Information wants to be free ... and expensive

July 20, 2009: 10:00 AM ET
Stewart Brand, futurist

Stewart Brand, futurist, who first said, "Information wants to be free."

Futurist Stewart Brand was the first to say "Information wants to be free." He also said it "wants to  be expensive."

By Richard Siklos, editor at large

Rarely a day goes by in media and tech business circles without somebody crying "Information wants to be free!" as a justification for distributing or copying someone else's content -- and as an explanation for why so many traditional information purveyors are in peril.

So I thought I'd ring the man who coined the phrase: Silicon Valley futurist Stewart Brand. This year, after all, marks the 25th anniversary of the event where the words were first uttered -- the first Hackers Conference, which Brand helped organize, in 1984. According to a transcript of the event, Brand first said "Information wants to be free" in response to a point made by Apple co-founder (and recent Dancing With the Stars contestant) Steve Wozniak. Wozniak told the 125 programmers gathered in Sausalito, Calif., that it was a shame companies wouldn't give engineers the rights to products they developed if the company decided not to market them. Brand followed up by saying, "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," he went on, "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."

Wozniak replied, "Information should be free, but your time should not."

The exchange presages what's happening in the music industry: Artists are making less and less from selling their music, but they are making more and more from touring. "That leaves the music companies somewhat out of the middle, but so what," says Brand, who is now 70. "My original point is that because the technology keeps moving, it keeps the tension alive between free and expensive, so it never stabilizes. In a sense, this rewards the innovative and punishes those who can't innovate or change rapidly."

Brand says his trademark phrase often is misinterpreted in the current debate -- even by smarty-pants people like Google executives. The big issues in the corporate world seem to be whether content should be supported by advertising, subscriptions, or micropayments -- not whether such material should truly be completely free (though intellectual-property protection remains as important an issue as ever). But Brand also notes that untethered information in the form of electronic distribution isn't to blame for the rapid deterioration in the finances of the newspaper industry. "Free is not the main event there," he says.

His view is that newspapers need to embrace a world of two-way social interaction and information immediacy (e.g., Twitter stuff). He also thinks the industry missed a chance to take classified ads online. In the early 1990s, Brand advised the Washington Post to do so. "Of course the editorial people thought the classified ads were the low-rent thing that went next to the high-value thing, the editorial stuff," he recalls. "They basically said to me, 'Thank you for your time, and where do we send the check?'"

Every day, it seems, there are fresh examples of Brand's famous paradox. "How much did we all pay for the video of the woman being killed in Tehran the other day? Nobody paid anything," Brand says. "It's not only free of money: It's free of credit for [the person] who shot the video." Will people still be chanting "Information wants to be free" in another 25 years? Brand isn't sure, but, alas, he says he has no brilliant new catch phrase to supersede the old one.

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