Old Media, the Wild Web and the Meaning of “Free”

Related story

Putting a Lid on the Internet Soup

The Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were crafted to make it easier to combat Internet piracy, but many in the Internet community have seen them as a threat to the very essence of the Internet.

After Google, Wikipedia, and tens of thousands of other websites protested the proposed Protect IP and Stop Online Privacy acts (PIPA and SOPA, respectively), Brian Greenspun, a Las Vegas newspaper publisher who includes himself among those “struggling in the media business,” responded by pointing out that the Internet is not free. His column in the Jan. 22 Las Vegas Sun does not specify whether he means “free as in beer” or “free as in freedom,” but his comments suggest he means free as in beer. Which means he starts his argument by completely missing the larger point.

On the one hand, I have great sympathy for Mr. Greenspun. It is sad when huge industries change and entire ways of life disappear. In the past, when trains were supplanted by trucks and airplanes, and when radio was supplanted by television, many wonderful traditions were lost forever. I personally love the inspiring stories I’ve heard about newspaper culture, including the camaraderie of beat reporters and the excitement of using pay phones to dictate breaking news in a rush to meet daily deadlines. But I know that culture is fading, and I will never experience it completely. Like the young reporter in Almost Famous, I sometimes feel like I got here just in time for the death rattle of the mass-market print newspaper business. But at least I’m here for that. I believe writing has great value, regardless of whether it is processed through the vast printing infrastructure that is growing obsolete, or hosted on a homemade Web server in someone’s back room. And I don’t believe we have to hang on to old traditions in order to insure that writing, and all acts of creating and expressing ideas, will continue to have value.

Mr. Greenspun asserts that “nothing is free”—and maybe 50 years ago, during the industrial age, he could have made a case for that position. But today, in the information age, he is simply wrong. To test his assertion, I went to Wikipedia, one of the most notable participants in last week’s protests, and tried in vain to find any advertisements. Yes, I know Wikipedia is funded by donations. And I know sometimes it solicits donations on its site. And someday I even plan to make a donation myself. But for the moment, until I actually get around to making that that donation, the site is still available to me to use however I want—for free.

The Internet’s ability to copy and distribute information so inexpensively has quickly rendered the massive distribution infrastructures of many industries completely obsolete. Whereas the primary cost of information used to be in distributing it, today it is in creating it. It is true that initially creating worthwhile information will never be completely free, but once that information is created, it can be copied and distributed so inexpensively that each individual copy is, for all practical purposes, free. I agree that people (like me) who create “content” should be reasonably compensated for their work. But once they have been paid, I don’t think the continued (free) availability of their work on the web will cause them to suddenly lose the will to create.

In addition, many people gladly create things of great value in pursuit of a wide variety of compensations other than money. Some seek personal recognition, some seek social acceptance, some seek the knowledge that their contribution will make a difference, and some create just for the pleasure of creating.

Wikipedia was created primarily by volunteers, and is completely free. Linux was created by a complex collaboration of both paid and unpaid contributors, and is completely free. The Internet Archive hosts a massive collection of public domain works, which are completely free. Project Gutenberg is free. LibriVox is free. The list goes on. And the amount of free content available on the Internet grows exponentially by the day. Today many of the previous generation’s so-called “content providers” are rightfully scared to death, since they are no longer the gatekeepers of information they once were.

Mr. Greenspun’s one strong argument is his description of how piracy is hurting Hollywood. On that point, he is not wrong. There is ample evidence that the strong copyright protection in the U.S. is what enables Hollywood studios to invest massive amounts of money in special effects-laden blockbusters and still have a reasonable expectation that they will be able to turn a profit. Other markets, such as Europe, have weaker copyright protection and are unable to profitably invest in such expensive productions. To make interesting movies, their filmmakers are often reduced to relying on such antiquated techniques as plot and character.

Implied in Mr. Greenspun’s use of the Hollywood argument is that we must do whatever is necessary protect our ability to keep making big, expensive productions. But if I were forced to choose between Wikipedia and, say, the latest Mission: Impossible movie, as hard as it might be, I think I could manage to live without Tom Cruise in exchange for the right to retain my access to such a vast amount of collected knowledge.

But it needn’t come to that. With a little work, I expect we can figure out a way for Wikipedia and Mr. Cruise to peacefully coexist. Wikipedia isn’t in favor of piracy. In fact, Wikipedia is aggressively proactive about locating and removing copyright violations from its site. (Which, ironically, means it was never a primary target of PIPA or SOPA anyway.) And when everyone is willing to be reasonable, there are often ways to reconcile what may at first appear to be conflicting goals. For example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) introduced the idea of “safe harbors” over a decade ago, which enable copyright owners to get infringing content removed while simultaneously protecting responsible sites from irresponsible harassment.

These safe harbors demonstrate one way to balance the ability to protect intellectual property with the ability for Internet providers to allow free (as in freedom) use of their services to customers. With some thought and creativity, I expect we can find more ways to balance the superficially opposing goals of enabling Internet users to continue to enjoy their freedoms while insuring that Mr. Cruise can pay his rent.

Is there a perfect solution that will make everyone happy? Absolutely not. Creative solutions and compromises will only go so far. Ultimately, there is a point where we must face direct trade-offs between freedom and economic control. The explosion of the current Internet—the piracy-and pornography-infested, disorganized, messy, free Internet—has demonstrated that massive freedom leads to massive innovation, which leads to startups and jobs and, yes, to money. And if the trade-off is that a few large, old-line companies end up suffering so that lots of younger and, in most cases, smaller companies can thrive, I think that’s a trade-off worth making.

For now, the older media companies have a choice: They can work with newer companies and the general public to craft intellectual property laws that may not be as strict as the big movie and music and publishing companies would like, but that will enforce the laws as well as possible without infringing on individual freedoms. Or, if those companies don’t like that option, they can try yet again to force through strict laws designed protect their interests, while ignoring everyone else’s. And, if they do try, they will undoubtedly trigger yet another unnecessary backlash in which their legislation will get derailed and everyone will fuss and no real progress will get made at all.

Unlike some commentators on the Internet, I’m not against big companies or old media. I just think it’s time for them to start living with the rest of us in the real world.

While Mr. Greenspun considers this, perhaps he should re-read A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, and remember that there are plenty of people out there on the other side who, like him, would also be perfectly happy not to compromise at all.