Two Critiques of Two Kinds of ‘Free’

Last week, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker published a biting and insightful critique of Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”. In it, he is critical of several aspects of Anderson’s main thesis – that in a marketplace increasingly “made of ideas”, “information wants to be free” – calling into question the idea that, as the costs of electronic storage, transmission and commerce goes down, prices in the information marketplace will and should become negligibly small (in other words, “free”). The information and idea economy, as Gladwell points out, is becoming more, rather than less complex, and thus the rules of the marketplace – whatever they were before – are becoming themselves more varied and intricate.

Gladwell’s critique, though satisfying to those who might be a little bit tired of Free’s pie-in-the-sky-isms, is interesting because it sheds light on broader economic issues. Gladwell rightly points out that utopian optimism about decreasing productions costs (whether one is talking about medicine, energy or information) tends to ignore rising or unavoidable costs elsewhere – for example, the cost of the infrastructure needed to transport/distribute said product. He also points out that, as costs and prices change and as products in markets become more varied, demand for (and supply of) said products will not simply decrease or increase uniformly, but will shift and concentrate and disperse in response to new conditions of choice. (Gladwell’s example of Myozyne, a treatment for Pompe disease whose development was largely enabled by changes in technology, but which resulted in a drug that costs $300,000 per year [mainly due to the fact that fewer than ten thousand people worldwide have the disease] is an excellent example).

Increasing complexity and changing conditions also played a part in a short video I saw recently of internet legend Ze Frank debating David Pescovitz and Alexander Cohen about the value of Creative Commons licensing. Most of what I had heard about CC up until seeing this video had been overwhelmingly positive – utopian, one could almost say – and Ze’s arguments were both arresting and refreshing: Sure, the democratic ideal of free content and free manipulability/remixability (so long as credit is given to the original creator) makes perfect sense when applied to the world of professional media and entertainment, where giant companies which are only too eager to crush the individual creator (and copyright-infringer) rule the day. But what happens when we look at the world of competing individual creators (like Frank), where certain acts of manipulation and remixing, even when not done for immediate monetary profit and even when done with attribution, might be regarded as acts of plagiarism? Monetary profit might be a useful metric for success in the professional media world, but what about the world of individual creators?

Cohen responds to Frank’s argument by saying that, yes, if a competitor plagiarized some creative content and surrounded it in revenue-reaping ads, then of course that would be illegal under CC. I think this misses the point – what if said plagiarist used the content to gain popularity instead of immediate monetary gain? Couldn’t we still accuse them of exploitative plagiarism, seeing as fame on the internet now can result in opportunities for monetary reward later?

Like Gladwell’s article, this discussion seems to point to a fundamental lesson: When imagining and conceptualizing an (utopian) information economy that is “free” not only from the constraints of price but also from the rules intellectual ownership, it is important not to forget what such an economy might mean for the “little (but, potentially ‘big’) guy”.

It seems only fitting to point out that Chris Anderson, who released Free for, you guessed it, ‘free’ under a Creative Commons license (though only until the shipping date of the $27 printed version), was recently shown to have plagiarized at least seven different Wikipedia articles (often in large swathes) in writing the book. Though Andersen has apologized and has said that he will attribute each copied passage, one cannot help but wonder whether ‘attribution’ is really enough here. The only person who will reap any sort of intellectual credit for Free: The Future of a Radical Price is the person whose name appears on the front cover of the book, and whose corporate speaking engagements will now probably command five-figure sums. Is that fair?

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Nick is an undergraduate studying history and economics at UBC. Nick is interested in international relations, philosophy of mind, creative writing, design, marketing, and a bunch of other things. Nick produces music, does graphic design, and sometimes plays tennis.

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