It just feels natural because it is: you get up in the morning on your bed, have your breakfast, wear your clothes. We live surrounded by things we own. But ownership is nothing more than a form of restricted freedom: everyone else acts as if they believed that it's not OK to just crash your door and pour some of your coffee, even though they could, if they tried to. Societies are functional because, among other things, we have come to terms with the idea of someone "owning" stuff, and it has been working fine for a long time.
Until the invention of means to sell intellectual property, that is.
In 1980, Richard Stallman and some other software engineers at MIT were frustrated by the fact that they just could not tinker with the software that ran the Xerox 9700 laser printer that they had. They owned it (or at least the MIT had paid for it), and yet, they could not do as they pleased with it. It's as if you were sold a bottle of wine that could only pour in crystal glasses. For physical objects, the fact that something is in your posession, under your control, means complete control: they might refuse to help you if you break it, but as far as you're concerned, there's nothing that's stopping you from looking under the hood.
This experience was what convinced Stallman of people's need to be free to modify the software they use. That is, he believed that society should treat intellectual property as if it were physical: control is either complete, once purchased, or it isn't control at all.
Ah, but there's an obvious point to be made: software isn't physical. It's not stuff, in the sense that there are no limits to your ability to copy paste it endlessly1. The economics of redistribution is the first thing that goes out the window, because it used to be prohibitively expensive to buy something, figure out how to make it, and turn around and find people to sell it to. Non-physical properties do not operate under that paradigm. But, then, in what paradigm do they operate?
There's a remarkable moment in The Mentalist where the star character offers advice on how to seduce a woman. "Seduction is easy once you know the basic principles". And then, he says: It'll cost you a dollar, so you pay attention. It's the perfect metaphor of how informational products are sold online: there's the platitude, followed by the sale. The platitude is free; it's a form of marketing and proof of credentials: it's as important to say something true as it is for it to be just actionable enough and said in a confident way, leaving you curious.
Again and again, we keep on mistaking the platitude for the product. Google isn't a search engine. It sells ads. Search results are the bait. The Internet is what transmits the platitude at lightning speed to global audiences. What you do with that is what cannot be replicated. What's free on the Internet is nothing like 'free beer'; it's more like "the first beer is free".
In 1995, CD sales peaked. As soon as a cheaper means to transmit music became widespread, forcing people to buy circular plastic to listen to music wasn't a viable business anymore. And that cheaper means was the relentless copy machine we call The Internet.
At its most foundational level, [the Internet] copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it.
– Kevin Kelly, Better than Free
I know it's sort of an obvious thing to say, but humour me: the Internet changed everything. For those of us who create intellectual property for a living (writers of words meant to be read either by humans or machines), there is simply no way to approach a market just by showing up: everyone is just one click away. Copies of what you sell are not Made-in-China cheap; they are Designed-in-California free.
And yet, we still think that what we sell is unique in some way. As if that mattered. As if there wasn't a kid that speaks just good enough broken English to do what you do better, faster, and for peanuts. As if the guys who invented the Xerox 9700 that Stallman wanted to tinker with were still around. As if Google or Facebook, or even Microsoft2, weren't furiously churning tools to accelerate this everything-is-free trend even more.
When thinking of selling music, it always brings me back to a younger version of me, paying for alcohol when I wanted to get into a club. Music was free to dance to, as long as you paid for a minimum number of drinks.
Everything is free. Free as in "you don't pay anything upfront". But not as in "free beer". What I want you to consider is that those companies in the business of giving you things for free so that you click ads are the ones most eager to share open source tools, contribute to projects that are meant to be free, and commoditize products that used to have more straightforward, single-purchase business models. Everything is free in the Internet because we have been taught that the only appropriate business model online is free consumption under commercial barrage.
Stallman didn't win; information was never meant to be free on its own. We're just paying for it somewhere else.
- Thanks Larry Tesler.↩
- Of all places!↩