Friday, July 10, 2009

Information wants to be free? (or people want it to be--but why?)

There has existed, through history, the idea that the transfer of ideas should not be impeded. I happen to agree with this for the most part. I think some sort of information should be, and will tend to become, freely available. Publicly funded research results, information that advances the public good, philosophical debate, news, etc. When this type of information circulates freely it benefits everyone. But I also deeply believe that those who labor have the right to benefit from their labors. And I do not generally find these two ideas conflict with each other, for the simple reason that in most cases the product of our labors is a work, not an idea--and books are no exception.

With the recent release of Chris Anderson's book "free" the notions of tangibility and profitability seem to have got tangled up again. And at the centre of the issue is plagiarism. It is wrong, is it avoidable. Everything on the Internet is supposed to fee open source and free because... um, damned if I know. Perhaps because people want free stuff and they don't think they should have to feel guilty about stealing it?

I mean, it seem to me that there are two entirely separable qualities at play. One is abstraction. An abstract idea will tend to be free. You can come up with the idea of a vampire pirate, but you can't own that idea, you would have trouble selling it, and as such no one could really steal it. If, however, you write a novel about a vampire pirate that specific series of words constitutes a work in the same way that brush strokes make a painting and ingredients a cake. It is a product of labor, wholly owned by its creator, able to be sold and subject, practically and morally, to theft.

As an entirely separate issue there is tangibility. The book may be made available in paperback, or as an ebook. This is purely a matter of format. It has relatively little impact, if any, on how hard the work was to create and how much it is worth. The fact that a work is made available in an intangible form does not make it an abstract idea (with specific exceptions) lacking innate worth. A digital work is still a work, and no one knows that more than the author that did the work. When this type of work circulated for free some people get a free book and someone gets exploited. I am not really seeing the public good.

Excluding, it seems, Chris Anderson who cut and paste large sections of his book from uncredited sources such as Wikipedia and other websites and blogs. So it seems many people are willing to be instructed about whether artists should expect to be paid for digital works by someone who seems to either not understand or not feel bound by the relevant laws and other codes of online conduct. And more importantly, one who would rather appropriate the work of others than do it himself.

As such he may have failed to understand the distinction between and idea and a "work". Anderson wants to benefit from the labor of others, and to rearrange the world such this this theft is considered natural and virtuous. I expect those who are rushing to agree with him may share those qualities. The rest of us are stuck with trying to work for a living.

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