Information Wants a Fee

From the editor in chief

It has become a tenet of the Internet age that information wants to be free.

“Information,” according to this dogma, encompasses music, movies, and anything else that can be represented by digital bits. Music wants to be free, proclaim the peer-to-peer file-sharers who use the Internet to help themselves to MP3 files of their favorite songs. Movies want to be free, chime in the “cammers” who sneak digital cameras into screening rooms and dump copies of films onto the Web before they have made their official debuts.

But these “truths” are myths. It’s more accurate to say that information wants a fee.

This story is part of our November 2002 Issue
See the rest of the issue

This twist on the digital-age mantra is the overriding lesson of our special report, “Digital Entertainment Post-Napster”. The central problem, our stories make clear, stems from the fact that too many people have extended the meaning of free from “let loose” to “let loose without charge.” And that is not going to cut it.

Our first piece looks at the technology of making compact discs copyproof-a practice gaining favor with the recording industry as a way to foil pirating. Its companion story concentrates on a lone French hacker, originally known to the world only by his Internet moniker “Gej,” who developed what many proclaimed would be the Napster of movies-a way to copy and compress high-quality film images for distribution over the Web. But Gej, whose real name is Jrme Rota, didn’t want to be dogged by lawyers and law enforcement. We found him at his San Diego startup, where he is trying to parlay his compression technologies into a legal and profitable business that will make it easy for us to download and play movies-after we’ve paid for them.

Indeed, as both stories reveal, a grab bag of forthcoming technologies should make sure music and movies continue to be freely available-for a price. On the music front, some approaches target technical differences between the ways audio CD players and computers read and play songs, allowing unlimited and distortion-free listening on the former but introducing unharmonious noise on the latter. Others seek to prevent uncontrolled distribution by restricting the number of times a piece of digital entertainment can be copied.

Not all these technologies make good business sense. Some, such as those that let you to play a legally purchased CD on your home stereo but not on an office computer, are just plain annoying and will be tough sells to consumers. And there are always hackers out there able to break any protection technology that is dreamed up.

But still, get used to it. Such controls are inevitable because that’s how things work in a market-driven economy that values intellectual property. Steadily, relentlessly, these technologies will become pervasive. No CD you buy-Bach, Beck, or the Backstreet Boys-will be without some form of protection. The same will hold true for any movie you purchase or download, be it a classic such as Casablanca or some future Austin Powers release.

This inevitability does not please everyone. In this very issue, columnist Simson Garfinkel calls the acceptance of digital rights management a deal with the devil (see The Rights Management Trap”). Simson says he would rather have his writing ripped off than cede control of what he puts on his computer to such technologies.

The trick, of course, will lie in finding the right balance of fair use and fair compensation-so that for the vast majority of us it’s not worth seeking ways around the protection technologies. And then digital music and movies will have the kind of protection long enjoyed by other types of information-from newspapers and books to records, tapes, and many forms of spoken advice-and we’ll pay for value received.

We’ll pay, because that’s the best, fairest, and most realistic way to set the information free.

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