I have been thinking for a while about a recent Blog post by Dick Eastman entitled "I have a Complaint Concerning Many Genealogists." On example from his post caught my eye. He compares free information to water. I quote, "Let me draw an analogy: water is free. If I want water, I can go to the local river or lake with a bucket and get all the water I want at no charge." It is obvious that Dick doesn't live in Arizona. In Arizona there is no such thing as "free" water. Every drop of water in the state is owned by someone who will charge you for it or take you to court or call the police if you try to take it without payment. But what does this have to do with information?
Even though I am nit picking about the water example, I really do agree with Dick's basic ideas. But he seems to have as a premise that free information exists. If he believes that free information exists, I disagree, I believe there is really no such thing as free information, The Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, As Amended By Public Law No. 104-231, 110 Stat. 3048 to the contrary. The name of the act is entirely misleading, what the act does is to allow public access to government records subject to "reasonable standard charges for document search, duplication, and review..." Dick is and I am responding to an irrational idea that has no basis in reality. However, I take the position that there is no such thing as free information and that those who claim that there is, are deluded.
In our society we are so wrapped up in things that are supposed to be free, that we lose our perspective on the cost of that freedom. All freedom has a cost. All systems are closed. There is no free lunch. Every human activity as a cost associated with it.
But the problem, as I see it, is not so much that people want everything free, the problem is mainly a perception of value. The people who are outraged by Ancestry.com charging for access to the U.S. Census have probably never been to a library and tried to read the Census on microfilm. Those same people who are criticizing companies for charging a fee to access "free" information are paying for computers, modems, routers and Internet access to express their opinions about free information. Those same people are free to to go to a Family History Center or public library and use Ancestry.com for "free." Complaining about the cost of providing genealogical services in not really an issue, it is an excuse for ignorance.
My example, is the free public library. Who pays for that freedom? Everyone living in the city or state where the library is open through taxes and assessments. Dick makes a good example of the cost he had previously to travel to libraries and other repositories. I have the same experience. I used to spend much of my time as an attorney in libraries doing research, then we got this wonderful service called WestLaw and I didn't have to step into a library again. Was the service free? Far from it. WestLaw is very expensive. Was it less expensive than having me travel to a library and do research? You bet your bottom dollar. Did our clients beg me to give up WestLaw and go back to the free public library? No, of course not.
Expecting things to be free when there is an obvious cost involved is simply stealing. It is dishonest. Just as in Arizona, taking water out of a lake or canal is theft, so is taking information developed by someone into a specific format theft. It is called copyright violation. But the answer comes back, what about all the "information" that is out of copyright? Shouldn't that be free? Here I agree with Dick, it is free. Go get it. Travel to the National Archives and sit there and copy out all you want. But ignore the cost in time, travel and pencils if you still want to believe that the information is free.
Nearly all my life I have been charging for information. To me, information is a commodity. It is not free at all. The same people who want free genealogical information are the same people who want me to work for them for free because all I did was give them some information. My ideas are my stock in trade. I sell information every day in the form of legal billing. Information is not free. There is no free information and you need to get over thinking there is.