Mac Musings

Information Wants to Be Free

Dan Knight - 2010.10.13 - Tip Jar

"Information wants to be free."

It's a mantra of the open source crowd, first stated as "information should be free" in 1959 and being stated in its present form in 1968. It was first applied to the Internet and the realm of personal computing at the 1984 Hackers' Conference when Roger Clarke stated:

"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. So you have these two fighting against each other."

On the one hand, information is valuable. On the other, distributing information keeps getting cheaper. Clarke sees this as a battle of opposites - those who create information want to benefit from it, while those who have received it are ready to freely share it.

This is an antithesis, not a synthesis. Thesis: Information is costly and valuable. Antithesis: Sharing information is cheap and nearly free.

National vs. International Copyright

In the modern world, we've been dealing with these issues for a long, long time. Shakespeare's works are in the public domain, so anyone can publish them. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, lived in the era of copyright protection - except that the United States didn't recognize British copyright, so American publishers were free to pirate his works.

Dickens lobbied the US Congress to remedy this injustice in his 1842 and 1867/68 reading tours in the States, and Mark Twain, the American writer, was widely pirated in Canada to the point that Tom Sawyer was available in a pirated Canadian edition before it went on sale in the US. It wasn't until 1891 that US copyright law provided any protection to foreign material.

Sir Walter Scott might not have died penniless if he had received royalties for American editions of his novels. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain certainly lost income due to the lack of international copyright protection during most of the 19th century.

Their writings had been expensive, using up a great deal of their time, but their value was diluted by piracy because publishers in other nations were not required to respect their copyrights or pay royalties for books by foreigners.

More Than Just Books

Copyright covers a lot more than just books. Music, recordings, photographs, movies, television broadcasts, newspaper articles, software, and blog entries are just some of the things that are covered by copyright. The gist of copyright law is that the copyright holder (usually the creator) must be allowed to control the use of his or her material and to benefit financially from it.

Publishing something for public consumption is not the same as putting it in the public domain, and allowing people to read an article on your website for free is not the same as allowing them to reproduce it elsewhere.

Case in point: In March 2007, we published 11 No Cost Tips for Optimizing Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger Performance by Ed Eubanks Jr. This article was based on his research and personal experience, and it includes a one-paragraph editor's note. Ed Eubanks invested his time in research and writing, and he holds copyright on this article.*

Over time, this has become the most widely read article on Low End Mac, and to date it has received over one million hits. (By way of comparison, the entire website usually receives 1 to 1.5 million hits per month.)

And over time, this article has been widely pirated. Over the past week, I found over a dozen instances where the article was either published verbatim, edited slightly, or translated into another language (such as Korean) - all without permission of Ed Eubanks, the copyright holder. (In once case, someone appended 8 more tips after quoting our article almost completely.)

Finding the piracy was fairly easy. Entering the article's URL at Copyscape found a lot of them. A Google search for "using the Catalan, Farsi, or Klingon language localizations" (a unique phrase) found several more.

As Ed's agent, I contacted the website publishers, bloggers, and their hosts to file a DMCA takedown notice. In almost all cases, they complied immediately. Blogger/Blogspot has been especially good about takedowns. There was one translated version (Chinese, I think) on a website where I have been unable to find contact information - ditto for a Korean website that reproduced it in English.

The problem is the theory that "information wants to be free", so people assume they have a right to freely share it. And that impacts our bottom line.

The Internet Model

Although you can read this column, 11 Ways to Optimize Your Mac's Performance, and most articles on the Web for free, that doesn't mean the content is free. Someone is paying to host the material. Someone is paying to put ads on those pages. That may only be a fraction of a penny per page view, but multiply that by hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of hits taken from Low End Mac by pirates, it's real money.

For most websites, income comes from a mix of paid-per-impression ads, paid-per-month ads, and affiliate links, which only generate income when a site visitor uses those links to make a purchase.

For the record, I did find one school system that had pirated the article. Rather than issue a takedown notice, I gave them an option: Either attribute the article to Ed Eubanks along with copyright information and a link to the original article or remove it. (I had to use Safari to send the notice. The IT department at Framingham Public Schools has a contact form that doesn't like Camino or Firefox. Poor form.)

Anyhow, the point is that the publishers and copyright holders need to be allowed to profit from their work, and piracy undermines that.

The Paywall Solution

One solution - and one we'll never use at Low End Mac - is to use a paywall to restrict access to subscribers. A paywall forces the potential reader to make a choice: pay for access in hopes the information is worthwhile or look for that information elsewhere.

Newsday did that a year ago, drawing a lot of attention to its website. Subscribers could pay $5/month or $260/year for free access to newsday.com. Three months later, The Observer reported that this expensive undertaking was a fiasco. After investing $650 million to buy Newsday and untold hours developing the paywall, only 35 people had subscribed. If every one of those subscribers paid for a full year, the take would be just $9,100 - certainly not enough to justify the cost of the paywall.

One of my greatest disappointments is DigiTimes, which we link to frequently in our weekly news roundups. Problem is, by the time we post our roundups, most of those links have gone behind DigiTimes' paywall - and at $370 a year, we don't expect any of our readers to pay for access.

On the Mac side of things, MacFixIt - once one of the most widely read and widely respected Mac websites - went the paywall route circa 2002, offending and undermining a dedicated user community that had freely shared tips and troubleshooting advice. In the end, MacFixIt became less important. It was eventually sold to Cnet and has become just another part of Cnet.

What brings this whole topic up today is an article on Slashdot about the paywall at the New York Times. It looks like NYT has instituted a "first click free" policy, allowing a limited amount of access to its content for free. Here's how NYT explains it:

"Starting in January 2011, a visitor to NYTimes.com will be allowed to view a certain number of articles free each month; to read more, the reader must pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the print newspaper, even those who subscribe only to the Sunday paper, will receive full access to the site without any additional charge."

We'll see how that works for them, and we don't begrudge them going this route. After all, organizations like NYT have a huge infrastructure to support, far more than a website-only business with editors, writers, designers, printers, etc.

State of the Site

This is a good opportunity to share the state of the site for Low End Mac. I've been running the site as my full-time job since January 2001, which coincided with the beginning of the dot-com collapse. Site income in 2002 was half as much as in 2001, but we rebounded in 2003 and saw steady growth through 2007, when the economy took a turn for the worse.

Site income dropped about 10% in 2008, another 20% in 2009, and it looks like 2010 may see a much smaller decline. Although the recession is "officially" over, we're not seeing it quite yet. Maybe 2011 will finally see things taking a turn for the better.

In terms of site traffic, it's hard to say. We were consistently serving 1.2 to 1.3 million pages a month, but our host stopped updating its weblog analysis software some months ago. We started using Google Analytics in late February, but we haven't been able to update every page on the site (15,500 pages have been updated, but there are still some stragglers). Google Analytics is reporting lower numbers than our site logs used to, with over 800,000 pageviews in the past month and over 400,000 unique visitors. We are seeing consistent traffic from month to month, just as we did in the past.

Traffic levels remain good, and Low End Mac isn't going away regardless of the economy. I'm working a part-time third-shift job unloading and merchandising freight at a nearby Kohl's, and although my schedule there varies from one to five nights a week, we're getting by. I don't have as much time to invest in LEM as I used to or would like to, but we're getting by.

We're not going to paywall LEM, although at some point we may try to monetize our content with an iOS app, and we're still fiddling with Joomla as our next content management system, but we're in no hurry to make changes.

If you appreciate our content and our value-driven philosophy, you can help LEM by making purchases though our advertisers and through affiliate links, and you can help out our writers by using their tip jars.

We will continue to provide our information to readers for free, letting advertisers cover the cost of our content through display ads and affiliate links. Our content has value, and we are glad we can let you access it for free.

* Low End Mac's policy is that that writer retains copyright and that they have the right to allow others to reproduce their material elsewhere. As the publisher, we only ask that the article be attributed to the writer, copyright be noted, and a link to the original article be included.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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