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Information wants to be free….Information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.
Before marshalling a quote, review the source. Sometimes the sound-bite doesn’t always match up with the what the author or speaker originally intended. Walter Isaacson reminds us of this lesson in his contribution to the Atlantic’s 14 3/4 review of the biggest ideas of the year. The often ignored final clause to the old saw, information wants to be free, warns: “information wants to be expensive.” But soon after Stewart Brand observed both sides of the information question in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1984, we collectively edited it down to a revolutionary, communitarian call to arms.
Isaacson laments that the rally-cry we’ve attributed to Stewart Brand never resolved the “tension between the two parts of Brand’s maxim.” Now, on the heels of the economic collapse in 2008 and enmeshed in an anemic recovery, the news industry in 2009 became less of a service and more of a question, as in: how can newspapers survive? Will journalism survive? Who will pay for it? For the answer, Isaacson returns us to 1710 and the Statute of Anne, when on April 10th, Parliament asked Queen Anne to assure an author the sole Right and Liberty of Printing their works. The Statute, according to Isaacson, “helped to encourage and sustain generations of creative people and hardworking hacks.” Though the Statute marks seminal moment in the history of copyright, one must not mistake it for an ancestor to today’s problem with the news industry. It underpins the age of the author, not the information age.
The Statute introduced the idea that an author could own their words and assign the right to make copies to booksellers – the copy right. Booksellers, as members of the Company of Stationers, had in many cases divested or abandoned the printing of the actual works and instead focused on amassing a portfolio of copy rights from authors, sourcing a printer, and selling the finished copies. On assignment, the copy rights would last fourteen years, following which, the rights would revert to the author. With the Statute, the author became an economically significant entity in the publication of books and letters. It was a revolutionary step. If a bookseller wanted to publish a work, they would have to negotiate for the copy right with the author, and so we can celebrate with Isaacson the role it played in encouraging and sustaining authors.
Though the author technically owned the right of copy, the only way to exploit that right was through the Company of Stationers. These booksellers acquired literary property from authors, but with the what amounted to a guild-system, they were also the only ones fully capable of publishing and exploiting the property. They maintained the register of copy rights, certificate of copy right, and storage of nine fine volumes, a process that was eventually abandoned. These were practices that had grown familiar with the Star Chamber Decree and the Licensing Act in the seventeenth century, both of which effectively delegated regulation and censorship of the press to the Company. Without the booksellers and the Company, the authors had no real alternatives for publication. It was no wonder that many members of the Company would refuse to return copy rights to their owners after fourteen years and effectively enjoy a perpetual right. The Statute may have introduced the author as a meaningful economic actor, but the system maintained the Company’s role as a regulator of the press.
The Statute offers a telling moment in the history of the press and the author, but today’s problems in the news industry don’t emerge from issues of authorship. There is no longer a Company of Stationers. Anyone can be a publisher, and that is part of the problem. The Company provided as much a means of control and regulation as an engine for publication. Today’s inheritors, however, have looked on with fear as the internet enabled nearly anyone to assimilate, analyze and present the news of the day and its analysis. They can’t control or regulate publications and the press in the same way they might have in the 18th century. Nor does the Statute’s protection of an author’s creative output shield them from having another consume, digest and regurgitate the salient facts and ideas of a given work. Afterall, the Spectator harvested as much in its daily rehashing of manners, mythology, and literature. Today, there is little one can do to stem the tide of commentary, analysis and alternatives that have washed over the shores of the mainstream press. While the Statute provides an ancestor to the age of the author, it remains a silent bystander to the conditions of information age.