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Information doesn’t want to be free

It is more and more common these days to hear phrases like “information wants to be free.” I will go for the charitable interpretation and assume that people don’t mean that information actually has wants and desires, like a conscious creature. [If anyone truly thinks something like that, they may want to join the local chapter of the Cuckoo Club and certainly not read the rest of this post.]

What I take people to mean by that strange phrase is something more along the lines that in the era of the internet people have a right to completely free information. This is the sentiment that floated around most recently after the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, who was viciously prosecuted by an overzealous Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office for having downloaded academic papers from a pay site (which didn’t actually press charges) and threatened to distribute them free over the net (which he didn’t). [1] A broader version of the same discussion has been going on for years with regard to illegal downloads of music, movies and books.

I have very little sympathy for the music, video and publishing industries as such: indeed, with large industries of any kind. Which means that I am very much in favor of multiplying distribution channels, encouraging the flourishing of small publishers, and even preferring direct marketing by artists and authors.

But I truly don’t understand the idea that with the advent of the internet “information,” meaning pretty much everything that is not a material good, ought to be available for free. Why?

An important component of that idea is that things are different now with the internet, considered a special case when compared to any other means of distribution of information. But, again, why should this be so? The intuition seems to be that physical cd’s, dvd’s and books cost money to be produced, while everyone can copy any e-version of the same products quickly and at virtually no cost (you still have to pay for storage space and electricity to run the computers though). But this is quite naive. There remain plenty of significant costs to produce, say, an e-book. Let me walk you through the process as I experienced it first hand, with my latest book, Answers for Aristotle.

To begin with, of course, the author (me, in this case) has to have the idea and set aside countless hours to develop it. If time is money, and unless you are independently wealthy, there is cost #1.

If you wish to put out said book with a general (as opposed to an academic) publisher you will need a professional agent. Cost #2. (This one, of course, doesn’t apply for academic books, but everything else does.)

Once you get a contract and finish the book, the publishing house will give it to an editor to look over for style and content. Cost #3.

Assuming everything goes hunky-dory, the book goes into production, which means someone has to pay a copy editor and an index preparer. Costs #4 and #5.

Before the book can actually get published it will need a nice looking cover (cost #6) and a  preliminary publicity campaign (#7).

Finally, nobody will read the book unless it is properly distributed, which even online is still costly (just inquire with Amazon, #8), though I suppose we could eventually move to reduce (but not eliminate!) that cost if the publishers themselves begin to sell e-books through their web sites. (But then there is the very pressing problem that potential readers are far less likely to visit hundreds or thousands of sites rather than aggregators like Amazon or Smashwords.)

At the end of all this you have the nerve to get on a soap box and demand that my book (or music, or film) should be available for free? On what grounds, pray? Why shouldn’t my distributor, my publicist, my copy editor, my editor, and — frankly — I, not get paid for the work we’ve done?

It should be clear to readers of this blog, or listeners of my podcast, that I do make quite a bit of my work available for free. There aren’t even ads on my web sites! I have thus far produced more than 1,000 articles for the blog and taped close to 80 shows for the podcast, not to mention the countless public lectures that I give. For the latter I sometimes do get an honorarium, but more often than not I offer to do them at cost (i.e., only travel expenses paid). Many such lectures are taped and distributed for free on my YouTube channel and other outlets. But why should anyone demand that everything I do be made available for free? Shouldn’t that choice be up to the author (or musician, or director, or whatever) who actually produced the work? [2]

All of the above said, of course, I think that the crime of illegally copying or downloading music, videos and books (unless done on an industrial scale for reselling purposes) is a fairly minor one, certainly when compared to violent crimes, many white collar crimes, war crimes, and so on. So talk of years of jail time and millions of dollars of fines is ludicrous, and results from the pressure put on prosecutors by panic-stricken large corporations who see the clear and present danger of largely ill-gotten profits vanish overnight. Nonetheless, a crime it remains. And more importantly, an unethical thing to do, whether permitted by the law or not. I would very much like to hear any coherent ethical defense of the opposing viewpoint. But please don’t tell me that people have a natural right to free information. The very idea of natural rights, as Jeremy Bentham famously put it, is nonsense on stilts. Which just happens to be the title of my previous book...


[1] Despite the general gist of this post, I am extremely sympathetic to the idea that most academic papers should be made available for free, on the ground that much of the money and effort that goes into writing them comes from the public purse. Which is why many of my own papers are indeed available for free on my site, and why I edit an online open access academic journal devoted to the intersection between biology and philosophy.

[2] Another complex, but related discussion here concerns the concept of copyright. My position in that regard is that copyright should rest only and exclusively with the author, not the publisher, on the grounds that s/he is the creative force behind the work (as opposed to the packaging or distributing forces). And I adamantly think that copyright should not be inherited by the author’s “estate.” My daughter didn’t write any of my books, I don’t see why she should be benefiting from them past my death. Instead, they should automatically enter the public domain.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.

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