Free… Oh Really?

For the past several years, I’ve been running across a mantra, or slogan, along the lines of “knowledge wants to be free.” This is complete bullshit. Knowledge isn’t an entity; it’s a compilation of data, information, insights, and the like. What the simplistic slogan means is that people want knowledge, information, and entertainment to be free, and many, if not most of them, will pirate songs, stories, e-books, and the like under the excuse that those who create it are already making exorbitant profits… or that it’s somehow their right to have such “knowledge” without paying for it. Now… we have a rationalization of this in book form.

A gentleman by the name of Chris Anderson recently released a book entitled Free, which I have not read, but which, according to interviews and commentary, which I have read, makes the point that the internet is the marketing model of the future, where content is free, because that’s what people want. I’ll agree with half of that. People always want good things for less than they cost, but a great deal of what’s free really isn’t. In fact, most of it isn’t. It’s paid for in other ways.

Take this blog. Whoever reads it gets the contents without charge, but it didn’t come for nothing. Tor paid for the design and pays for the servers on which it is hosted, as well as for the technical people who put on the artwork and book covers. I write the text, questions, schedules, and news, and no one pays me. The hope is, of course, that both Tor and I will be repaid by readers who go out and buy more books. But free, in the sense of costing nothing, it’s not.

Mr. Anderson also apparently believes that whatever appears on the web should be free and that whoever creates it should profit, as do some musical groups, apparently, by sales of tickets to live events and selling merchandise. This may be fine if one has other merchandise to sell, but if one’s livelihood is gained from people buying intellectual property, one has to limit what one provides for free. I can provide economic, political, and fiction-related insights here for free, because I have fictional “merchandise” to sell through online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Other writers, I have to admit, are far better at this than I am. But what of editorial writers? What will happen to that profession if news goes entirely on-line for “free”? Or musicians and songwriters? We’re already seeing a dwindling of truly professional smaller musical groups, the kinds that actually could grub out a living by touring small clubs across the nation. In fact, I recently read that some clubs are now actually charging the musicians, rather than paying them. Is this because something like 90% of the “recorded” music out there is either “free” or pirated? Or because the smaller groups can’t effectively use the “free” aspect of the internet to promote money-generating concerts that will repay the costs of providing “free” services? In a related aspect, my wife the singer and opera professor has noted that the cost of sheet music has skyrocketed because singers and students are buying far less because they can copy it easily… and consequently, the music for more and more songs and operas is out of print, because those songs and operas are less popular and sales won’t pay for even the printing costs.

In addition to these questions, there’s another one, and to me, it’s far more troubling. It’s the idea that worthwhile services — whether insights, music, or entertainment — should be marketed as “free,” because they’re not. They’re paid for indirectly and in other ways, either by advertisers, or subsidized by the sale or other goods and services, and often the user/consumer has no way of knowing who or what is behind anything. Some “free” providers are very up-front, as am I in offering this blog to interest readers in my books. But how many people know how many hundreds of millions of dollars Google has poured into YouTube? Or even who all the other providers of “free” stuff happen to be, and what their agendas might be?

To me, the disguised “free” content idea is just another way in which social institutions end up separating responsibility and accountability from making money. The concept of “free” is also intellectually dishonest… but… all that “stuff” is free, and that excuses everything… doesn’t it?

1 thought on “Free… Oh Really?”

  1. Jetsam says:

    As a writer, I hear what Mr. Modesitt is saying. In having finished reading Imager – the first book in what looks to be a wonderful series I will quite enjoy, I also recognize that he is talking in terms of commerce as writer.

    Perhaps as a part of his next book, he might want to engage in a little treatise on the philsophical 'free-ness' of writing in a pre-industrial world.

    Especially for women.

    How many things have I written "for free"? Too many to count. How many times have I used my published words to create a condition of freedom to read or freedom to write or freedom to learn? Not nearly enough.

    In a way I read Mr. M's latest book book for 'free' since I borrowed it from my local library. Yet at least twice a year I end up paying 'overdue fees' that cover at least my yearly membership fee to the library. And I pay that on time, too.

    A pittance compared to what the books cost. However, I read so prodigiously and prolifically, to indulge my love of reading by buying all the books I read in a year would cost thousands of dollars. And that is a slow year when I'm writing a lot.

    I have experienced censorship. I wrote to people in East Germany before the Wall came down. I received censored postcards from Cuba. I know the Freedom of the written word can come at a cost.

    I have also written, as a volunteer, for an certain online information source. "For free" I used all of the skills I learned in University oh-so-long-ago to write on topics I knew about.

    Why did I do this? As a professional writer, why would I write for free?

    I wrote for those people who rely on the Internet to help them remember or learn a little because they don't have a university library card or a college library card, and never will.

    It was my giving back. We tend to forget some people use school or library computers to look up information their horrible high school texts do not elucidate, let alone explain.

    Learning should not cost an arm and a leg and the educational profession should not have a strangle hold on who should learn what.

    As a parent of two Gifted Learners, who yearn to learn all the time, I am grateful for novels that they can sink their teeth into, but more than grateful that there are online sources of information for them to utilize and discuss.

    And beware The Free, it isn't always accurate or the best quailty … but when those who care provide it, it generally is.

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