‘Why information should remain free’


General Culture

You’ve probably seen articles like this one, entitled Why information should remain free, by Tom White. It does seem to make a lot of sense, right? After all, the web does away with all those pesky problems about distribution, ink and paper - so why should information not be free? The problem with all of this is that it ignores the fact that someone will have to pay the salaries of the people who put that information online, and curiously enough, that aspect I almost never see addressed anywhere. It’s great to talk about how information should be free - even though it feels a bit like trying to argue with a bumper sticker, doesn’t it?

(updated below)

Tom writes that “The internet is a great tool for the distribution of content, but it is also a potential market place for goods. The buying and selling of goods and services is what generates revenue. To argue that journalism is a service is one thing, but you are not going to convince many wallets to open with that argument.” Oh yeah?

Go to your accountant to get your taxes done and then tell her/him that her/his argument that s/he needs to get paid for her/his services does not convince you to open your wallet. Any idea how well that will work?

You might argue that that’s different, because unlike a journalist an accountant adds something to the information you have - except that’s simply not true. The accountant adds just as much or little as a journalist; and if we’re paying accountants for what they do why then is that journalists somehow cannot ask for money?

Of course, you could argue that you could get “Turbotax” and do taxes yourself, but what about your doctor? It’s a service, too, right? You want to rely on “WebMD” for your medical problems?

Even though it feels like it, the word “information” is not a word like “freedom”. It feels as if these words operate following the same rules, and in a sense they do. But one cannot deduce anything from that. The people who are trying to charge money for their services online are not just putting any kind of information out there. It’s not random words or images.

If the New York Times wants to charge money from people who read more than just the casual article, they are not charging money for something you can find elsewhere. You are asked to pay for New York Times contents. You are asked to pay for the salaries of the people who spend all day producing the kind of contents they put online. That is what you are being asked to pay for. It might be information in some sort of way, but it’s not any kind of information.

So if your reaction to the NY Times “pay wall” is going to be “Well, then I’ll just read other sites” you are deceiving yourself: You are not going to find the same stuff elsewhere.

Oh, and “freedom isn’t free” (a bumper sticker slogan I’ve come across frequently).

At the end of Why information should remain free, there’s a telling part: “The internet will help me distribute my work, but it is not in itself going to pay my bills or put my kids through college. I am lucky that my wife brings in a regular wage from her day job which allows me to have a family in the first place and not worry if next month’s work is going to pay the rent or not. If I am going to survive and thrive, I have to understand how the internet can work for me.”

There it is: someone will have to pay. In this case, it’s Tom’s wife bringing in the regular wage, thus - essentially - paying so that Tom can do his job. It’s a very similar situation that freelancers find themselves in, when they temp at a company without any benefits: Many freelancers can only afford doing that because their spouses have jobs with benefits. So essentially, the “employers” of the freelancers outsource some of their costs to other people.

It really is essential that we start to realize that if we want to keep a vibrant internet - an internet that has many, independent voices - then we need to get used to the fact that we have to support the people who produce the contents we enjoy. See, of course, it’s possible that there will be some very smart way to pay for contents that does not involve us paying directly. But somebody will still have to pay.

Of course, I’m not a disinterested party here - as you probably figured by now. This blog has been free - and it will remain free. But I want to expand the blog and turn it into what I do full-time, so I can produce more in-depth contents etc. For me being able to do that I need to find a way to make money from it.

I will admit that getting to this point has been very difficult. For the longest time, I subscribed to the idea that “information should be free,” but over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that… Well, no need to repeat what I wrote above.

Update (1 February 2010): Tom got in touch with me, telling me he feels I misread and then consequently misrepresented what he wrote about his personal income situation. He does in fact not have to rely on his wife’s income, his own income allows him to work as a photographer. I’m sorry about this misunderstanding, Tom!

Update 2 (1 February 2010): Tom wrote a follow-up article that addresses some of the issues raised here and in our email exchange. Go and read it! I have to say, I have always hoped that there would be more exchanges like this one; the photo blogosphere still for the most part works like isolated islands in a vast sea. A back-and-forth, with disagreements - and probably even the kinds of misunderstandings that can’t be avoided but that can be dealt with - isn’t that something that would really move photography blogging forward?