Piracy Myths Debunked #2 “Information wants to be free”

“Information wants to be free …”

How often have you heard this bit of bullshit. It is trotted out regularly as some kind of pseudo religious credo, great words of wisdom dropped from on high as a sacred justification for larceny.

‘information’ wants to be free, does it? There’s some inherent consciousness in a piece of recorded music, or a movie that is crying out in the digital void to be relieved of a price tag?


Let’s call on the resources of Wikipedia to furnish a more complete understanding of where this ‘quote’ came from (BTW even Wikipedia isn’t free, despite containing a LOT of information).

The iconic phrase is attributed to Stewart Brand.[1] who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing.[2] The earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984. Brand told Steve Wozniak:[3]

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.[4]

Brand’s conference remarks are transcribed in the Whole Earth Review (May 1985, p. 49) and a later form appears in his The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT:[5]

Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.[4]

According to historian Adrian Johns, the slogan expresses a view that had already been articulated in the mid-20th century by Norbert Wiener, Michael Polanyi and Arnold Plant, who advocated the free communication of scientific knowledge, and specifically criticized the patent system.[6]

So, to sum up … Stewart Brand was NOT saying that the internet should be full of free stuff. And he certainly wasn’t ascribing any consciousness to consumer commodities. He was merely reflecting that the cost of manufacturing and distributing certain commodities was trending down as a result of digital technologies. But clearly, he was also offering a balanced view that IP, knowledge, original ideas … these have value, sometimes a great deal of value. And one opposes the other.

Which is why I’m writing this post. My notion of value is completely opposed to the idea that things I create ought to be taken from me by strangers, without permission, and offered for free indiscriminately.

Information wants to be free …?

No, it doesn’t. Some people want it to be free, yes, but that’s a different conclusion entirely.

About Costa Botes

I'm a freelance film maker based in Wellington, New Zealand. I make mainly long form independent documentaries about characters I find interesting.
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2 Responses to Piracy Myths Debunked #2 “Information wants to be free”

  1. Jacobs Englund says:

    Radio did not kill novels. Vinyl records did not kill radio. Film did not kill theater. TV did not kill cinemas. VCR did not kill TV. Cassette tapes did not kill music.

    You, on the other hand, are digging your own grave by clinging to the past.

    Because vinyl did kill magnet rolls. Cassettes did kill vinyl. CDs did kill cassettes. VCR did kill betamax. DVDs did kill laserdiscs. And streaming put a nail in the coffin of physical media storage.

    And the only thing you will accomplish by fighting the future, is being forgotten.

    • Costa Botes says:

      Ah, but I am not fighting the future Jacobs. I am fighting FOR a future, against thieves and moochers.

      My work is created on cutting edge digital technology. And it is available on same. Or soon will be. No wax cylinders in my house.
      I don’t give a damn what the delivery medium is for my films.

      So thanks for your neat analogy. But its not very compelling, either as a piece of logic, or a moral argument. My problem is not that I’m unable or unwilling to shift mediums. My problem is people who have convinced themselves it’s okay to help themselves to things without paying.

      I believe that theft and bad manners have never been acceptable in the past, whatever the prevailing technology. Neither should they be acceptable in the future.

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