Free Comes with a Price Tag
Stewart Brand is credited with coining the phrase "information wants to be free." In the wake of the suicide of 26-year-old cyber activist Aaron Swartz, we need to re-evaluate that assumption.
Brand, the former editor of The Whole Earth Catalog and a technology early adopter, is a living link between two great surges in what has been labeled "the culture of free": the 1967 Summer of Love and the Age of Information that went supernova in the late 1990s. Each period has stretched the definition of "free."
During the Summer of Love, the Diggers Collective tried to build a money-free enclave in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. They ran "free" soup kitchens, stores, clinics and concerts. Myth records this as a noble effort that ran aground; history reveals less lofty realities. "Free" was in the eye of the beholder. The Diggers accumulated much of the food, clothing, medicine, and electronic equipment it redistributed by shaking down local merchants like longhaired mob muscle. Local merchants viewed Digger "donations" as a cost of doing business analogous to lost revenue from shoplifting. Somebody paid for the goods; it just wasn’t the Diggers or their clients.
Move the clock forward. Aaron Swartz’s martyr status crystallizes as I type. As the legend grows, Swartz was a brilliant and idealistic young man who dropped out of Stanford and liberated information for the masses until swatted down by multinational corporations, elitist universities, and the government. Faced with the potential of spending decades behind bars for charges related to hacking into JSTOR, a depressed Swartz committed suicide. (In truth, as The Boston Globe has reported, a plea bargain was nearly in place for a four-to-six-month sentence.)
I am sorry that Swartz died, and couldn’t begin to say whether he was chronically depressed, or if his legal woes pushed him over the edge. I do assert, though, that he was no hero. The appropriate label is one he once proudly carried: hacker. Hacking, no matter how principled, is a form of theft.
It’s easy to trivialize what Swartz did because it was just a database of academic articles. I wonder if his supporters would have felt as charitable if he had "freed" bank deposits. His was not an innocent act. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the not-unreasonable position that there is a considerable difference between downloading articles from free accounts registered with a university, and purloining 4.8 million documents by splicing into wiring accessed via unauthorized entry into a computer closet. That’s hacking in my book – the moral equivalent of diverting a bank teller with a small transaction whilst a partner ducks behind the counter and liberates the till.
Brand and his contemporaries often parse the definition of free. Taking down barriers and making data easier to exchange is “freeing” in that changing technology makes access broader and cheaper to deliver. Alas, many young people don’t distinguish between "freeing" and "free." Many of my undergrads think nearly all information should come at no cost – free online education, free movies, free music, free software, free video games…. Many justify this as Swartz did: that the value of ideas and culture is artificially inflated by info robber barons.
They’re happy to out the villains: entrenched university administrations, Hollywood producers, Netflix, the Big Three record labels, Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega…. I recently had a student pulled from my class and arrested for illegal music downloading. He was considerably less worried than Swartz and pronounced, "I fundamentally don’t believe anyone should ever have to pay for music." This, mind you, after I shared tales of folk musicians and independent artists that can’t live by their art unless they can sell it.
Sorry, but this mentality is wrong. Equally misguided are those who, like Swartz before his death, seek to scuttle the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Are these perfect bills? No. Do they protect big corporations, but do little to shelter the proverbial small fish? Yes. Do we need a larger political debate about the way in which conglomeration has stifled innovation and competition? Book me a front-row seat for that donnybrook. Are consumers of everything from music to access to academic articles being price gouged? Probably. But the immediate possibility of living in a world in which everything is literally free is as likely as the discovery of unicorns grazing on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Let’s turn to JSTOR, the object of Swartz’s most recent hijinks. (He was a repeat offender.) JSTOR isn’t popular among librarians seeking subscription money, or those called upon to pay for access to an article (which is almost no one with a university account who doesn’t rewire the network). Many wonder why money accrues to those whose only "creation" is to aggregate the labor of others, especially when some form of taxpayer money underwrote many of the articles. That’s a legitimate concern, but defending Swartz’s method elevates vigilantism above the rules of law and reason. More to the point, reckless "liberation" often does more harm than good.
JSTOR charges university libraries a king’s ransom for its services. Still, few libraries could subscribe to JSTOR’s 1,400 journals more cheaply. (Nor do many have the space to store the physical copies.) The institutional costs for top journals are pricey. Go to the Oxford University Website and you’ll find that very few can be secured for under $200 per volume, and several are over $2,000. One must ultimately confront a question ignored by the culture of free: Why does information cost so much?
Short answer: Because journals don’t grow on trees. It’s intoxicating to think that information can be figuratively and literally free, until one assembles an actual journal. I don’t care how you do it; it’s going to cost you.
I’m the associate editor of a very small journal in the academic pond. We still offer print journals, which entails thousands of dollars in printing and mailing costs for each issue. Fine, you say, print is dead. Produce an e-journal. Would that be "free?" Our editor is a full-time academic. She can only put in the hours needed to sift articles, farm them out for expert review, send accepted articles to copy editors, forward copy to a designer, and get the journal to subscribers because her university gives her a course reduction each semester. That’s real money; it costs her department thousands of dollars to replace her courses. Design, copy editing, and advertising fees must be paid, and a few small stipends are doled out. Without violating confidentiality I can attest that even a modest journal is expensive to produce. You can’t just give it away, because subscribers pick up the tab for everything that can’t be bartered.
Could you do this free online with no membership base? Sure – with a team of editors, designers, and Web gurus that don’t want to get paid for the countless hours they will devote to each issue. Do you believe enough in the culture of free to devote your life to uncompensated toil? (Careful: The Diggers don’t operate those free stores anymore.) By the way, if you want anyone to read your journal, you’ll give it to JSTOR or some other aggregator. Unless, of course, you can drum up lots of free advertising.
The way forward in the Age of Information begins with an honest assessment of the hidden costs within the culture of free. I suggest we retire the sexy-but-hollow phrase “information wants to be free" and resurrect this one: "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." And for hackers and info thieves, here’s one from my days as a social worker: "If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime."
Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.
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