered its copyright laws drastically in 1976 in anticipation of becoming a signatory to the Berne Convention (which didn’t happen for another dozen years) Some of that software would have been hitting the end of its first 28 year copyright term within the past few years if the law hadn’t changed to 75 years for works for hire (now 95 years). With many of the companies out of business, the copyrights might not have been renewed, the stuff would be in the public domain anyway, and a lot of this argument would go away.

What I read is that the European intellectual property laws are almost psychotic in their preference for the creator’s right to control over the public’s right to access, so one has to wonder if signing the Berne convention was such a good idea. Or if computer software should have been left in the care of the old law…