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Roger Clarke's 'Information Wants to be Free ...'

"Information Wants to be Free ..."

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 24 February 2000, plus a URL amended 28 August 2001, and two more predecessor quotes 29 Feb 2012 and 13 Jul 2012

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2012

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Somebody once said "Information wants to be free".

To some people it's a truism, to others a battle-call or a mantra. Many people use it as a fire-starter in presentations and papers, because of its intense ambiguity.

If you want to know its lineage, read on.


I've looked for predecessors of which it might be a corruption or derivative. One possibility (thanks to John Hilvert and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) is

'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free'

(John 8:32, with as many variants as there are translations of the New Testament). That has spawned a variety of descendants (including the horrendous lie 'Arbeit macht frei' on the gates of Auschwitz).

A less direct predecessor is a quotation much-loved by (some) Americans: "Such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing", attributed to Thomas Paine, c. 1791. Thanks to Yiorgos Adamopoulos for that one.

Recently, a Thomas Jefferson quotation from 1813 was drawn to my attention. It's long, so I've included it down at the end of this document. It presents the meme in fulsome 19th century prose, but also includes something pretty close to the contemporary epithet:

"Ideas should freely spread"

Ed Parsons advises that a likely immediate ancestor was

"Information should be free"

"This was uttered by Peter Samson who was a legendary member of the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT. I would put [that] phrase as being coined circa 1959".

[He continues: IIRC the TMRC was an eccentric group of people who engineered fantastic automatic model railways using components from telephone exchanges (relays, etc.)". Its home-page says "TMRC was featured as the first chapter of the book Hackers, by Steven Levy (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984). The club is credited as one (possibly the primary) source of the Hacker Culture, as described in the book".]


Most people attribute it to Stewart Brand. (Here's Stewart's business CV).

Stewart confirmed this on Tue, 29 Jun 1999 07:00:58 -0700 in an email to TBTF (thanks Eric Scheid, Keith Dawson and Kragen Sitaker). Stewart wrote:

"In fall 1984, at the first Hackers' Conference, I said in one discussion session: "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." That was printed in a report/transcript from the conference in the May 1985 *Whole Earth Review*, p. 49.

It quickly became one of the elements of Hacker Ethics. Note that this refers to the original use of the term 'hacker', as programmer, not as cracker. See, for example, Steven Levy's book 'Hackers', of 1984. See also the resources at the Uni. of Texas.

Stewart Brand continued:

"In 'The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT', ISBN 0140097015, published by Viking Penguin in 1987 [here's the author's own review, and here's MIT Press's review], on p. 202 is a section which begins: "Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine---too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better."

"The final iteration for me was in sundry talks I gave in the two years after the Media Lab book came out. In those I frequently said, and even put up on an overhead, the following (this one happened to be a national Computer Security conference): "Information wants to be free (because of the new ease of copying and reshaping and casual distribution), AND information wants to be expensive (it's the prime economic event in an information age)... and technology is constantly making the tension worse. If you cling blindly to the expensive part of the paradox, you miss all the action going on in the free part. The pressure of the paradox forces information to explore incessantly. Smart marketers and inventors quietly follow-and I might add, so do smart computer security people."

"Since then I've added nothing to the meme, and it's been living high wide and handsome on its own. I see in a WIRED, April 97, that Jon Katz opines on p. 186: "The single dominant ethic in this [digital] community is that information wants to be free"."

Peter Morris points out that Brand also used it on p.211 of 'The Media Lab':

"Information wants to be (politically) free"

"as a heading to begin a section on a discussion about the political economy of the media, particularly broadcasting, and particularly the work of Ithiel de Sola Pool and his 1983 book 'Technologies of Freedom: on free speech in an electronic age' (Harvard University Press, 1983)".

In a posting to the newsgroups: and (19 Sep 1995 17:22:58 -0500 - thanks Irene Graham), Stanton McCandlish attributed it to Stewart Brand, but qualified that with the comment "Among others. No telling who really said this first, but Brand's is the earliest reference I find. His full version is:

"Information wants to be free - because it is now so easy to copy and distribute casually - and information wants to be expensive - because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time"."

Stanton's quote is slightly different to the others, and 4 years on he tells me that he can't remember the source; so it's worth including here.

Important Uses of the Aphorism

In Denning (1990), she quotes Richard Stallman in about 1990 as follows:

"I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By `free' I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one's own uses".

She continues: "By 'generally useful' he does not include confidential information about individuals or credit card information, for example. He further writes:

"When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving".

Stallman has argued strongly against user interface copyright, claiming that it does not serve the users or promote the evolutionary process"."

Accessible articles by Richard Stallman that use it are Why Software Should Be Free (1992) and Why Software Should Not Have Owners (1994). It's fundamental to the free software and open source movements. See GNU, FSF and Open Source.

John Perry Barlow famously invoked it in The Economy of Ideas (1994):

"'Information wants to be free' recognizes both the natural desire of secrets to be told and the fact that they might be capable of possessing something like a 'desire' in the first place".

James Boyle also used it as a focal point in Foucault In Cyberspace: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and Hard-Wired Censors (1997).

Information Law academic Graham Greenleaf performed something of an inversion of the idea, with his `Information wants to be free ... but it wants to keep you under surveillance', in a work on protecting privacy against surveillance by digital works (1999).

My Own Uses of the Aphorism

In The Willingness of Net-Consumers to Pay (1998), I wrote "The catch-cry that 'information wants to be free' is ambiguous. It was originally an assertion that the natural state is for information to be available, not protected. "The word 'free' in 'free software' refers to freedom, not to price" (Stallman 1992). But it is capable of being bastardised into an assertion that 'information wants to be gratis'. It is in the interests of business to preclude that bastardisation taking root".

In Electronic Trading in Copyright Objects (1999), I and a co-author wrote "The form in which the origination, publication and diffusion of intellectual property occurs is rapidly changing from being predominantly physical to predominantly electronic. With that comes a substantial change in the ease, speed and cheapness with which people can discover, access and appropriate intellectual property. That in turn heralds a quite dramatic shift in the economics and politics of publishing".

In Freedom of Information: The Internet as Harbinger of the New Dark Ages (1999), I've identified a set of possible interpretations of the expression, investigated the ambiguities of 'wants' and 'free', and drawn implications for the rather ossified 'freedom of information' movement.

The Thomas Jefferson Quote, from 1813

"Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property".

From The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh. 20 vols. Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905

Improve This Page!

Please send me constructive criticisms, snippets, suggestions for improvement and additional links.


I had help from a number of colleagues on link, an Internet policy-watchers' e-list run by Australian electronic library pioneer, Tony Barry. Thanks in particular to Tony Barry, Keith Dawson, Rachel Dixon, Irene Graham, Graham Greenleaf, Craig Hicks, John Hilvert, Stanton McCandlish, Peter Morris, Mark Nearhos, Ed Parsons, Eric Scheid, Kragen Sitaker, Irene Turpie, Kerry Webb and Jacob White for telling leads; and, of course, Stewart Brand, Richard Stallman and John Perry Barlow ...

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Created: 12 August 1999 - Last Amended: 24 February 2000, plus 28 Aug 2001, 29 Feb 2012, 13 Jul 2012 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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