In 1984, the phrase “Information wants to be free” was first coined, predicting the arrival of the internet and the abundance of information it would bring. Digital reproduction of data and words costs nothing, leading to a surplus of information. However, information also has the potential to be expensive. The right information at the right time can be invaluable, whether it’s saving a life, making a fortune, or overthrowing a government. Producing good information requires time, effort, and money.
The recent battle between free and expensive information began with a well-intentioned act by Brewster Kahle, the founder of the nonprofit organization Internet Archive. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kahle created the National Emergency Library, which provided digital access to a vast collection of books that were otherwise unavailable. However, this act led to four publishers accusing the archive of copyright infringement and filing a lawsuit. The publishers eventually won the case, and a deal was reached to remove all their copyrighted books from the site.
The case has sparked bitterness between the two sides, with each accusing the other of bad faith. In the midst of this conflict are writers, who produce the books containing valuable information. Despite their central role, writers often find themselves powerless in these debates. Emotions are running high, with both supporters and opponents of the lawsuit expressing their views through petitions and briefs.
The struggle between free and expensive information is not unique to this case; it is a continuous battle across different forms of media and entertainment. Each side may have its moment of dominance, but the dynamics shift over time. As Stewart Brand, a technology visionary, explains, the more information becomes free, the more opportunities there are to make it expensive, and vice versa.
Universal access to knowledge has always been a goal of the internet, and Brewster Kahle has long been a champion of this idea. However, his efforts have faced significant challenges, particularly in court. The recent resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, supporting digital libraries and the Internet Archive, was a symbolic victory for Kahle. He believes that libraries should have the right to own, preserve, and lend both digital and print books, and that publishers should see libraries as more than just customer service departments.
The issue at hand is the difference in treatment between physical books and e-books. When a physical book is sold, the author and publisher have no control over its fate, allowing for reselling and lending. In contrast, e-books are subject to limitations set by copyright holders, and libraries must buy licenses to lend them. The Internet Archive developed a lending program that scanned physical books and made them available to readers, citing fair use and first-sale doctrine. However, the court ruled against the archive, claiming that the harm to publisher profits outweighed the benefits for research and cultural participation.
This case highlights the growing concern about the role of technology and media companies in maintaining public access to culture. While new technology enables on-demand access, not all cultural content is equally available. Streaming platforms, for example, prioritize contemporary titles over older films. Libraries have traditionally been havens for marginalized or forgotten cultural content, but their permanence is now at risk. If platforms or publishers decide to remove e-books from their collections, readers lose out.
The publishers involved in the case claim to be protecting the rights of writers. The Internet Archive, on the other hand, denies any refusal to negotiate. Despite the bitter conflict between the two sides, it is important to recognize that both free and expensive information have their place in society. The challenge lies in striking a balance that allows for the preservation and dissemination of valuable knowledge while respecting the rights of creators.