D-Lib Magazine
May 2000

Volume 6 Number 5

ISSN 1082-9873

If Information Wants to Be Free . . . Then Who's Going to Pay for It?

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Richard T. Kaser
Executive Director
National Federation of Abstracting & Information Services
[email protected]

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I have become "brutally honest" of late, at least according to one listener who heard my remarks during a recent whistle stop speaking tour of publishing conventions. This comment caught me a little off guard. Not that I haven't always been frank, but I do try never to be brutal. The truth, I guess, can be painful, even if the intention of the teller is simply objectivity.

This paper is based on a "brutally honest" talk I have been giving to publishers, first, in February, to the Association of American Publishers' Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, at which point I was calling the piece, "The Illusion of Free Information." It was this initial rendition that led to the invitation to publish something here.

Since then I've been working on the talk. I gave a second version of it in March to the assembly of the American Society of Information Dissemination Centers, where I called it, "When Sectors Clash: Public Access vs. Private Interest." And, most recently, I gave yet a third version of it to the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. This time I called it: "The Future of Society Publishing."

The notion of free information, our government's proper role in distributing free information, and the future of scholarly publishing in a world of free information . . . these are the issues that are floating around in my head. My goal here is to tell you where my thinking is only at this moment, for I reserve the right to continue thinking and developing new permutations on this mentally challenging theme.

The Spark of a Thought Process

When AAP/PSP invited me to speak at their meeting in February, they asked me to address the emerging "threat" to the publishing industry of some recent U.S. government information initiatives, especially scientific and technical services that are being offered free over the Web to the general public. The topic was not new to me, since the governance of my organization -- The National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services (NFAIS) -- had elevated this topic to a priority last fall. NFAIS is a diverse organization of database producers from all sectors, including some of the very same government agencies who shall go nameless but are at issue here. NFAIS also includes database producers from the non-profit sector, the commercial sector, and even a few from academe. Most of the latter clearly feel threatened by the former. And though we've been trying to leverage our strength as a diverse organization to establish an open dialog on the subject, to be quite honest, it hasn't gone well.

Perhaps it's inevitable that as the digital millennium crashes down upon us, and every organization that played a role in the past jockeys to remain a player in the future, there will be conflict among us. I am sad to see it happen, but transitions, especially transitions of this magnitude, are never without pain. And, alas, I do not see this clash between the public and private sectors going quickly away.

As the panel was put together for the AAP/PSP meeting and this topic was fleshed out, AAP/PSP recognized -- and I think rightly so -- that there is a larger issue here than whether or not government agencies should legitimately go into the business of distributing research results over the Web free to the general public. By the time we all assembled for the conference in Washington, D.C., the session topic had morphed into the broader topic of "free information" in general.

Given my position at NFAIS and the broad constituency I must serve in this capacity, the new topic not only gave me the opportunity to get off the barbed wire fence I was straddling, but actually helped me focus on what, in fact, may be the real issue.

"Information Wants to Be Free"

I'm not exactly sure at what point a catchy slogan takes on the status of an aphorism, axiom, or proverb, therefore becoming an expression of Truth, with a capital T. But there's one expression floating around the Internet that seems to have come into popular usage quite fast, and it is increasingly being cited as if it were not only intuitively obvious (and therefore true), but a divine revelation (and therefore True, with a capital T).

The expression, of course is, "Information wants to be free." But what, exactly, does that mean? I've detected at least three meanings:

  1. Speaking at a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., CNRI's Robert Kahn observed, "One view is information should be free of standard organization," i.e., it should be free from conventional structure.
  2. In a recent statement to the U.S. Copyright Office, U.S. citizen B. Ball said, "I resent any abridging of my rights to do what I please with any multimedia or electronic content I have purchased." Therefore, another view is information wants to be free of unnecessary controls.
  3. People are always saying to me things like, "Well, do you think anyone should actually own the human genome?" Or, "Should foreign governments not share their climate data with us?" Or, "Should people have to pay to read the results of research funded by the U.S. Government?" In other words, what people are always saying to me is, "Don't you think information ought to be free of charge?"

So, "information wants to be free" . . . free of structure and arrangement, free of usage restrictions, and/or free for the taking. What a wonderful world it would be . . .

Two Lessons from Fido

Lesson 1. I have an old dog. He knows a few tricks. When he wants a treat, he knows to sit still and look up at me with such an adorable expression that I could almost call it a smile. Who could resist reaching for the dog biscuits? In my dog's lexicon, all treats are free. Free for a smile. Free for the asking. I buy the treats, so I know better. I know they are anything but free. Still my dog lives with the illusion that all treats come as easily as street finds. Corollary: Though librarians know that information is anything but free, those who use libraries have come to believe that it is free. Unfortunately for those who sell information, there are far more users of libraries than there are librarians in the world.

Lesson 2. I have a dog. Day and night he is on duty watching the house. But in the evenings he gets an hour off to take his walk. We go at his pace, which is very slow. We stand endlessly in the same spot while he sniffs corners, posts, trees, and other uprights. I have no idea what goes on in that doggie brain of his. But I have observed this behavior for many years, and I know that some trees (posts or other uprights) are the right trees and some are not. When the object is right, he goes into Behavior Pattern B, which I'm sure you all know about, and I will not belabor the point. Suffice to say, sometimes we, too, go sniffing up the wrong tree. And I wonder as publishers if we are not doing so this time, when we point the finger at government agencies for making information services widely available for free and expect the leaders of associations (like me) to "make them quit doing that."

Five Assertions

I have just a few points to make. Here are my assertions:

  1. "Free information" is a cultural perception. "Free information" is an illusion . . . a figment of our collective imagination. We have all contributed to this myth.
  2. There is nothing new about "free" information, especially free government information.
  3. The Web changes everything! "Free information" that was no problem in the past suddenly becomes a threat to those who do not operate on public subsidies. Why?
  4. The Web sets "free information" free, making it much more accessible than it was in the past. This poses a threat to those who believe they add value to the information products they produce and then must sell to recoup their investment.
  5. The allure of "absolutely free information" is quite compelling, but -- let's not be naive -- it could also be the siren that lures us to our intellectual death.

The question today is: If information is going to look as if it's free, then who's going to pay to produce it? This has always been the question that as publishers we have faced. Reanswering the question is our challenge as we go forward.

There's Nothing New About Free Information

The following is an odd point to make when addressing publishers, but we simply cannot overlook the fact that the notion that information ought to be free is ingrained in our culture. I would even go so far as to say that you as individuals also believe this. And I'm going to prove it to you.

When you go to the library, you expect to check out a book for free. When you turn on your radio, you expect to listen to music for free. When you turn on your TV you expect to watch network programming for free. You, like everyone else, have come to believe that information is free.

Still, there's a double standard. If you want to personally own a copy of that book you checked out of the library, you are willing to pay for a copy. If you want to personally own a copy of that song you heard on the radio, you are willing to pay for the CD. If you want to personally own a copy of the movie you just watched, you are willing to buy the video.

I conclude from this that, as a society, we pay for the medium and not the message. As a society we perceive that the value resides in the copy, not in the content . . . which is free . . . free to use again and again and again, free to reuse (say, if we want to quote something or lift a fact) . . . and free to give away to a friend or resell once you are done with it. All of this is ingrained in our thinking. It's not new.

"Fair Use" And the Public Perception

As publishers, we -- like librarians -- are schooled in copyright law. And we all know that "Fair Use" under copyright law is not some inalienable human right, but rather only a defense that one can make if accused of copyright infringement. In the end, only a court of law can decide what is fair use and what is not.

But the public, including a vast portion of the academic and scientific community which we as sci-tech publishers serve, has no in-depth knowledge of copyright law. They think of "fair use" as some privilege under which a noble end justifies virtually any use of content. "As long as I'm doing this for an altruistic purpose, or as long as I work at a government agency or a university, well then . . . as long as I don't plagiarize."

When the man on the street says "fair use," he is speaking another language than the one we as publishers -- and our lawyers -- know. He's speaking the same language as the one you speak when you photocopy for a friend the interesting newspaper article you read this morning. He's speaking the same language that you speak when you loan the video tape you made of last Sunday's game to a pal or spin off that new CD onto tape so you can listen to it in your car. He's speaking the same language that you speak when you help your child write a term paper, in which you quote and cite various sources verbatim, without requesting permission. Or, have you never related in an e-mail the joke you heard on Letterman? Have you never written a love letter where you lifted a lyric from a song?

It may not be Fair Use under law -- or maybe it is, only the courts can decide. But it's what we all have in our heads. And would you want to live in a world where you couldn't reuse information? What good would information be if you couldn't reuse it?

Some have suggested to me that what my organization ought to do is sponsor educational programs so that the general public can be made more aware of what the "Truth" of these matters actually is, which is to say the legal truth. I can only respond with a chuckle. As if I'm going to change the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of Americans with a public relations campaign. As if any such "educational" effort would be perceived as anything other than publishers trying to take away a "right" and "privilege" enjoyed by all, even if it's a right and privilege they never really had.

Free information is an illusion. But it would take a far greater act of magic than I can conjure to take away this popular myth.

Free by Intent

Who's to blame for this public perception? I am. You are. We've all done our part to promote the illusion.

I had to confess to my Board the other day that, as an association executive I was very proud of the enhancement we had made to our Web site, particularly the release of our electronic press section, where we give away oodles of texts for free. Wow, did our site traffic shoot up! <>

Bear in mind that not-for-profit, scientific and educational associations like mine have long been in the business of giving information away. Why? Because it's in our interest to promote our causes. Just like it's in the interest of big profit-making corporations -- including yours! -- to put out press releases and publish annual reports free. Just like it's to the benefit of public interest groups, charities, and religious organizations to subsidize information production and distribution in order to meet their central aims. We've all got things we need to accomplish, and communication is part of how we get our jobs done. Free information is part of our business, which is not to imply that producing the information was free or that it has no intrinsic value because we don't charge for it.

Colleges and universities also put out a lot of free information. So does the government. What do you think your kid's tuition money and your personal income taxes pay for?

The only difference today is that it's much easier to get to this free information than it was in the past.

I used to work for a big profit-making company, where one of my duties was to monitor the competition. To do this, I used to pay by the hour to search business information databases for press releases, annual reports and financial statements. Then along came the Web. The first to come along on the Web were corporate sites. All that information I used to pay for suddenly became free. In fact, I could now get my hands on stuff my competitors would never have willingly given me. In some cases the information was actually better than I used to get. By going directly to the "primary source," I didn't have to worry that a third-party publisher had made a typo, say, in a financial earnings figure.

What a wonderful world, huh? Well, yeah, assuming that everything coming out of the horse's mouth is true . . . assuming that those editors and publishers who used to provide me with objective analysis can still stay in business, to be there when I need their independent point of view.

At NFAIS, I give away free information too. But I'm not without my own double standard. Besides being a distributor of free information on the Web, I also run a small publishing program, as most associations do. I may give away oodles of free texts at my Web site, but these are loss leaders. I'm also hoping that some who take the free texts will also sign up for a newsletter subscription or buy a book from me. Let's be real. If I don't make money somehow, how am I going to sustain my free information business?

You see the point I'm trying to make: If information wants to be free, then who's going to pay for it?

Free by Default

Those of you who are technical publishers have also done your part to promote the myth. How's that? Well, via your distribution methods. By selling your journals or licensing your databases to libraries and other institutions who then provide it free to patrons, you give the illusion to patrons that it's free. By selling to institutions rather than to individual users, you reinforce the perception among the masses that information is a public good.

Classically, in our culture there are two basic models for the funding of information services: Either those who use it pay to use it or those who produce it find some other funding means to support its production.

In the pay-for-use model, the individual user pays, or her institution pays, or (increasingly) a network of institutions which has banded together into a buying collective pays; or in the case of U.S. government information, the taxpayer who wishes to own a personal copy pays (or at least used to pay) marginal cost. In the pay-to-produce model, the association, charity, or college pays to produce and distribute an information product out of member dues, donations, tuition fees, trusts, or other income. The government pays out of tax revenues. The corporation pays out of its public relations or administrative budget, ultimately taking money away from its bottom line and out of the proceeds to its shareholders to perform this service. In some cases, like the TV and radio programming I noted earlier, advertisers pay to make the information being distributed via these media look free.

The Look of "Free" -- A Case in Point

NFAIS is an association of "secondary publishers" and bibliographic database producers, some of whom have been producing information services for more than 100 years. In retrospect, I must observe that over the last century collectively we have certainly done our part to lend credence to the illusion that information is and should be free.

In fact, I can sketch out four different funding eras for these secondary publishers:

Era I, which ran from at least 1900 to about 1945, was the age of personal subscriptions. Many bibliographic information services at this time were produced by associations. When a member paid dues, he or she automatically received a subscription to the society primary journal and a subscription to the society abstracting and indexing journal. The volume of publication was not very large in those days, so the two subscriptions would fit neatly on the practitioner's bookshelf. They came "free with membership" in the association.

During Era II, which ran from about 1945 to 1975, the volume of information exploded, costs rose and it was no longer economically viable to include free subscriptions in the membership package. Nor was it reasonable to expect that individuals would have the shelf space to accommodate the increasing number of society journals and the voluminous abstracting and indexing publications. Automated production systems were put in place to cope with the expanding volume, which made obsolete the feasibility of volunteer labor pools. Paid abstractors and indexers were brought on board. Costs and prices rose. Sales shifted to the academic and corporate library, where access to these services by individuals became "free with employment."

During Era III, which ran from about 1975 to 1995, we had literally the golden age of online information retrieval. Abstracting and indexing databases were mounted on centralized time-sharing computer systems and those who wanted to take advantage of the powerful new computing capabilities for information retrieval paid a premium to do so. In fact, they paid by the minute! Colleges had difficulty working with an uncontrolled expense of this kind, so corporations became the major users and major backers of system developments. A whole cadre of information professionals emerged within companies to master the systems and conduct expert, efficient searches. I don't think anybody regarded these services as free, but regardless of the price tag, output from these systems was "paid for by the company." It was free to the employee.

During Era IV, which overlaps a bit with the former era, we had first the emergence of CD-ROM databases, which opened up computer searching to college campuses. We had the emergence of campus networks followed by the formation of buying collectives in the form of library consortia. At last, from about 1995 forward, we had the emergence on the Internet of the World Wide Web. The Web rapidly became a standardized distribution platform, facilitating institutional networks as well as bringing electronic information services to the general public. For bibliographic databases, we had returned to square one. Access had now become, once again, free by affiliation with an association, college, company, or research institution.

So, having looked back now a hundred years, shall I conclude that "information wants to be free" or that "information wants to look free"?

The Internet Standard

Information wants to be free. Information wants to look free. The Internet follows in the same footsteps as prior generations of publishers who have all done their part to make information freely available to the user while somehow covering their costs.

The Web's financial models are no different than publishing models in the past. Either the user pays directly or the producer finds some other way to finance the operation.

I noted earlier that as a culture we seem to believe it's okay to pay for the medium, but not the message. The same notion has transferred to the Internet. Users can, will, and do pay to access the medium. And all you have to do is look at the financials for America Online to see how those monthly subscription fees add up. Some will even pay a small premium to retrieve an electronic document. Witness Northern Light, where the going rate is about a dollar a document, or should I say a dollar a copy of a document -- it's okay, you know, to pay a little something for the copy. Some will pay an extra subscription fee to access an electronic publication. Two good examples are The Wall Street Journal and Science Magazine. But such successful subscription models are few, far between, and limited to publications with wide readerships and high demand.

The more prevalent model on the Net is the pay-to-produce model. The illusion that information can be distributed free has been fostered by the same forces that are causing the high valuations of Internet companies. Venture capitalists have been putting up the money to finance "free" information distribution. Once Internet start-ups go public, stockholders take over the burden. As long as the valuations of the companies continue to go sky-high, all is rosy. But talk about myths! We've now watched, for the past few weeks, the stock market dive to the depths, only to rise again from its own ashes. Who knows how long it will continue. For the time being, the illusion that information is free, wants to be free, and wants to look free is alive and living on the Net. But is this myth sustainable?

If venture capitalists and stockholders are not paying for "free" information on the Web, then -- in a few, rare cases -- advertisers are footing the bill, just like they have paid the bill for generations of newspaper publishing, radio broadcasting, and network television programming. So in other words, consumers are paying for the look and feel of free information. And if all else fails, then the government pays, which means that citizens (consumers and taxpayers) pay again.

The point is, information is not free. For information to look free somebody has to pay. And to sustain our illusion, we all pay all the time, even if we personally do not use the information. Every product that we buy bears both an overt and a hidden tax for information. Some portion of every consumer sale is going into advertising, which is in turn subsidizing free information. Every dollar that we earn bears federal, state, and local taxes, some portion of which goes to subsidize free information. Every membership fee that we pay, every charitable contribution that we make . . . you get the picture? If information wants to be free, then everybody pays.

The Ultimate Illusion

For secondary publishers -- those people that I try my best to represent -- the Web creates a particular challenge, one might even call it a threat, for the Internet is creating a perception in the general populace that the look-up of information should bear no direct cost.

Navigate over to your favorite search engine and it's free to search through millions and millions of web pages to find the one of interest to you. Click on one of them and go to the site. It's free to search through thousands of pages at each site to find the item of interest to you. Go over to Amazon, and it's free to identify books. It's free to search through directories of people, organizations, and experts. It's free to search through catalogs to find items to purchase. All of these things are free . . . well, free for your monthly Internet access fee and phone service . . . free as a benefit of having invested in Internet stocks or as a result of your retirement fund manager having invested for you . . . free for "Your Federal Income Tax."

Primary publishers may need to worry less, since it's a proven fact, even on the Internet, that people will pay for a copy of a document -- though they won't pay much. But are they ever going to be willing to pay to hunt for a copy? Secondary publishing facilitates the tracking down of needed information. Behind the scenes large sums of money are going into the classification and organization of information so that it can be found on command. And yet, secondary publishers don't get much respect for making this miracle of retrieval possible. The value of this extraordinary means to an end goes largely unappreciated, undervalued, and even taken for granted, at least on the Web.

Librarians and corporate information managers may still love us. In fact, having seen the "content" on the Web, and having wasted sufficient time in looking for those needles in the haystack, some respect us even more. But I still worry about the model the Internet is promulgating. The impression is being given that the vast intelligence that goes into making retrieval look simple has no value. That component that facilitates the entire process of look-up is merely a give-away, a throw-away, a loss leader. But if your only business is to facilitate such retrieval, what is the retrieval process a loss leader for?

The Bottom Line

I noted at the start that there is really nothing new about "free" information. I've noted that we've all done our part to perpetrate the myth that information wants to be free by making it look free. I've pointed out that in the past we figured how to pay to produce information so that it can be made to look freely available. And now for the obvious conclusion . . .

Our challenge going forward is to figure out anew how to keep on financing the value-added information services we know how to produce. We did it with member fees, subscriptions, licenses and use charges in the past. There was a little advertising revenue for some. There were page charges on the primary publishing side. All of these metrics are still in use and still viable. But we may need to come up with some new ideas as well.

I will recall at this point that the impetus for this presentation and the ensuing paper that you are reading came from a concern among private sector publishers about free government information services. As a society, I would hope that we do not automatically fall into the conclusion that it would be best for the nation and the advancement of science for the U.S. government to pick up the total tab for all sci/tech information. Nor do I want to see the public sector rise up and march down to Capitol Hill in order to have its position heard.

Not that the past is sacrosanct, but we have a long tradition here of all sectors of our society, including not-for-profit associations, commercial organizations, academic institutions and government agencies playing a part in scholarly publishing. The burden of making scholarly information look free has thus been shared between the general public and those who actually make use of the information, including large industrial corporations.

If by intent or default we shift the total burden back to the U.S. citizens, it would be unfair. It would also be unfair if the government were unnecessarily constrained in its efforts to make its information stores accessible.

When NFAIS was founded over 40 years ago, it was during the Cold War. At that time the Soviets had engineered a centralized abstracting and indexing service to cover all the sciences. This concerned the Eisenhower White House, since in comparison U.S. efforts in secondary publishing were distributed among a wide range of private sector organizations and government agencies. The efforts were entirely uncoordinated. The race in science was on, and our sci/tech information system looked weak in comparison to what the Communists had. Meetings were held. Reports were commissioned. The conclusion at the time was that the U.S. government could best support the advancement of science by forming partnerships with the private sector, rather than building a centralized, state-controlled service. As one result, NFAIS was born.

Nearly a half century later, here we go again. Shall we take off our boxing gloves and rise to the occasion?

Copyright � 2000 Richard T. Kaser
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DOI: 10.1045/may2000-kaser