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

This quote from Kaser (2000) rightly states the position we are in with regard to copyright. Creators of relevant works were largely unprotected by law until 1709 in the UK, when Parliament passed the “Statute of Anne” law protecting copyright of books and other written work, this was adopted in the USA in 1790. This developed over the centuries to include gramophone records (1911), film and broadcasting (1956), computer software (1990) and digital media (1998). Today copyright law is developing as new forms of media appear, however the basis remains the same; the creator has the right to charge for duplication or use or their work.

The schemes that were implemented to protect copyright and to attempt to ensure that copyright holders were paid were largely along the lines of pay and you will not be checked for copyright abuse (e.g. performing rights licences, photocopying and software licences) however in 2000 the copyright protection issue was brought to the forefront by peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing sites (initially Napster but recently Pirate Bay). These site showed that the strict copyright methods enforced by middlemen was largely unenforceable as the P2P sites protected its users and operated within grey areas of the law that were expensive and time consuming to fight legally. In addition, such P2P operators could, extremely quickly, change their operations to sidestep legal action and remain in business.

The Performing Rights Society (PRS) has an interesting copyright protection model whereby any person or organisation wishing to play media publicly has to purchase a licence, be it an event, site or date based licence in order to play from a (large and growing) list of approved artists’ work. The artists are paid royalties as a result and the PRS (the middleman in this case) polices the use of artists’ work for enforcement purposes. This scheme is seen as a successful one and is respected for the most part however it still does not reach into the ordinary person’s life; playing music at certain parties could require a licence however these are rarely policed and I would expect that there would be a great deal of resistance and loss of respect for the scheme if policing on a wide scale was attempted.

The feasibility of such schemes greatly depends on acceptance by the user and the ease and availability of enforcement. The second issue is being addressed by a new trend in music copyright protection that is attempting to deal with P2P sharing of any kind by the introduction of hidden and traceable code in a file which allows the copyright holders’ agent to trace its use and successful prosecutions are resulting. This, of course, is resulting in attempts to remove the protection code however without a complex algorithm, is almost impossible to remove without destroying the file itself.

At the other end of the scale, as an indication that the protection of music files is being considered as not helping in copyright protection we are seeing middlemen such as iTunes removing such protection. Further still we are seeing groups, such as Radiohead with their album “InRainbows”, releasing work on a “pay what you wish” basis which is rumoured to have earned them twenty times more than had they released it at the usual price tag as it cut out the middlemen and gave the trust to their fan base. Of course, this only works with an established fan base of any media which is a major barrier to the adoption of this approach by all copyright holders.


Adams & McGrindle, (2008) Pandora’s Box: Social & Professional Issues of the Information Age. University of Reading: Wiley.

Burke (et al), (2003) Trinity College Dublin: P2P [Online]. Available at: http://ntrg.cs.tcd.ie/undergrad/4ba2.02-03/Intro.html (Accessed 28 February 2010).

Kaser. R, (2000) If Information Wants to Be Free . . . Then Who’s Going to Pay for It? [Online]. Available at: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may00/kaser/05kaser.html (Accessed 28 February 2010).