Information doesn’t want to be free

I’m an open-source, free software and free speech advocate. But some of the catchphrases of the open-source generation are really beginning to annoy me, as are many of the attitudes of the people who chant them and abuse them for personal gain.

Take the mantra “Information wants to be free.” Horsehockey. Information doesn’t want anything. People want information to be free. The fact is our current system entitles us to some free information, and it requires us to purchase or license other information.

You may not like the fact that some information must be licensed, but that’s how it is. Those who want information to be free as a matter of principle should create some information and make it free. But what they shouldn’t do is license or buy existing information that is not free and then cut it loose without permission. That’s just plain wrong, and it demonstrates that what they are interested in is not free speech at all but getting stuff without paying for it.

This is the problem I have with Napster Inc. Napster is a fine technology that could be put to good use. But so far the controversy over Napster doesn’t seem to be about free speech. It’s about free stuff. It’s about a technology that makes it possible to circumvent the intent of publishing music on CDs. And the controversy persists only because, so far, few people have suffered severe enough consequences.

If you want the system to change, then change it the way Linux has changed the complexion of software. Change it by recording new music with musicians who buy in to your new way of distributing music and then give their music away.

Let me put this another way. If this is really about principle and not greed, then I would like to issue a challenge to you Napster advocates: I suggest you create a new peer-to-peer networking system for software. I’ll call this hypothetical system “Crookster.” I challenge you to make all your favourite commercial software applications freely available to anyone who downloads the Crookster client. But don’t do this anonymously like the Warez Doodz. Do it for the cause because you believe that information truly wants to be free. And here’s a tip for those who want to draw media attention to your righteous cause. I suggest you start by sharing your copy of Windows 2000 with the world. I guarantee you’ll get coverage on all the major networks.

This brings me to my point. Have you noticed that few, if any, Napster advocates are arguing that it should be legal to purchase a copy of Windows 2000 and share it with a community of Windows fans on the Internet via a peer-to-peer networking system? Why not? Is it because there are no fans or potential fans of Windows 2000? Or is it because they know Microsoft Corp.’s lawyers would have them thrown in the hoosegow before they could finish their next morning’s Wheaties?

Or is it because people are already addressing the issue of free software the right way? Instead of subverting an existing system of commercial software, they are creating new open-source software and publishing it.

Likewise, if people want music to be free, they should create free music and distribute it. We all have the right and opportunity to create new ways of doing things. Linux demonstrates that such efforts can be highly successful. But we do not have a right to subvert existing systems in the name of free speech just because we have the technology to do so.

Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld ( You can reach him at [email protected].

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