Should Information be Free?

Should Information be Free?
Images: Cash Register by Junior Libby, Information-Symbol by George Hodan, Colorful Barcode by Dejan Josifov

What is ‘Free Information’?

The word ‘free’, in the context of information, could mean different things to different people:

  • Zero financial cost
  • The right to free speech
  • The right to share and receive free-flowing information without delay or prejudice
  • The right to exchange unrestricted, uncensored, unedited or undistorted information

I’m sure there are many more definitions, but these four should suffice for now.

In a nutshell: Could we have unrestricted access to unedited information at zero cost? That’s the question. If yes, then should we?

Instead of treating this question generically, let me confine my thoughts to wolfcrow.com. It’s hard enough.

First, a bit of information on how I learnt things

In the beginning there was the library or book store. Whatever the librarians or curators or owners decided was best for their domain was all I had access to.

I still remember the first time our fifth grade English teacher marched us into the library. While my friends chose Enid Blyton, I looked wistfully at the shelf of ‘big boys’ books’, locked behind a wall of glass. I asked my teacher if I could select one of those instead. Looking back, it amazes me to think she didn’t bat an eyelid before asking the librarian to open the shelf. What if she had refused that day?

I cringe thinking how many kids around the world are denied the privilege of information.

If you’re curious, this is the first book I read when I was nine: The Contender, by Robert Lipsyte


The first time I used the internet was when I was 19, at an internet cafe, on a dial-up that was so painfully slow I spent half the time waiting for email to load. And, I had to travel 20 miles (35 km) on weekends to get there.

Google wasn’t born yet. There weren’t many forums or blogs around. It was tough wanting to be a filmmaker but with no one to ask for advice. I was on the path to becoming an engineer, and knew how to design an electrical generator, but couldn’t figure out how to make movies. And of course they didn’t have filmmaking books in engineering colleges.

I remember the first time I stepped into this business in 2002, after having spent two years working in a construction company (as an engineer) in Abu Dhabi – to save for film school. That didn’t work out for me, as I’ve explained in my article: Film School or Not?

I came up against people who never wanted to share information for fear I might use it against them somehow. As if disclosing what aperture you’re shooting in is going to ruin you.

As an assistant, I once spent an entire day alone in a park, to report back on the exact time the light behaved in a certain way through a small tunnel. I thought if I was practically going to be doing only one thing, I might as well do a thorough job, and asked for a light meter. The production manager felt threatened somehow. Light meter, indeed! I didn’t stick around long.

You will understand now why I put such a high price on information.

Fast forward to today, where if I want to know something, by the end of the day I’ll have enough information to cripple me for life. ‘Information scarcity’ has been replaced by ‘Information overload’.

Whom do we trust, and why should we trust them? Out of ten people, if five say the dynamic range of a camera is 11 stops, and the rest have varying answers, what do we do? Choose the average, the weighted mean, or the most popular voice?

Can and should information be free?

Let’s look at each definition one by one.

Free cost? No. Who are we kidding? It takes time to create information, and time to read it, and time to share it. None of this time is ever coming back, for writer or reader! Even if someone isn’t getting paid or putting a value on each waking hour doesn’t mean he or she isn’t paying for it. We are paying with our lives.

Free speech or uncensored information? Sounds good, until you are caught in an argument with an idiot who won’t shut up. In the filmmaking business, the filmmaker is responsible for the end product. What if you let people undermine your efforts, either on set or outside it? I’m not too sure about this one.

Free sharing? Sounds good, until your hard work is copied by someone and redistributed for profits. Or, your confidential mail is broadcast by someone with loose moral fiber.

We all know these questions are not easy to answer, and there’s no need to dwell on definitions for too long. Any idealist can claim information is free, shout it from the rooftops and try to convince themselves it’s true. But it isn’t.

Information isn’t free. If I had to choose between time and money, I’d choose time. You can’t buy time – time that was good, bad, idled away or forgotten is gone forever. And we only have a fixed supply of it. Which brings me to wolfcrow.com.

Should information be free of cost?

Should information on wolfcrow be free of cost? No. But, will it?

Many have asked me why I gave away the Comprehensive Guide for free (no longer available as an ebook). To be honest, it never occurred to me to charge for it, or for any other article I write. This website takes whatever time I have left from my video work, sometimes even weekends, usually 12 hours a day.

I can’t forget how hard it was for me to learn whatever I know. My experiences were hard to come by, and it took many mistakes before I learned some lessons, even the easy ones.

I frequently wish I had the resources I have today, but on the flip side I also worry about the aspiring filmmaker who has to wade through all this information. It struck me: it is because I learned many things through experience, that I am able to separate the wheat from the chaff. But not always!

Those without experience, beware.

It still saddens me whenever I come across a person who won’t give out his or her workflow, or won’t share what settings he or she used, for fear that someone might steal his or her business. I agree, a professional has a right to keep some tricks secret, but –

A chef publishes a recipe, knowing very well it’s one thing for a lay person to have the recipe, and yet another thing entirely for him or her to recreate it perfectly. I see no reason why someone should hide camera or computer or software settings, because in the end the person using it must have the eye of the artist to do anything worthwhile with it.

Isn’t it strange that out of all the movie remakes ever made, more than 99% of them are worse than the original? Only monkeys try to ape. We are meant to do our own thing.

You have a right to free information because you don’t know its value yet.

You see, most of us were fed, nurtured and put through school without having to pay a penny from our pocket. This is the way humans do it. We share. We teach. We advise. We love.

A physical product, like food, can be exhausted. I can understand why people fight for money, land and restaurant tables. But information isn’t like that, is it? We can all share the same thing without penalty.

It is left to the author to decide on how ‘free’ free should be. Some choose to charge for it. What about me?

I’m not a fan of the saying ‘Knowledge is power’. It was my school motto, so I saw it everyday for 14 years. Knowledge is only power if it is hidden. What if it is free? Then you are power.

Today, you don’t have to wait years to learn something, like I had to do. Information is no longer scarce. What is lacking is perspective. This is my information, filtered through my eyes, censored through my brain, edited with my computer. Surely you’ll appreciate the freedom to turn me off sometimes. It is only right that I charge you for the privilege.

But I choose not to, because I can’t forget how hard I had to work to earn it.

The information on wolfcrow will be free of cost as long as I can bear it. I’m having way too much fun and I’m only getting started. With your support, this free train will run for years.

The goal is to give people a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language. Not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way – Jimmy Wales

What do you feel? Am I crazy? Should I be charging for information? Are you comfortable sharing your workflow freely?

6 replies on “Should Information be Free?”

  1. Hi Sareesh,

    I’ve been dabbling and learning my way into the videography world for just under a year now, and have only recently discovered the value of understanding the physics behind effects. So much well intended content out there dwell on the surface levels of what a features does, but few people can articulate how. Thank you for your perspective and I hope you’re able to sustain this amazing contribution to knowledge for many years to come.

  2. Sareesh,

    THANK YOU for all you have shown on your site. Thousands of hour of knowledge distilled to one website!
    I’m a beginner, considering improving my video skills, and you have shown me, in a clear way, that there is much more complexity to understanding shooting video footage that even those who sell the cameras have little idea of. Waveforms? White balance doesn’t solve every problem? They draw a blank on these concepts, and know little of other tools that must be mastered.
    When my hobby can pay to go to the next level up from a $1,000 consumer videocam, I’ll now know what I need to look for in a “prosumer” or “pro” level machine.

    Ivan

  3. Hey Sateesh,

    Your videos are really really good. Very informative and easy to understand.
    Thank you for taking so much pain.
    Thanks again.
    :)

  4. Sareesh, I have to say that this is probably the best commentary I’ve read on information being free.  It is never the ingredients and ALWAYS the cook who makes it into a masterpiece.  I also want to thank you for sharing this and everything else on your website!
    Tom

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