Culture

Information Yearns to Be Free

It was once famously argued that “information yearns to be free”. I find this to be a truth with evidence regardless of the type of content—that is whether it’s content in the form of newspaper journalism, music, television or movies.

Our first point of evidence is the fall of the Great Wall of New York—New York Times, that is. The New York Times, despite other failed attempts by news media websites in the past, tried a for pay model putting its content behind a subscriber wall. It took them just a couple of years to realize what the public already knew… this information should be free. Even while the wall remained it was an amusing phenomenon as users would search for content in a search engine such as Google, find a New York Times article on their site, and then after being greeted with the request to login or subscribe, return to the search engine results often to find the article elsewhere in a syndicated form. The New York Times removed the “great wall” and the paid service stating that they could make more money from the revenue of advertisements placed on the web pages than from the maintenance of this separate for-pay subscriber entity.

An example that many more are aware of is the war in the music industry between artists, record labels (armed as the Record Industry Association of America), and the fans. With the advent of peer-to-peer networking technology and clients such as Napster, users began to trade music in a style much like mix-tapes of the past. Friends would share music recommendations which could then be downloaded for free using Napster. The record industry rebuked their users, took them to court and even tried to ban the use of personal MP3 players to maintain their tight grip on the industry. However, music, like all information yearns to be free. This could be viewed both in a momentary since, as well as free from constraint.

Artists countered the RIAA with tactics of their own. Dave Matthews Band, from the inception of the band, created a free taping policy where any live performance may be taped and shared (ala Grateful Dead). Another of my favorite band’s—Wilco—released their album online, bypassing the record industry. (Many wonder if Dave’s never released “Lillywhite” recordings were in the same vein.) And most recently, Radiohead splashed the news with the release of their newest album, In Rainbows, which is only distributed via their band’s website and for which you decide what you’d like to pay.

Artists counter the false paranoia from the RIAA that digital music sharing will be “the end of music” saying that music sharing is the means by which they stay connected to fans, and grow their fan base. Personal anecdotes confirm this reasoning: While I have more than thirty live shows of Dave, I have still purchased nearly every CD released. I’m listening to Radiohead again because I was able to download their album for free. (My only issue is that I want to pay retroactively, and I’m not sure there’s a way to do that!) This supports the perspective that digital music sharing is that it is a “try it before you buy it” model.

Lastly, we’re starting to see television have similar industry reaction. While it’s yet to be seen how it will play out, owners of personal video recorders (PVR) such as Windows Media Center saw a frightening move just a few weeks ago when suddenly shows taped on networks such as HBO refused to play back instead displaying an error “Restricted Content: Restrictions set by the broadcaster and/or originator of the content prohibit playback of the program on this computer.”

Hence we see that information struggles and yearns to be free… and ironically, when this freedom is realized it only seems to be to the benefit of those who tried previously to restrain it.

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