Dec 3, 2012

Information Wants to be……..

Information is crucially important to the constitution of culture, science, art, and society. In the digital age, the inherent tension underlying the nature of information has become blatantly apparent to all of us. As Stewart Brand put it, back in 1984, 

“on the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

As we move into an era where information is both free and expensive, regulating its flows to strike the right balance between its societal and monetary value has become a key issue. The outcome of this process will affect how “free”, “public”, or “common” information can be. Part of information's value is that it is used to create knowledge, which in turn can translate into products, services, artworks, or technologies.

A fantastic illustration of this tension is the case of Google News against a variety of media stakeholders. The argument, as reported in the New York Times, centres upon whether or not Google's indexing of news services, constitutes an aggregation of the news, or if indexing is news itself. News media in the United States, Brazil, and many European countries, often backed by their governments, argue that Google News is acting as a media company, instead of providing indexed links to information. The news media feels this is a contributing cause to their revenue slumps and loss of advertising revenue. What became quickly and painfully obvious in the United States, and likely soon in Europe, was that the only thing worse than being aggregated by Google, was NOT being aggregated by Google: information wants to be free(ly accessible.)

Factual pieces of news such as press releases by Reuters, Associated Press, or AFP cannot be copyrighted. Much like abstract ideas, raw news reports have always been considered a part of a public domain. Only an original expression of an idea or of a factual analysis can be copyrighted. Put simply, the idea of love cannot be copyrighted, but any novel that tells a love story can. Similarly, the raw piece information that Barack Obama was re-elected cannot be copyrighted, but an opinion piece written by a journalist about the event can. So in essence, what the news media demand in the Google case is to extend the scope of copyright so that it can apply to the indexing of raw information. 

Now, imagine a world where witnesses to a murder, could prevent journalists from reporting it unless they agreed to pay them royalties. Do you have any idea of how the world would look like if information could be copyrighted? We gave it some thought, and will share that soon in our next blog post.

-- Calimaq and David

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