information "wants" to be free?
© 2003, 2005 Jamie Zawinski <>

You'll often hear cypherpunk weenies with poorly-thought-out philosophies trot out "information wants to be free" as some kind of pseudo-socialist Utopian vision, but the point is, information "wants" to be free in the same way nature "abhors" a vacuum: it's not some moral view, it's just the natural state of affairs. It's the path of least resistance. It is "the sound of inevitability."

John Gilmore once said, "The Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it." But in the general case, "censorship" isn't really the right word. In many cases, a more apt quote would be from the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park: "life finds a way."

This is all tied up in the quagmire that is "Intellectual Property". People feel they own their ideas. People understand "property" in terms of physical objects, and now they've been told that information can also be a subject of property, so they expect it to work the same way. The problem is it doesn't work the same way at all. The notion of "intellectual property" has poisoned the way people think about the flow of information. They look at events as property transactions which are more rightly characterized as, "you and I will agree to keep a secret."

There is a lot of money to be made in the business of secrets, of course. But it works differently than posession of objects, since information doesn't have laws of conservation. When I give you a physical object, you are in posession of it and I am not; when I give you information, we both possess it, and my possession of it has not been lessened.

For example: the content of the New York Times is not a secret, but they are not selling ideas: they are selling access to ideas. The only way they are capable of doing that is because there is a contract (via copyright law) to give them exclusive duplication rights to the particular expression of those ideas. The whole point of copyright (and patent) law is to coerce people to not do that which is natural -- allow information to flow unhindered -- in order to accomplish something which has been judged by society's lawmakers to be a greater good: paying people for thinking.

The nature of this process is the management of secrecy: compelling third parties to not share directly with each other: to keep secrets.

Opinions vary on whether and to what extent this is a good idea, but that's how it works. I happen to think that the way copyright works is mostly pretty good and effective (unlike, say, patents), but I don't believe it's property. It's a contract.

And what document on this topic would be complete without trotting out that overused Jefferson quote:

"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and the improvement of his conditions, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement of exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."         -- Thomas Jefferson, 1813

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