By Nicholas P. Garcia
In American political and legal discourse, freedom is a concept that gets tossed around a lot, perhaps more than any other. Interestingly, despite the centrality of this concept in the debate, the English language lacks the nuanced vocabulary to differentiate between the many different connotations of the word “free”.
This is most readily apparent in debates over the “freedom of information.” In the digital age the transfer, copying, and sharing of information is faster and easier than ever before. As a result, many have declared the current paradigm of intellectual property and copyright law to be outmoded, irrelevant, and restrictive. Lawrence Lessig, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a noted law professor, has claimed that 70% of young people in the United States obtain their information from currently illegal sources. Lessig, and a host of other academics, activists, and legal professionals, advocate for a “free culture” with more protections for the freedom of information that the digital age has allowed.
However, counterarguments abound and they are usually economic in nature. Opponents of the freedom of information argue that technologies and services such as BitTorrent, LimeWire, and streaming video websites prevent those who create the information in the first place from reaping the benefits of their labor. This is about more than just getting paid; some critics of the free culture argue that allowing total freedom of information would remove the incentive of the producers of information to create more content. This, they argue, would impoverish our society as a whole.
This debate is an important one to have, and will only heat up as digital technology continues to become even more inexpensive and pervasive. However, a point that is often missed by those not deeply immersed in this debate is what exactly is meant by the word, “free,” in the phrase, “free culture” or “freedom of information.” The English language at this point fails us, and so English speakers have turned to the Romance languages to better express a critical aspect of the debate. The sort of “free” that the proponents of a “free culture” advocate for does not mean “no cost” but instead means “with little or no restriction.” They refer to this difference as the difference between gratis and libre, and it is the latter that they stress is important. Another formulation is given by Richard Stallman, an activist in the free-software movement: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.”
Understanding this difference between “gratis” and “libre” is essential in moving the debate over freedom of information forward. Many companies, such as Netflix with its “Instant Watch” feature, are discovering that people are willing to pay for convenient modes of delivering content. But companies are not the only institutions that need to adapt; the current legal regime of copyright and intellectual property law is increasingly becoming oppressive. The law must adapt to these emerging technologies lest it be deemed increasingly irrelevant, out-dated, and unjust.