Thursday, July 25, 2024
  Information Wants To Be Free  
Defining: free   
  1. not costing or charging anything
  2. a: relieved from or lacking something and
        especially something unpleasant or burdensome
    b: not bound, confined, or detained by force
  3. a: having no trade restrictions
    b: not subject to government regulation
  4. a: not obstructed, restricted, or impeded
    b: not hampered or restricted in its normal operation

The coining of the phrase “Information Wants to be Free” is often credited to Stewart Brand while at a hackers conference in 1984. “Free” in this case meaning ‘not costing or charging anything’ (Definition #1 at right). Tabs 2-7 cover that topic thoroughly (especially #7).

However it is possible that important information that has been and continues to be not free (see definition #4) is the cause of why there is even the discussion about “Information wants to be/should be Free.”

Although not a perfect allegory, Earth as a planetary prison is a good beginning to understanding what important information is not free. For example, there is a Wikipedia page, ‘Meaning of life’ (12,000 words/227 references), and not even a mention of mankind living in a prison. If this information were free, it would not be excluded from Wikipedia. There would also be a ‘Facts of Life’ page at Wikipedia giving at least an outline of the laws belonging to this planet.

Within that missing Facts of Life page, surely we would find the law – from which is derived: “One of these laws is that you have to eat. If you don’t eat you die.” – Gurdjieff calls this law Reciprocal Maintenance. For all other life-forms (other than apex predators) this purpose of existence is essentially to “serve as food” for other life-forms. To whom do humans serve as food?

Gurdjieff never answered his life-long question – his programming blinding him to see that mankind’s evolution from unconscious procreation to conscientious conscious procreation as being the significance of life on Earth, and human life in particular.

Understanding our Slavery is another approach to understanding how information that should be free – is in fact, not free in the sense that this information is restricted and impeded [The page "Understanding our Slavery" does not exist].

Clearly what is needed is an online “Children’s Liberation” encyclopedia (Wikipedia being compromised by TPTB) – for in a sense we all are children.

Contents & Excerpts from articles

TAB# 1
TAB# 2
TAB# 3
TAB# 4
TAB# 5
TAB# 6
TAB# 7
TAB# 8
TAB# 9
TAB# 10
TAB# 11
TAB# 12
TAB# 13
TAB# 14
Information wants to be free (Wikipedia)
“Information Wants to be Free”: The history of that quote
“Hackers” and “Information Wants to Be Free”
Information Wants To Be Free By Charles Warner
Information wants to be free, but the world isn't ready
Information wants to be free | part of the Visions of the Information Society project
Everything You Need To Know About Book Sales Figures
Book Royalties 101: How They Work (Complete Guide)
How many books can you expect to sell?
What is education? A definition and discussion
Should Higher Education Be Free?
Education should be corruption free
Right to Education: Situation of children’s right to education worldwide


TAB#2: Wikipedia on Information wants to be free

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 … When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving. Stallman [9]

… the wish of information to be free is a law of nature.[12][13]

The construction of the statement [Brand’s] takes its meaning beyond the simple judgmental observation, “Information should be free”, by acknowledging that the internal force or entelechy of information and knowledge makes it essentially incompatible with notions of proprietary software, copyrights, patents, subscription services, etc. They believe that information is dynamic, ever-growing and evolving and cannot be contained within (any) ideological structure.[citation needed]


TAB#5: Information Wants To Be Free By Charles Warner

In fact, I would argue that not only does information want to be free but also that content is often better when it is free - free not only to readers but also free to publishers.

The free distribution of and access to content enabled by the Internet has created a new medium, a new journalism, for readers that is much more of a two-way conversation than the old one-way model of print and broadcast. On websites that allow comments, the comments are often more relevant and better informed than the original blog or column, but, more important, comments allow readers to express their opinions and become part of a public dialogue. We all learn from each other, or as Satchel Paige said, "All of us are smarter than any one of us."

Content that is free to publishers, such as the blogs on the Huffington Post, allow writers to express themselves freely without an eye cocked to a gate-keeping owner, editor, or advertiser. It's pure, heartfelt opinion, and, more important, if it isn't reasonably well written and well argued, it won't get posted, which is a strong quality-control mechanism.


TAB#7: Information wants to be free (tab 4 Threats and challenges)

TAB#4: Growing antagonism between copyright and public sphere

There is a further characteristic emerging in the current era, one that casts the issues in a new light and which may have major consequences for the future. It also justifies the inclusion in the one paper of these two key social sets of rules around information.

What characterises the current era is that these two pillars of social norms on information—copyright and the public sphere—are more and more coming into conflict.

Whilst there has always been tension between the two, now they are reaching a point where one is directly pitted against the other. Specifically, the depth and breadth of the copyright regime, backed up by the power of the copyright industries, their governments and the WTO enforcement procedures, has reached the point where further expansion is not only highly questionable from an economic and development perspective, it is also in danger of undermining the public sphere, and hence the system of representative democracy. What is needed, if we are to serve the needs of less developed countries and to build further on democratic principles, is the restoration of a reasonable balance.

Up until now, they rarely directly confronted each other. Human rights and the public sphere were slowing carving out their domain, built on the struggles of people nationally and a deep desire for freedom of expression and social equity, and were given a major boost in the wake of the Second World War. Copyright has continually built outwards from its initial core concern with protecting authors and publishers of books, has broadened in scope to new media even including software, and extended to claim neighbouring rights and ever longer monopoly periods. At this point, copyright and the power of industry is such that it is eating not only into the potential future public domain in general, but into that especially sensitive and important area of the public sphere and information rights.

Put another way, a central requirement of the public sphere is that all people have equal and ready access to impartial information and analysis. This part of information, partly in the public domain but also partly within the restricted sphere of copyright information, is critical to the operation of a representative democracy and to social equity. However, copyright works in the other direction, restricting information. What is now happening is that, with the increasing commercialization of the media and the weakening of regulation in the public interest, more and more information that is critical to grease the wheels of the public sphere is copyrighted. And the copyright industries are not slow to maximise the value to be obtained from their rights to this information. This in turn means that access to information is more and more determined by who can afford it; and the nature of the information itself is transformed to maximise the value and the profits to the produces.

Found on the Internet

All of the information on this website can be found elsewhere on the Internet, and a link to the source is provided where information is from elsewhere. There are two exceptions: the footnotes for the I Ching came from the hard-copy of that book I brought with me when I left the U.S. The other exception is The People of the Secret. This book is out of print (used copies on Amazon costing a minimum of $70 USD) and apparently was never made into a PDF. I purchased a used copy, scanned it, ran it through OCR, and then made the book from this.

I had published approximately (10) books at Gaian Corps, and when I revamped this website in 2018, I transferred most those books from Gaian Corps to this website. When I was set to begin transferring The Cosmic Serpent to this website, I contacted Jeremy Narby, the author to ask for permission to publish his book on my website. I actually thought he would approve, seeing as how his book (as a PDF) can be found at several websites (Perhaps the most reliable can be found at: Also see HERE, HERE, HERE, and a list of sites HERE). Unfortunately, the author requested that I not publish it. However several portions of the book seemed too important to not publish.

Many of the books published on this website can be found (as a PDF) on multiple websites – Bibliotecapleyades having over 1000 books available on their website. Most of the more recent books published here come from (9,925,185 Books - 84,837,646 Articles). I have no idea who or what is responsible for the website, but I consider it a great service!

Mission Statement  [LINK]

As I rebel against ignorance,
I stand for wanting to know

As I rebel against chronic disease,
I stand for optimal health

As I rebel against evasion and wilful blindness,
I stand for becoming more conscious

As I rebel against the parasite class who seek the unearned,
I stand for production and independence

As I rebel against coercion,
I stand for reasoned persuasion and demonstrating what I know to be right

As I rebel against tyranny,
I stand for freedom

As I rebel against altruism,
I stand for rational self-interest

As I rebel against collectivism,
I stand for individualism

As I rebel against mysticism,
I stand for reason

As I rebel against falsehood,
I stand for truth

Characteristics of Good Quality Information (ACCURATE) [LINK]

Characteristics of good quality information can be defined as an acronym ACCURATE. These characteristics are interrelated; focus on one automatically leads to focus on other.

Information should be fair and free from bias. It should not have any arithmetical and grammatical errors. Information comes directly or in written form likely to be more reliable than it comes from indirectly (from hands to hands) or verbally which can be later retracted.

Accuracy of information is just not enough. It should also be complete which means facts and figures should not be missing or concealed. Telling the truth but not wholly is of no use.

Information should be analysed for its benefits against the cost of obtaining it. It business context, it is not worthwhile to spend money on information that even cannot recover its costs leading to loss each time that information is obtained. In other contexts, such as hospitals it would be useful to get information even it has no financial benefits due to the nature of the business and expectations of society from it.

Information should be communicated in the style, format, detail and complexity which address the needs of users of the information. Example senior managers need brief reports which enable them to understand the position and performance of the business at a glance, while operational managers need detailed information which enable them to make day to day decisions.

Information should be communicated to the right person. It means person which has some control over decisions expected to come out from obtaining the information.

Information should come from reliable source. It depends on qualifications and experience and past performance of the person communicating the information.

Information should be communicated in time so that receiver of the information has enough time to decide appropriate actions based on the information received. Information which communicates details of the past events earlier in time is of less importance than recently issued information like newspapers. What is timely information depends on situation to situation. Selection of appropriate channel of communication is key skill to achieve.

Easy to Use
Information should be understandable to the users. Style, sentence structure and jargons should be used keeping the receiver in mind. If report is targeted to new-comer in the field, then it should explain technical jargons used in the report.

Thank you. Your comments are invaluable for me.
If you liked this post, kindly tell to your friends or peers.

Information wants to be free [LINK]

information wants to be free

“Information Wants to be Free” is an expression that means all people should be able to access information freely. It is often used by technology activists to criticize laws that limit transparency and general access to information. People who criticize intellectual property law say the system of such government-granted monopolies conflicts with the development of a public domain of information. The expression is often credited to Stewart Brand, who was recorded saying it at a hackers conference in 1984.[1]

The phrase is attributed to Stewart Brand,[1] who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing.[2] What is considered the earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984, although the video recording of the conversation shows that what Brand actually said is slightly different. Brand told Steve Wozniak:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.[3]

Brand’s conference remarks are transcribed accurately by Joshua Gans[4] in his research on the quote as used by Steve Levy in his own history of the phrase.[5]

A later form appears in his The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT:[6]

Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.[7]

According to historian Adrian Johns, the slogan expresses a view that had already been articulated in the mid-20th century by Norbert Wiener, Michael Polanyi and Arnold Plant, who advocated for the free communication of scientific knowledge, and specifically criticized the patent system.[8]

Gratis versus libre
     Main article: Gratis versus libre
The various forms of the original statement are ambiguous: the slogan can be used to argue the benefits of propertied information, of liberated, free, and open information, or of both. It can be taken amorally as an expression of a fact of information-science: once information has passed to a new location outside of the source’s control there is no way of ensuring it is not propagated further, and therefore will naturally tend towards a state where that information is widely distributed. Much of its force is due to the anthropomorphic metaphor that imputes desire to information. In 1990 Richard Stallman restated the concept normatively, without the anthropomorphization:

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 … When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.[9]

Stallman’s reformulation incorporates a political stance into Brand’s value-neutral observation of social trends.

     Main article: Cypherpunk
Brand’s attribution of will to an abstract human construct (information) has been adopted within a branch of the cypherpunk movement, whose members espouse a particular political viewpoint (anarchism). The construction of the statement takes its meaning beyond the simple judgmental observation, “Information should be free”, by acknowledging that the internal force or entelechy of information and knowledge makes it essentially incompatible with notions of proprietary software, copyrights, patents, subscription services, etc. They believe that information is dynamic, ever-growing and evolving and cannot be contained within (any) ideological structure.[citation needed]

According to this philosophy, hackers, crackers, and phreakers are liberators of information which is being held hostage by agents demanding money for its release. Other participants in this network include cypherpunks who educate people to use public-key cryptography to protect the privacy of their messages from corporate or governmental snooping and programmers who write free software and open source code. Still others create Free-Nets allowing users to gain access to computer resources for which they would otherwise need an account. They might also break copyright law by swapping music, movies, or other copyrighted materials over the Internet.[citation needed]

Chelsea Manning is alleged to have said “Information should be free”[10] to Adrian Lamo when explaining a rationale for US government documents to be released to WikiLeaks. The narrative goes on with Manning wondering if she is a “‘hacker’, ‘cracker’, ‘hacktivist’, ‘leaker’ or what”.[11]

Literary usage
In the “Fall Revolution” series of science-fiction books, author Ken Macleod riffs and puns on the expression by writing about entities composed of information actually “wanting”, as in desiring, freedom and the machinations of several human characters with differing political and ideological agendas, to facilitate or disrupt these entities’ quest for freedom.

In the cyberpunk world of post-singularity transhuman culture described by Charles Stross in his books like Accelerando and Singularity Sky, the wish of information to be free is a law of nature.[12][13]

See also
Culture vs. Copyright
Free content
Free culture movement
Freedom of information
Free Haven Project
Free software
Horror vacui (physics)
Information activist
Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free
Internet censorship
Internet privacy
Streisand effect
Tor (anonymity network)


  1. Wagner, R Polk, Information wants to be free: intellectual property and the mythologies of control (PDF) (essay), University of Pennsylvania, archived from the original (PDF) on 26 December 2010, retrieved 9 December 2010.
  2. Baker, Ronald J (8 February 2008), Mind over matter: why intellectual capital is the chief source of wealth, p. 80, ISBN 9780470198810.
  3. Stewart Brand states information wants to be free”…
  4. Gans, Joshua. ““Information Wants to be Free”: The history of that quote”. Digitopoly. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  5. Levy, Steve. ““Hackers" and “Information Wants to Be Free””. Backchannel. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  6. Brand, Stewart (1987), The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, Viking Penguin, p. 202, ISBN 0-14-009701-5.
  7. Clark, Roger. ““Information Wants to be Free …””. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  8. Johns, Adrian (2009), Piracy. The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, The University of Chicago Press, p. 429, ISBN 978-0-226-40118-8, We still live amid the legacies of these mid-century debates about science and society. We inherit their terms, and the culture of science that shapes our world is the one left to us by them. If we think ‘information wants to be free,’ then we voice a sentiment championed by Wiener, Polanyi and Plant
  9. Denning, Dorothy E (October 1990), “Concerning Hackers Who Break into Computer Systems”, Proceedings of the 13th National Computer Security Conference, Washington, DC: Georgetown, pp. 653–64.
  10. KEVIN POULSEN AND KIM ZETTER (6 October 2013). “‘I Can’t Believe What I’m Confessing to You’: The Wikileaks Chats”. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  11. Fishman, Steve (3 July 2011). “How Bradley Manning Became One of the Most Unusual Revolutionaries in American History”. New York. Retrieved 4 July 2011.
  12. Stross Accelerando (review), Trashotron, 2005, retrieved 23 April 2011.
  13. Stross, Charles (1 April 2010), Singularity Sky – A Modest Construct, Heliologue, retrieved 23 April 2011.

External links
Does the cyberpunk movement represent a political resistance?
Roger Clarke

“Information Wants to be Free”: The history of that quote [LINK]

brand 1984

Last year Steve Levy wrote “The Definitive Story of Information Wants to be Free.” It is an interesting reflection on that phrase and its origins. The exact quote arose in a conversation between Stewart Brand and Steve Wosniak at the first hackers conference in 1984 and was recorded by Levy as this:

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.

I relied on that same quote in my book Information Wants to be Shared. I wish I had had Wozniak’s retort at the time: “information should be free but your time should not” when I wrote that book because, well, that notion that attention was scarce and how this interacted with the economic properties of information was my point.

So it was with particular glee that I discovered the other day that the conversation was actually captured on video and it is available from Getty Images (Click HERE to view the video in a popup). I don’t want to own that video or repost it but fortunately, Getty Images allows you to play it. But as it turns out, Levy did not transcribe it accurately. Instead, Brand said this:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other. [Emphasis added]

Note the qualifier Brand uses “almost.” Now this changes nothing except that whomever was the first to say that exact phrase “information wants to be free” wasn’t Levy (as he explained) and, as it turns out, wasn’t Brand. But I thought it would be useful to at least set the record straight.

“Hackers” and “Information Wants to Be Free”  By Steven Levy

The most famous phrase in the book wasn’t mine. And it wasn’t in the book.

In my more indulgent moments I can tick off a few career highlights. I found Einstein’s brain. Bill Gates once threw a pencil at me. I interviewed Bob Marley. I wrote books on artificial life, the Macintosh, Google, and the crypto wars of the 1990s. Oh, and I started Backchannel.


But a substantial slice of the (geeky) population will always associate me with my first book, Hackers, published in November 1984. It was, after all, the book that established a meme that still throbs in the pulse of Internet discussions, from Anonymous IRC chats to panels on the future of music: Information Wants to Be Free.

Er, not exactly. Like “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, the exact phase isn’t in the book. Though inspired by Hackers, the famous words were actually uttered by someone else—when I called on him in what was to be a legendary group discussion. On the 30th anniversary of Hackers I thought the story worth recounting, because even though the words were not mine, it became indelibly intertwined with the exciting—and frustrating—release of the book.

Thirty years ago, I took a plane to San Francisco. It was the eve of publication for Hackers. I had worked like a madman for two years to produce it. I thought I was documenting a new kind of American hero, and I could hardly wait for the world to acknowledge my work. In an airport newsstand before boarding, I spotted a copy of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. At the time they sold copies a week in advance. I bought one, on the odd chance it would contain a review of Hackers.

Indeed, as I opened it on the plane, I found my work considered in the “Books in Brief” section. The reviewer was a woman whose name I had not heard of before or since. She dismissed Hackers in a few paragraphs, managing to imply that the book wasn’t even worth that much attention. The words that stick in my mind are “overblown magazine article.”

It was the longest plane ride of my life. My first book was dead in the water. I was convinced (correctly) that my publisher would devote virtually no marketing resources. (Indeed, I would not make a single radio or television appearance to promote Hackers.) I felt like turning around at SFO and going back home, even though my destination was an event that promised to be thrilling. It was to be a conference inspired by my book. The Whole Earth Review’s Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Ryan Phelan had organized a once-in-a-lifetime retreat that would unite the three generations of hackers I had written about in my book. Many of the key subjects would be there, some of them meeting each other for the first time. It shaped up to be the ultimate book party.

At that moment, though, I felt as if I was attending a funeral.

My mood lifted dramatically as I arrived at the former army camp on the Marin Headlands, where the Hackers Conference would commence. Almost every person attending was an amazing hacker, many of whom I had gotten to know through often cathartic interviews. Everyone was ebullient to be connecting with like-minded wizards. I couldn’t help but get swept up in that excitement. Also, everyone was given a copy of the book. Though I got a year’s worth of corrections in a few hours, my subjects also congratulated me on capturing the essence of who they were.

By the time the hackers had gathered for a huge discussion on the first morning, I was a dizzy passenger on the high spirit bus.

The session was about the Hacker Ethic, the list of unspoken principles shared by hackers of all stripes. As the codifier of the Hacker Ethic, I was the designated moderator.

Even then, the word “hacker” was under attack. The room was totally appalled that the media was starting to define the word as “evil little grub who breaks into computers.” But then we began to discuss the part of the Hacker Ethic that states, “Information Should be Free.” Some of the early hackers I had written about felt that software should literally be free. (Among the people in the room was Richard Stallman, who would later found the Free Software Foundation.) Yet in my book I documented how hackers of later generations were not shy about profiting from their creations. I wrote about the impact of that shift on the pure joy of hacking.

Bob Wallace.

Woz: “That’s a hiding of information, and it’s wrong.”

The conversation turned to the recent idea of freeware and shareware. Two of the people in the room were pioneers in this practice. (Sadly, both of them—Andrew Flugelman and Bob Wallace— are lost to us now.) They explained how each of their schemes operated. Wallace ended his comments by expressing concern that his small company might not be able to scale with such practices.

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, responded to this by noting that sometimes for-profit companies deny the public great programs just because they don’t fit a certain market. “The companies, because they own the product, will squash it and say, ‘You cannot have it, even though we’re not going to put it out, and nobody else in the world’s going to get it.’ That’s a hiding of information, and that is wrong,” said Wozniak.

That’s when Stewart Brand stood up and spoke for the first time in the session. Here’s what he said:

It seems like there’s a couple of interesting paradoxes we’re working with here. That’s why I’m especially interested in what Bob Wallace has done with PC-WRITE and what Andrew Flugelman did before that with PC-TALK. 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.

Wozniak had a reply: “Information should be free but your time should not.”

I recently contacted Brand to discuss his statement. As I suspected, Brand’s remark was off the cuff, a hack on “Information Should Be Free,” which I wrote as part of The Hacker Ethic. “I was indeed riffing on ‘Information Should Be Free’ in your book, only starting with Steve’s case for expensive,” he wrote me.

Brand and Wozniak had a back and forth for a while, talking about the conflict between programmers and marketers. The conversation flitted around for a while—Wozniak ending that particular exchange by noting that a true hacker wrote code for a “market of one he’s very close to” (himself)—and the conversation went on to other topics. (You can read the whole thing here, by the way.) But Brand’s incisive comment would not be forgotten.

Still, no one in that room understood that Brand had uttered a phrase that would remain steadily viral for thirty years.

Most commonly, people quote the first part: “Information wants to be free.” Sometimes they do so in admiration, other times to dismiss what the speaker sees as an impractical and maybe even a criminal impulse. (Kind of the digital equivalent of a tree-hugger.) But fairly often people do remember the “Information wants to be expensive” part of Brand’s expression. Brand himself later elaborated on the comments in his 1987 book The Media Lab and in some talks thereafter. But generally, he wrote, “since then…the meme has been living high, wide and handsome on its own.”

Brand: “The right information at the right place just changes your life.”

The author

Indeed. The phrase has been describe as “a battle cry for the relentless march of the Internet”; “The single dominant ethic in this [digital] community”; and “the defining slogan of the information age.” Historian Adrian Johns has tied the sentiment to the earliest days of digital culture: “If we think ‘information wants to be free,’ then we voice a sentiment championed by Wiener, Polanyi and Plant,” he wrote. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, devoted a chapter of his bestselling book (Free) to the phrase. Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning once used the phrase in an online chat to explain his prodigious leaking. Agent and publisher John Brockman once wrote that the phrase “became a mantra, it became an ideology, for some it’s a religion, for others it’s a cashbox for stock or speaker fees.” And just a few weeks ago Cory Doctorow released a book entitled, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. (“It’s time for it to die,” writes Doctorow. Fat chance.)

For me, Brand’s remark has had lasting impact because it reflected something I saw as key to Hackers: the drama that comes when commerce thwarts people’s impulse to share their creations, and limits those who build upon the work of others.

The New York Times reviewer didn’t get this. But — thank the stars — many others would. When Hackers came out in mass market paperback a year later, thousands of readers devoured it. And for three publishers and thirty years, they would keep reading. The apex of this came one day as a young reader—who, judging from his grungy garb, was clearly someone who had already spent many a night coding—approached me. “How does it feel,” he asked me, “To know that nothing you ever do will be as good as Hackers?”

I might take issue with that. But I do appreciate that Hackers is still part of the conversation. And so is Stewart Brand’s remark at that wonderful Hackers Conference, which I so badly needed to attend in November 1984. The argument of whether information wants to be free, should be free, should be paywalled or should be expensive. It is still a vital argument.

Quite a turnaround from my despair on the way to San Francisco on that November day. I never would have dared dream that my book would still be around 30 years later. And some readers even pay for it.

Photos of 1984 Hackers Conference by Matt Herron.

Information Wants To Be Free  By Charles Warner

information wants to be free

According to Wikipedia, "information wants to be free" is an expression that has come to be the unofficial motto of the free content movement. The expression is first recorded as pronounced by Stewart Brand at the first Hackers' Conference in 1984, in the following context: '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.'"Smart, committed people want their voices heard and smart, committed readers want to know what these people have to say. Free information is good, and free both ways is better.

When Shawn Fanning was a teenager at Northwestern, he was obviously on the side of the free-content movement when he invented the peer-to-peer file sharing program Napster, which allowed people, mostly computer-savvy young people, to either share or pirate music - depending on your point of view. If you were a free-content person, you shared files. If you were a content-valuable person, such as the rock band Metallica or the rapper Dr. Dre - both of whom sued Napster for enabling people to get their copyrighted songs without paying for them - you felt the songs were pirated.

Are you a content-free or content valuable person? Chances are you're conflicted. You might like the free content on and, but you might pay for the content on On the one hand, you might look the other way when your kids pirate songs; but on the other hand, you might pay for songs on iTunes because you're against pirating on moral grounds.

However, the quality of either free or paid-for content for the vast majority of people is not determined by the price of its acquisition by a publisher. The fact that a publisher pays an author a $5 million advance doesn't make a book better, a $180 million film is not automatically better than one that cost $5 million to make, and the quality or value of a blog post or a newspaper column is not determined by how much the publisher paid the writer.

In fact, I would argue that not only does information want to be free but also that content is often better when it is free - free not only to readers but also free to publishers.

The free distribution of and access to content enabled by the Internet has created a new medium, a new journalism, for readers that is much more of a two-way conversation than the old one-way model of print and broadcast. On websites that allow comments, the comments are often more relevant and better informed than the original blog or column, but, more important, comments allow readers to express their opinions and become part of a public dialogue. We all learn from each other, or as Satchel Paige said, "All of us are smarter than any one of us."

Content that is free to publishers, such as the blogs on the Huffington Post, allow writers to express themselves freely without an eye cocked to a gate-keeping owner, editor, or advertiser. It's pure, heartfelt opinion, and, more important, if it isn't reasonably well written and well argued, it won't get posted, which is a strong quality-control mechanism.

Content providers that have regularly scheduled, salaried columnists and pundits typically publish their content regardless of its quality. Bill O'Reilly has a regularly scheduled show and FOX News runs his program no matter what he rants about. The New York Times has hired William Kristol to write a column on Mondays, so it runs his column regardless of whether it's well written, makes sense, or has typos or factual errors in it (see Kristol's horribly written, typo-polluted column this past Monday). It reminds me of many tenured professors at universities who teach boring, irrelevant courses that are scheduled only because the schools have to have something for these dinosaurs to do.

The Huffington Post's free model is working - its growth has been extraordinary and it now has, according to some reliable Internet audience measurement firms, as many readers as the AP website and is approaching the audience of the Washington Post's website. Readers get access to thoughtful, well-written blogs by Senator Ted Kennedy, former senator Gary Hart, Nora Ehpron, Alex Baldwin, Tom Hayden, Charlie Rose, Marty Kaplan, and Terence Smith, to name only a few blog writers who are not writing for money. They are writing to get their opinions, their causes, their passions distributed, and the beneficiaries are the readers who can join in the conversation, and, thus, both reader and writer can be informed.

I made the above argument to a friend of mine who said that, "Well, when the Huffington Post starts making money, the bloggers will want to get paid, they won't write free." I disagree. Smart, committed people want their voices heard and smart, committed readers want to know what these people have to say. Free information is good, and free both ways is better.

Information wants to be free, but the world isn't ready  [LINK]

You Are Not A Gadget

Every few years, one of my friends from the early days of digital enthusiasm turns up on the media’s radar as a “defector.” Huzzah! The former advocate or progenitor of the Next New Thing has turned into a flaming critic. Perhaps he or she has even issued a jeremiad against the former Great Hope of All Humanity. It’s a turnkey, media-ready narrative, easy to convey and easy for a low-attention reading public to digest: He was for it. Now he’s agin’ it. You can tweet that and have enough characters left over for a haiku.

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier, who emerged into the media spotlight in the early ’90s as the chief spokesperson for Virtual Reality, seems to be having a longer — and more vocal — run at this sort of thing than most. In “Half A Manifesto,” published in Wired (2000), Lanier struck out against what he saw as a cybernetic totalism wherein some techno enthusiasts were laboring to create our nonbiological replacement species. You Are Not A Gadget (2011) went a bit further into “fighting the future,” exploring the ways in which Web 2.0 disruption depersonalized or was economically unfair to “creatives.” The latest chapter of this saga, “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web,” is the much-ballyhooed portrait by Ron Rosenbaum for Smithsonian Magazine that portrays Jaron as being like a “spy who came in from the cold.”

I partly agree with every point that Jaron Lanier makes in the Smithsonian article… with the emphasis on partly. But there is one place where I stand, politically, in opposition to Lanier’s implicit stance: that whole “information wants to be free” thing.

I asked him if there was a single development that gave rise to his defection.

“I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.)

“Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’

“And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”

In a nutshell, either Jaron just wants to express his dissatisfaction with people taking cultural stuff for free, or he thinks he can convince people that it’s the ethical thing to do to stop all this P2P sharing. I think P2P sharing is a natural and friendly act that should be honored, and that the digitization, availability, and replicability of cultural wealth represents the onset of a crisis in late capitalism that simply won’t get resolved without broad systemic reform.

Free culture tends to devalue and demean creative types as we're pushed down into the shit end of the long tail

“Free culture,” as some call it, is not economically kind to artists, musicians, writers, and creative folks in general. Almost all cultural product today is digital, infinitely replicable and instantly available to everyone with web access. This tends to devalue and demean creative types as we’re pushed down into the shit end of the Long Tail alongside the vast, relatively unskilled hordes who are happy to provide their own content, thank you very much, and to grab up our stuff for free. The creative middle class is effectively being removed from the supply chain. It’s being disintermediated.

Despite my immediate self interests, I stand on the side of those who want information to be free, who oppose the creation of false scarcity. Back in the early days of new media — I met Jaron back in 1987 or ‘88 — we contemplated ideas like Free Culture as future probabilities instead of new (complicated and convoluted) realities. We were both younger then, and perhaps more resilient. I can’t speak for him, but I think it’s fair to say that there was a broad feeling amongst those of us at play in the fields of the arising tech revolution that if the anarchic shockwaves of shifting social relations brought about by — among other things — the digitization of cultural stuff and the resultant ease with which that stuff could be copied unto infinity and accessed from anywhere hit us, then we would happily surf those crazy waves of change.

The other part of that deal, as many of us perceived it, was that everything else had to change too. We knew that the end of scarcity in the digital realm would be “heightening the contradictions” (as they say) in the industrial capitalist model. We assumed that either capitalism would rise to the challenge by finding ways to support those disintermediated or displaced by technical change — or it would be forcibly altered or dissipated in the forward rush of boundary defying technologies.

Culture workers are not removed from the equation, but they are devalued

We’re now experiencing the change we once contemplated. While there’s certainly a surfeit of free culture, there’s also this middle terrain best represented by iTunes. By offering convenience and legitimacy (and by being extremely well advertised) those old school turnstiles are resurrected and money is exchanged. In this distribution model, culture workers are not removed from the equation, but they are devalued. This only serves to cloud the discussion by offering the almost entirely false premise that creative professionals can still make a reasonable livelihood off of their digitized stuff.

The big question is whether there is an economic place in the world for the cultural professionals — for the musician, the writer, etcetera. It seems to me that there is, down there with the hobbyists at the shit end of the Long Tail. In Chris Anderson’s glib happyland, everybody gets to bring his or her game to a nearly infinite market. In reality, that Long Tail is populated almost entirely by people who either don’t need to — or simply don’t — make anything like a reasonable livelihood from their efforts.

That long tail is populated almost entirely by people who either don't need to make anything like a reasonable livelihood from their efforts

Why should this matter to you? Well, aside from the fact that everybody’s salable skill will eventually get disintermediated, automated, or both, it shouldn’t. There is no intrinsic entitlement to a middle class life for creative workers — or for anyone — written into the cosmos.

On the other hand, there’s no intrinsic entitlement to free access to the products of cultural creativity written into the cosmos either. All of these tendencies come about (or don’t) as the result of where the technology takes us, within the context of the type of society in which those technologies grow, and with the additional and important possible directional thrust that might occur as we negotiate what’s fair and, if warranted, actually make those societies change. And this finally is where the shouting over the P2P exchange of digital stuff versus the interests of the creator to gather a livelihood needs a contextual shift.

Aaron Swartz

Apparently, it was the economic marginalization of creatives in the age of free culture that pushed Jaron Lanier into this dark and foreboding mood. This is an understandable reaction to both the destabilizing effect of digital technology on society and the stress of living in an economic pressure cooker that’s about to blow. Unfortunately, the thing that needs to be targeted is the tendencies and policies that make for such economic pressure and not the natural urge that people feel to share stuff that can so easily be shared. And that’s going to require a radical change in our economic and political discourse. That may be a long shot, but it’s a better shot than trying to put the Free Culture genie back in the bottle. That ain’t gonna happen… and it shouldn’t.

This story took a darker turn a few days after I finished my first pass at it, when I learned about the suicide of Aaron Swartz. The hacker and free information activist faced a possible 30 years in prison for “liberating” several million academic journal articles from JSTOR, a paid subscription repository for digitized academic journals.

The free access to academic journals goes to the heart of the most idealistic intentions of free information advocates, as it has been understood since the earliest days of hacker ethics. This is the idea that hoarding information does harm to humanity. Progress is best made when other explorers can access the latest ideas and discoveries and build on them. Conversely, not having access to the discoveries and insights of others leads to wasted time, money and effort. That the information provided by researchers to academic journals might be valuable to others working in similar fields seems pretty obvious. Getting the latest Beyoncé album for free is not really the same thing, except by the broadest interpretation in which all signals are understood to contain information that, therefore, could be useful. Anyway, once you establish the principle of free information, any attempt to limit that principle to the sort of information that conforms to the values of the original idealists leads us inexorably into a near-infinite fog of subjective valuation.

It has been understood since the earliest days of hacker ethics that hoarding information does harm to humanity

Aaron Swartz is, in some sense, a victim of the disconnect that this essay has tried to illustrate. The idealism at the heart of digital free culture exists in a kind of isolation. It is not reflected and supported by other types of idealism around property — intellectual or otherwise — and the distribution of wealth. The federal prosecutors in the Swartz case represent the sort of hard-ass, legalistic, economic concerns that surrounds digital idealism like a school of sharks that senses the potential for an oncoming feeding crisis.

To some extent, both Jaron Lanier’s turn against ”free culture” and the insane, heavy-handed prosecution of Aaron Swartz stem from an inability to come to terms with the reality that in the digital age, it’s easy to share stuff for free with everybody, but people still want and need money. The larger tragedy is that lots of people (not just middle class creative professions) will eventually be rendered economically superfluous. The hope is that this will result in a critical mass of folks demanding a solution. The solution, which seemed obvious to people when they discussed the coming “cybernetic revolution” in the 1970s, is to find a way to (or an excuse to) distribute wealth to those rendered economically obsolete. This notion has been rendered taboo by a decades-long reactionary campaign to instill a visceral horrified response to any claims that displaced people should be “entitled” to anything. But this is a big subject that requires another essay questioning the legitimacy of a whole series of political and economic paradigms, so I’ll have to leave it there for now.

In the meantime, I’m convinced that with the slightest loosening of the economic pressure cooker — and even better, a modicum of slack — this techno-juggernaut will start to look again like the marvelous garden of intriguing possibilities that it did to some of us back in the day, when we enthused and dreamed an expansive and delightful future.

R.U. Sirius was editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000 and a columnist for San Francisco Examiner and Artforum International. He has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, Design for Dying (with Timothy Leary) and Counterculture Through the Ages. He is currently working on Use Your Hallucinations: The Making of Mondo 2000 in Late 20th Century Cyberculture.

Photo credits: psd, vanz, dombrassey

Information wants to be free
Information wants to be free

Information wants to be free

This paper was prepared by Seán Ó Siochrú and Bruce Girard. “Information wants to be free” forms part of the Visions of the Information Society project managed by Lara Srivastava This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Policy Analyst in the Strategy and Policy Unit of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). More information can be found at The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ITU or its membership.


Much of the discourse surrounding the ‘Information Society’ is inadequate for developing a deeper understanding of this society and the role of information in it, because it assumes either that information is only now taking a central role in society, or that the social and economic changes currently being experienced are the inevitable consequences of new information technologies. In fact, information and communication have always been at the core of human society, and while technology is playing a role as catalyst, the true dynamics are much more complex.

In this paper we explore the role of information (and of communication, to which it is inextricably linked) as the central element of two basic pillars of all societies: the means by which we encourage and promote creativity and innovation, and the means by which we build and sustain social and political interactions and institutions. After reviewing historical trends and current concerns in relation to both, we conclude that the two are coming into conflict, which could have serious consequences for the future.

For the first pillar a core question for every society has been how to cultivate and reward the creative spirit while at the same time ensuring that the fruits of that creativity are available for all of society. First emerging in industrial capitalist societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently codified in international agreements, intellectual property rights (IPR) are at the core of a system intended to strike a balance between private ownership and public use of information. At their essence, IPRs are an economic tool, granting inventors, authors and publishers limited monopolies to exploit their creations before they are released into the public domain, where they are freely available for use by all.

The second role of information is the role it plays in the shaping and operation of the social and political institutions that govern societies. Key issues here are the rights people have in relation to accessing, using and communicating information and knowledge. Among these are free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association and the right to privacy, all of which underpin other rights by freeing information from the barriers and constraints of secrecy, by stimulating transparency and the open exchange of ideas, and in some cases to limit the freedom to access certain information that leads to a diminution of other rights. While the roots can be traced further back, key moments in the industrialized world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries once again played a role by establishing the framework for representative democracy, which cannot exist without the communication rights and freedoms that enable a vigorous public sphere.

From roughly the middle of the twentieth century the production and reproduction of information became ‘turbo-charged’. Innovation followed innovation, each posing new challenges to the delicate balancing mechanisms worked out in previous centuries. New technologies and new media appeared and, facilitated by the advent of digitization, began to converge. The media proliferated and rose in sophistication: publishing, cinema, music, radio, television, video, DVDs, the Internet; new technologies mixing with old and adding to the value of copyright and the economic influence of the media. At the same time, the new media technologies also exposed new vulnerabilities for industry, making it increasingly easy to copy and distribute content and thus increasingly difficult to prevent copyright violation.

Rise of copyright industries

But the changes were not only technological and the same period has also been marked by the rediscovery of the ideology of the unfettered markets and globalization, and the dominance of global media and communication corporations. Inevitably the rules and regulations governing copyright were swept into this vortex of growth. The copyright industries sought and obtained the extension of their monopolies in two ways: by having the length of time they could exercise those monopolies extended, and by standardizing international copyright regimes at levels beneficial to the main global corporations located in industrialized countries. The latter involved moving much of the responsibility for international regimes out of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the form of the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The transfer of responsibility to the WTO had a number of other benefits for the global copyright industries, including giving them access to the WTO's powerful international enforcement procedures and very significant penalties.

The battle is by no means over yet. Copyright industries have not succeeded in every endeavour and a significant lobby has emerged around sustaining the creative potential of the Internet, the highest prize, against a wide range of efforts to impose onerous copyright and other restrictions in order to maximise short- term commercial gain.

The public sphere, information rights and the media

During the same half century, the media have adopted an increasingly important public role. While the public sphere is comprised of many non-media forums, the media are increasingly important and are one of modern society’s most important institutions, exercising influence in virtually all aspects of social and political life as one of the primary ways by which we learn about and interact with the world and with each other.

During the immediate post Second World War period, the international climate was conducive to the internationalization of human rights, including information, communication and cultural rights. While not without setbacks and exceptions, the period saw a general decline in the political control of the public sphere and a rise in individual and collective freedoms. However, by the 1970s other forces came into play, with technology once again taking the role of catalyst and enabler. During the last few decades liberalization and private ownership of the media has become the dominant model.

In the United States and countries which had traditionally adopted private ownership, liberalization has gradually eroded both public service obligations and restrictions on concentration of ownership and cross- ownership of media. By the 1980s Brazil, Argentina and Mexico all had greater concentration of ownership of the media than the United States, where three national networks accounted for over ninety per cent of viewership.

In the European Union, liberalization was accompanied by a decline in the public service media and an increasing presence of private media. The mixed model remains, but there is a notable slide in the direction of a minimally regulated market-based model.

In much of the rest of the world, including the global South and Eastern Europe, early aspirations of a public service model were dropped in favour of a predominantly private sector model, although often with direct or indirect government control.

At the international level, portable technologies facilitated the prising open of new markets for the video and recorded music industries. Satellite broadcasting and the Internet continued this trend of expanding global markets for media products. Meanwhile, the convergence of media and the rise of cross-ownership in the United States, Europe and Japan enabled the emergence of a handful of multimedia giants with access to capital and to economies of scale and scope that allowed them to dominate these global markets. Also at the international level the extra-territorial nature of much global electronic media (including satellite television and the Internet), and the inability to reach any agreement on their regulation, have left few policy options available to governments wanting, for example, to support the development of national media. There is a growing governance vacuum in which governments are excluded and market studies are the only form of public consultation.

A current balance sheet

In recent decades, the balance of IPRs has tilted in favour of private ownership—perhaps beyond a level which might be regarded as required as an incentive—with significant economic, cultural and educational consequences that threaten development and have implications for ongoing innovation. The understanding of copyright has shifted from its founding idea of granting a monopoly right tolerated by the public as a reward and to encourage creativity, to one where copyright is an asset held virtually in perpetuity. Concern for balance between private ownership of intellectual property and the public domain has all but disappeared from the mainstream debate.

In relation to the public sphere and information rights, concentration of ownership and cross-ownership have resulted in economies of scale and helped optimize profits, but this has been accompanied by reduced diversity, limited cultural specificity, and fewer real choices as all content is subjugated to commercial imperatives. Beyond this, however, we also see the spectre of a more intimate convergence of media and economic interests and reduced checks and balances on the media, matters of serious concern, since they are at the very foundation of representative democracy.

More significantly, we argue that a further characteristic is appearing that sets the current era apart from the past and that may have major consequences for the future: the two pillars of social norms on information— copyright and the public sphere—are increasingly coming into conflict. The depth and breadth of the copyright regime has reached such a point that it is not only questionable from an economic and development perspective, can also be perceived as carrying the risk of undermining the public sphere, and hence the system of representative democracy.

Our conclusions and proposals for the way forward cover both long-term goals and a series of practical actions. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organized by ITU under the aegis of the United Nations (to be held in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 20051) has a role to play in both.

As a long-term goal, WSIS can be the platform from which to launch a comprehensive review of copyright with the goal of realigning it with its intended purpose of striking a balance between rewarding creativity and ensuring that information and knowledge circulate freely for the good of all. Second, WSIS can be the platform from which to launch a declaration on the public sphere and information and communication rights.

For short-term action, we propose a number of practical initiatives that could be put forward by WSIS as a contribution to democratising copyright and sustaining and expanding the public sphere.

See: for further information on the Summit.

1 Introduction

At one level, the label ‘Information Society’ only very poorly encapsulates the essence of an era. For information is to be found at the core of all societies, everywhere and throughout time. It is difficult to conceive of meaning itself without at the same time evoking information. The capacity to fix ideas in information is a sine qua non not just of all societies but even of individual social existence.

At another level, most users unconsciously believe they understand what Information Society means. They see it as derivative of ‘information technologies’ or more recently of ‘information and communication technologies’ (ICT). It is the era in which ICTs have become a major driving force in social and economic change, so much so that the entire epoch derives its nomenclature from it. Just as the ‘industrial society’ was defined by the technology of heavy industry and manufacture, the Information Society is characterized by the technology of information and communication.

Neither, however, achieves a satisfactory definitional level. The first fails for the obvious reason that it is too abstract and general—the concept of the information society is vacuous if information is everywhere and always at the centre of social development. The second—technological determinism: the idea that successive technologies compel society to mould itself in their image, driven by inexorable internal imperatives—has long been unacceptable as a theory of social and economic change. It may be a useful descriptive shorthand for what appears on the surface and is thus probably adequate for many practical actors in the Information Society—but it does not proffer the needed deeper understanding of the dynamics of this society and of the role of information in it.

In this paper, we elaborate an argument concerning some critical functions of information in the Information Society. These functions are not derived from ICTs, though ICTs do have a key part to play in the story, in their proper role as enablers and catalysts. These functions are also linked inextricably to communication, for (paralleling the shift in usage from IT to ICT) information per se lacks a social dynamic until activated by communication. Thus we depart from the conventional approach and displace technologies from the starring role. In so doing, we can bring into play more fundamental roles of information in society, and thereby instil some historical depth into the notion of the Information Society.

It might be simpler to announce that our focus here is, on the one hand, intellectual property rights (IPRs) (the ownership, reward and dissemination structure of creativity); and on the other, the public sphere, and information and communication rights (norms governing the role of information and communication in political institutions and forums), and on their relationship—for this is what we will end up talking about. But all the prejudices wrapped around these terms would immediately surface, quickly lining us up across the current battlefield of the information society.

Instead, a short historical scene-setting detour will remind us that despite ongoing struggles and differences, all sides at least claim to be aiming for the same Information Society—a creative, equitable, democratic polity and society, with justice and freedom for all. History might throw into relief our commonalities, before we revisit our differences.

2 Two pillars of the information society

Our lives are surrounded by a taken-for-granted, apparently limitless, stockpile of knowledge. We find it in everything from daily life and advanced scientific, social and engineering feats, to the relatively orderly, open and peaceful existence a few have the privilege of living in and the rest of us aspire to. All these embody human information and knowledge accumulated layer upon layer over generations and eons. The strata in this geology of human insight are demarcated by great events, bursts of creativity and explosions of knowledge generation still clearly visible today; but the great bulk is composed of an accrual of incremental improvements, tiny acts of practical, social and mental creativity achieved amid and despite lives busy with the practical chores of existence.

Creative ideas and their use are infinitely reproducible; they do not wear out. And the more people use them, the better, since each user gains at no loss to another. They thus have what economists call the character of non-rival public goods. But they do not come from nowhere—no idea is entirely original, or even largely so.

The most astounding breakthrough depends hugely on all that goes before it, not just in content but in the instruments for expression and conception. And each is also fashioned within, and extrudes from, the specific context and experience of the time and the author, who adds the creative spark. But once a good idea is let loose on the world it cannot easily be forced back into the bottle. It can spread by word of mouth, in written form, and be put to good use by demonstrating technique, by fashioning tools, by putting it into action, by using it to build effective social and political movements and structures. It can be suppressed or locked away for a time. But only in exceptional cases, the most extreme being the destruction of an entire civilization, can ideas and knowledge be eliminated altogether. Even then, history shows them arising again from the ashes, nurtured by humanity’s common needs and drawing on the deepest recesses of ancient shared knowledge.

Distinctions must be made within the huge body of humanly generated knowledge, lines drawn in different places in different societies. Two types of knowledge are of concern to us here:

  • Information and knowledge used in the material reproduction of our world, its application to concrete human needs; and specifically the means by which we encourage and promote the flow of human creativity and innovation that in turn constantly recreates and transforms our material world;
  • Information and knowledge used in constructing and sustaining social and political institutions, and in how we organize ourselves into relationships, including the relations between people that govern the differential access of each to the material world. In particular, we are concerned with the role of information and knowledge in how we build and sustain fair, equitable and democratic social and political interactions, forums and institutions.

Each is constituted by and concerned with knowledge; the first in cultivating and rewarding the creative spirit in producing knowledge for material reproduction; the second through the privileged role of knowledge and information in creating and sustaining our social and political existence.

The former is destined for the economic arena and the arrangements made there regarding access and use; while the latter is destined for the a social and institutional context. But each is of such importance to society that immense effort has historically been devoted to codifying and legislating for them, a necessary process, but one that has also tended to obscure their simple and basic rationale behind walls of legal volumes and legislative and court proceeding. The means by which each of these uses of knowledge is governed and organized, the specific regime adopted in each type of society, is what we call the two pillars of the information society.

Below we consider each in turn, briefly reviewing its genesis and then its provenance in industrial society today.

Cultivating creativity and enabling use

We can state the core problem in this sphere as follows: Given how easily knowledge can flow when released upon the world, and given that knowledge is fully valorised only when it is applied for general use, the issue is how to ensure a balance between on the one hand encouraging and nurturing the creation of ideas; and on the other, ensuring the fruits of such creativity are maximised for all of society.

Certainly, individuals, groups or even entire societies have often conspired together to keep their ideas secret, whilst extracting excessive benefits from others in return for the products.2 But at the same time, there arises in parallel a recognition that general well-being is best served by binding agreements whereby knowledge becomes available for all to use, and the creators of that knowledge are rewarded—in addition to the great human pleasure of creativity itself—with the material means to continue these efforts. In some simple societies where material well-being is shared anyhow, an additional reward is perhaps enhanced status and standing in the community. But in others, material rewards are necessary, in recognition of the contribution made and recompense for the effort devoted to it.

The solution of each society reflects its basic organizing principles. In industrial capitalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and the United States, the system became known as intellectual property rights (IPR) and reflected the recently asserted private ownership of the productive system. In parallel to granting individuals exclusive access to material property, there emerged a system in which ideas were classed as a form of property, and monopoly rights for their use were granted to their creators. Yet it soon became evident that rights associated with ideas would, of necessity, have to be quite different from those associated with material goods. One issue was the simple reproducibility and hence immortality of ideas— they do not wear out, and their inherent value is undiminished through replication of use. This posed problems for the enforcement of such a right. However, a related but deeper issue was the notion of perpetual control over an idea that would enable the ‘owner’ to continue indefinitely to extract private gain for its use, or to arbitrarily limit the general social benefit. Apart from moral objections to such an idea, the constraints it would impose on general creativity in society were clear.

As early as 1710, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Anne, the first copyright law, the intent of which was to restrict the length of time publishers could exercise monopoly control over published works, initially to fourteen years.3 This put an end to the ancient and lucrative publishers’ monopoly over the works of Shakespeare, and indeed much of public knowledge, and put them in the public domain, that area in which everyone has the right to access and use ideas and their expression.

Thus very early on, the ultimate destiny of ideas in the public domain, where they were available to all for use, was recognized. The balance became a question of determining the length, depth and scope of such monopoly rights that would adequately reward creators while ensuring maximal use for the benefit of society.4 But additional safeguards also came into being: carefully circumstanced exemptions from copyright were permitted as ‘fair dealing’ and ‘fair use’, designed to allow immediate limited and partial access for educational, scientific and research purposes.

Thus copyright, the IPR of most interest to us here, granted a monopoly right over the use of a literary work, but for a fixed period only after which the work would enter the public domain.5 The creator or owner could grant others that right in return for an economic reward, but only for a time. It should be noted also that from the outset, copyright was not an inalienable right: it could, and very often was, sold by the author, sometimes even before the work was produced.

Copyright did not immediately catch on a mass scale. In the United States, between the enactment of their law in 1790 and 1799, 13,000 titles were published, but only 556 copyrights were filed.6 Only gradually were derivative rights established requiring permission for instance for translation of a book into another language, or the rendering of a novel into a play. And the emergence of IPR regimes within countries did not automatically mean the application of similar rights between national jurisdictions or to nationals of other jurisdictions, since IPRs have always been used by countries to further their own economic interests.

But there was pressure to harmonize, especially between countries at similar levels of development. Fear of widespread copying of new inventions and subsequent exploitation in other countries led to foreign exhibitors pulling out of an international inventor’s show in Vienna in the mid-1870s. Artists, writers and performers faced a similar problem leading to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1886 creating the framework for creators in one country to pursue their rights under the national law of another.

During this part of history, the most notably reluctant country in the granting of such rights to non-nationals was the United States. Between 1790 and 1861, arguing the need to import technology, patent fees for foreigners were higher than for nationals (until 1836 by a multiple of ten). Until 1891, copyright protection was afforded only to US citizens. Other restrictions remained in place, for instance regarding moral rights of authors and mandatory printing on US typesets, ultimately until 1989 when the US finally signed the Berne Convention.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the last century, the building blocks of an IPR regime were firmly in place in powerful nations, incidentally covering their colonial acquisitions, and were codified in national law and a set of binding international Conventions. Gradually, these were rooted into the United Nations body of institutions.

An important general lesson emerges from this potted history.7 Countries have always and everywhere pursued IPR regimes to suit their own technological and industrial development and interests, but over time have seen the benefits of cooperating in building international regimes. Within these, however, very considerable flexibility was permitted, by mutual consent and interest, to allow the tailoring of a regime to the specific development circumstances of each country. 8

Through this period, copyright and IPRs began from a relatively small kernel, encompassing only a fraction of output for individual areas of creative activity, only gradually extending to include transposition between different types of activity.

The secret of Chinese porcelain is a classic example of this.

Subtitled "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning", the Statute of Anne formally recognized certain rights of authors and publishers, but its real intention was to break the almost complete monopoly of the English book trade that has been exercised by the Stationers' Company of London for over 150 years. The law’s most important contribution was to limit the length of time copyright could be exercised before the works entered the public domain. The law also restricted copyright holders' rights to printing, publishing and selling, thus preventing them from controlling the use of a work once published. The complete text of the Statute is at:

By stressing that the public domain was a necessary construct or adjunct of copyright is not to suggest that the principle of public access is unique to ideas or dependent on their unique characteristics. It has much in common with the idea of ‘the commons’, as applied to land and other public goods, which is driven by similar normative and economic principles. It should also be noted that the language used for copyright emphasised the moral right of authors to be compensated.

When devising the US Constitution, the authors had plenty of experience of IPRs to work with, and thus included the copyright and patent clause which permits Congress to secure authors a monopoly “for limited times”.

Lawrence Lessig (2002) The Future of Ideas (New York: Vintage Books) page 106. It was only later that copyright came into force from the moment of creation, and unlike patents do not have to be filed.

UK Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (2002) Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy (London) page 22. This Commission was set up by the UK Secretary of State for International Development in May 2001.

It was not until 1970 that WIPO was formed - as a framework for twenty-one different Conventions. WIPO became part of the UN System in 1974.

Building and sustaining the public sphere and information rights

The second role of information is the key part it plays in shaping and operating the social and political institutions that govern societies. Key issues are the rights and responsibilities people have in relation to accessing, using and communicating information and knowledge, within and beyond the economic sphere governed by IPRs. Such communication rights underpin other rights by liberating information from the barriers and constraints of secrecy, by stimulating open exchange of ideas and transparency, and indeed in some cases by limiting freedom to access information that leads to a diminution of other rights. At the very heart is the public sphere, that area in which people and society get to develop and exercise political freedoms and decisions.

Again, different societies have found different ways of interpreting and supporting the rights and responsibilities of social and political discourse, for instance through religious, humanist or democratic prisms. Encoding and enforcing these rights and obligations vary greatly, from informal taboo through to harsh repression for transgression. From demagogy to participative democracy, information—its suppression or liberation—plays a central role.

From the late eighteenth century on—a key landmark being the French Revolution of 1789—people in the industrialized world fought for and won a primarily political role for these rights, relating to the core political institution of representative democracy.

Representative democracy is premised on the notion that individuals are morally sovereign because they are endowed with reason. Put simply, everyone can make individual moral judgements since each is capable of rationally assessing the affects of their actions on others, and therefore, within generally shared social norms, to judge the difference between right and wrong in a social context. This gives people an a priori capacity to make and accept laws that govern their actions.

In representative democracy a small number are chosen by everyone to take decisions on their behalf. The selection procedure, elections, must of course be transparent and fair. But the real test of liberal democracy is whether the public has ongoing access to information on the rationale and circumstances of decisions taken by those vested with such power, and the capacity to understand and articulate views and beliefs on them. In principle, liberal democracy is thus not an abrogation of power by the people to their leaders for a given period of time. It demands continuous renewal, through general affirmation that decisions are being taken rationally on behalf of the general good, and stands only as long as the leaders can rationally defend their actions. The more thorough the understanding of the populace concerning these decisions, the deeper and more robust the democracy, and ultimately the more cohesive the society. Thus information, the rules governing access to it and its quality, plays an absolutely critical role in the ‘contract’ between elected leaders and the people.

The public sphere is the arena in which human interactions and deliberations are debated, and information is the common coin. It is not a single forum, but a multiplicity of contexts and mechanisms in which people debate and interact, to gain an understanding of matters of general concern and to participate in the democratic process through formulating views and conveying them to political leaders. The public sphere can encompass newspapers, television, ‘soap-box’ gatherings, public demonstrations, discussion, e-mail lists and a myriad other forms; it may be pursued directly by people or vicariously through surrogates such as journalists, commentators or writers—the form or even the intermediary is not important. Intrusion of sectional interests, including, amongst others, those of politicians in maintaining power and of industry (including the media industry) in maximising accumulation, can significantly distort the public sphere. But full participation has other prerequisites, such as formal and informal educational structures and the general capacity for informed reasoning.

Critical to the operation of the public sphere is the availability of extensive factual and other information in the public domain. Copyright is just one means by which information can be restricted, and Freedom of Information laws, for instance, are vital instruments for bringing information into the public domain that is most relevant to the public sphere. But much information in the public sphere is also covered by copyright, including virtually all media content.

The essence of the public sphere, then, is that it is where people openly and transparently debate on the basis that they can be convinced by reason, by the rationality of argumentation, and not by rhetorical appeals, or through suppression or distortion of information. Thus the argument is that deepening democracy, and seeking the democratic ideal, is possible only where there is continuous support for and extension of the public sphere and of the central role of information and the media within it.

Freedom of information and of the media (then mainly the press) were early goals and early victories of our current representative form of democracy, and rightly held to underpin all other political rights. And almost all societies, though with quite some variation, recognize the need for a diverse range of regulation and laws governing information and the media, to ensure their continued capacity to fulfil these critical political functions including diversity and plurality of content, ready access and freedom of speech.9

As for IPRs, there was a degree of internationalization of these regulations and laws. But the demands in the early days were different, and not nearly as pressing as for IPRs. Political jurisdictions were confined within the nation state (unlike the circulation of goods and services), and the national media that pertained to a national public sphere were largely confined to, and controllable within, sovereign national borders.

By the early part of the twentieth century, rights and responsibilities governing information and media for the public sphere in representative democracies had grown based on broadly similar principles, with some variations. Among the most important was first the larger role of the private sector in the US and countries under its influence in the public sphere, and the emphasis on public service media in Europe and its zone of influence; and second the more absolute right to individual freedoms in the US, as compared to a balancing against collective freedoms in Europe.10 Most of the rest of the world existed under a variety of repressive colonial regimes, others based on strict hierarchical forms of governance or traditional communal codes.

The codification of norms and laws around the public sphere and information rights proceeded in parallel with those of copyright and IPRs generally. The public domain, information freely available to all, was clearly a key element of the public sphere, and an extension of IPRs always implied a further restriction of access and dissemination. But the public sphere and information rights rested on several other domains of regulation and rights.

Seán Ó Siochrú, Bruce Girard & Amy Mahan (2002) Global Media Governance: A Beginner’s Guide (Rowman & Littlefield).

10 Of course, this form of national representative democracy was not extended to the colonies, where quite different standards, often tortuously reasoned, were imposed.

3 The information revolution

From roughly the middle of the twentieth century on, the relatively slow pace of development of the previous couple of hundred years accelerated. The Second World War played an indirect role in both, but the directly important factors were the revolution in information technology and the emergence of globalized political and economic spheres. The production and reproduction of information became ‘turbo-charged’ in the second half of the century, with one innovation after another sending ripples and sometimes tidal waves crashing against the pillars of IPRs and the political institutions and public sphere. But underlying these very noticeable changes was a deeper realignment in these areas, driven by a different force, that of the rediscovery of the ideology of the unfettered market and the dominance of global corporations.

The era of copyright industries and shift to a trade paradigm

Through the latter half of the twentieth century, successive generations of technology offered huge opportunities and posed challenges to the copyright system. Over a few decades, the scene changed dramatically.

Industries extracting profits from copyright and the exclusive monopoly it gave over content grew rapidly, creating an infrastructure with global reach. The media by which people could access and use content proliferated and rose in sophistication: publishing, cinema, music, radio, television, video, DVDs, the Internet; new technologies mixing with old and adding to the value of copyright from one to the next. In later years, the application of copyright to computer software - not the most obvious legal mechanism, since patents would be more familiar to the world of industry, but the most lucrative from the point of view of the software industry - greatly added to the portfolio and scope of copyright industries. With the ongoing digitalisation of all media, full integration between media became possible, creating seamless low-cost content flows between them. By 1999, the copyright industries of print, film, television, radio, music and software had become gigantic, adding US$460 billion in 1999 to the GDP of its powerhouse, the US, and generating almost US$80 billion in exports.11

These industries were also globalizing. Facilitated by technologies such as satellite and telecommunication, building on economies of scope and of scale, and wielding marketing strategies with enormous budgets, they spread throughout the world. Through aggressive expansion and purchasing, the copyright giants grew and the lion’s share of the expanding industry went to a few global players mostly based in the United States. The copyright industries achieved truly global reach, and in some domains, such as television, completely transcended national boundaries.

Yet the microelectronics revolution at the same time posed a challenge. Reproduction technology, such photocopiers, tape recorders, VCRs and now CD, DVD writers and peer-to-peer Internet gave rise to a parallel industry of unauthorized copying, especially in Asia where the regimes were typically looser. The industry in industrialized countries believed it was costing them dearly in lost revenues, by 1995 calculated at over US$ 4.2 billion in film, music, for the United States alone, and a further US$10.2 billion in entertainment and business software.12 Reproduction of music and television for home use also raised a set of complex legal and practical issues.

Inevitably, the rules and regulations governing copyright were swept into this vortex of growth.

Throughout this period, the industries, led by the film industry in the United States, exerted huge pressure to extend copyright. The US Congress began with a total period of fourteen years (as did the United Kingdom), and only changed the terms of copyright once during the first hundred years of copyright, and once again in the next fifty years. However, it has extended the terms of copyright eleven times over the past forty years.13 The most recent change in 1998 determined that copyright due to run out in 1999 would hold until 2019— unless of course it is extended further in the interim. Current copyright in the United States lasts for 70 years after the death of the author—raising the issue of the economic incentive for people who have been dead for decades!

But the pressure was also on to standardize regimes. From its origins, considerable national leeway had by general consent always been a central characteristic of international agreements. Until the 1970s, and largely based on work by WIPO and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a diversity of IPR forms were deployed that were adapted to the needs of different levels and trajectories of development. The rising power of these industries, however, boosted their ambitions, ardently pursued by their governments. The imposition of a single regime, along the lines of that obtaining in the wealthier countries, would reap windfall benefits for them.

A second goal of copyright industries was to tighten up compliance and enforcement of sanctions for copyright breaches. Under the various Conventions, brought together in WIPO in 1970, rights are enforced through national law, including civil or criminal penalties for violations.14 These were often slow and difficult procedures, and of course subject to the variations of national law.

A new international legal context presented itself: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Although ostensibly concerned solely with lowering trade barriers, powerful countries already had experience of stretching this remit as it suited them beyond what was acceptable in common sense.15 In this case, the United States in particular, but supported by many European countries, pushed through the Trade- Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement as part of the Uruguay Round, beginning in 1986 and concluding in 1995. In effect, although still active in various ways in IPRs and now the Internet, WIPO, like so much of the UN system, has been gradually but inexorably sidelined.

Thus for the Copyright Industries, several problems were solved at once. First, no longer would they face democratic opposition within WIPO, which had a majority of countries from the South; and they could operate within the more amenable contractual environment of GATT (later WTO) where more powerful countries can capitalize more easily on their overwhelming economic superiority.16 Second, they could start with a ‘clean slate’ on IPRs, and with its ratchet-like effect gradually impose a single regime at a relatively high level, exerting continual pressure upwards. Third, and most important, copyright holders would now have at their disposal new and hugely powerful international enforcement procedures, with the authority and power to impose very significant penalties.

A few further points are worthy of mention in relation to copyright developments in the digital era: the extension of copyright to software and to databases, and the challenge posed by the Internet.

Copyright was not the most obvious choice of protection for software owners. Software products are critical tools of the knowledge economy, not only in terms of accessing and using information in a traditional manner, but also in their being at the heart of the networking approach to economics and society. But they differ significantly to most other copyrighted material in being primarily a business tool. While not being the obvious candidate, copyright offers the strongest of all protection instruments to owners. Under TRIPS, software qualifies not only for copyright protection but in some countries for patent protection too. In fact, software is now probably the most heavily protected of all knowledge-based products.17

Databases traditionally had very limited copyright protection, unless the content compiled itself was covered, on the basis that a compilation (such as a telephone directory, in a famous case in the United States) is not an original creative expression. This has changed in the European Union (EU),18 and there is pressure to include it under TRIPS, under sui generis legislation, and is being considered in WIPO. Sui Generis means ‘of its own kind’ or ‘unique’. In 1996, the EU granted databases protection for up to 15 years, with further extensions should substantial change be made. Since database owners need only show they have made a “substantial investment” in developing the database, it is clearly investment and not creativity that is being protected. WIPO notes that:

“Concerns have been raised that, if not carefully balanced, a few form of protection might result in a monopoly position of information providers or otherwise be detrimental to the scientific, research and education sectors.”19

Were such a principle to be applied in other areas of copyright, the effects would be devastating. No longer would the goal be to achieve the best equilibrium for society between rewarding creativity and allowing free use; it would be a matter of how best to protect investment—spelling the end of copyright as it has existed up to now.

The challenge of the Internet, as the ultimate tool for unauthorized copying and distribution of digital material, is still ongoing. In one sense, the migration of content to the Internet might be seen as simple, a matter of carrying existing rights to the new environment. But the journey to new technologies has often transformed the nature of IPRs, and the Internet, the “world’s biggest copy machine” as it has been described, is the most far-reaching technology of all.20 Peer-to-peer technologies, such as the original but now defunct Napster and its more sophisticated and less traceable successors, have again posed a problem for the copyright industries, who respond as always with litigation.

Although attempts by the United States and Europe in the mid 1990s to introduce copyright even for browsing the Web (on the basis that it must make a temporary copy) into the TRIPS agreement were thwarted by a coalition of telecommunication and Internet companies and libraries,21 related issues remain around ‘linking’ in Websites. In the United States and elsewhere, even simple links to another website (which are ‘publicly’ on the Web anyhow) have been found guilty of copyright infringement if they facilitate unauthorized access to copyrighted material—though this would appear not to be the case in Germany.22 But what is described as ‘deep-linking’ or ‘embedded linking’ is even more problematic in that it bypasses the home pages, and links to secondary material. When systematically used to gather information on a sustained basis, they are probably contravening the database law in the European Union, and in the United States cases have been taken relying on copyright, trespass, breach of contract, and common law misappropriation. Similar cases are taken against ‘framing’ of content from another website. In this case copyright protected material which may be legitimately accessed from one website is ‘framed’ by a different website possibly with different logos and advertising (though only in the RAM of the computer). In Germany this has been found to transgress the national copyright law.23 The Internet is becoming a place in which one must tread lightly.

But at the same time, the migration to the Internet is forcing a rethink in copyright and commercial distribution, and the reverberations are by no means over. Many argue that the Internet is also a hugely powerful tool for creativity and that these constraints threaten to destroy with wellspring of innovation.

A significant lobby has emerged around sustaining the creative potential of the Internet against efforts by corporate and government interests to maximize short term commercial gain and impose onerous copyright and other restrictions. As Laurence Lessig puts it with reference to attempts by the copyright industries to impose a tight regime:

“Those who have thought seriously about these issues—on both the Left and the Right—have come to find common cause in restricting the power of yesterday to control the potential of tomorrow.”24

11 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 105.

12 Mansell, Robin & Uta Wehn (1998) Knowledge Societies: Information Technology for Sustainable Development (Oxford University Press) page 213. There are problems of measurements that probably lead to overestimation.

13 Lessig, op. cit. note 4, page 197.

14 When a dispute arises between states, there is a provision in some cases for settlement in the International Court of Justice - a long and often inconclusive process.

15 Strictly speaking, the role for a trade organization to IPRs could be construed as very limited. Until the mid-1980s, GATT was concerned almost exclusively with lowering trade barriers to manufactured goods. The sole provisions relating to IPRs were designed to ensure that they could not be used illegitimately as non-tariff barriers to trade - for instance in terms of onerous or expensive ‘marking requirements’ for foreign goods. WIPO, on the other hand, was explicitly created to promote IPRs, and so was the natural terrain for further strengthening of IPRs sought by the copyright industries and their governments. The question arises, therefore, as to how IPRs ended up on the agenda of the GATT Uruguay Round.

16 The 1967 Stockholm conference of the Berne Convention was an interesting case. A Protocol was produced there that would reduce the term of monopoly to 25 years with compulsory licensing for translations into local languages, and most controversially, for any protected use for educational, scientific or research purposes. But this was never ratified because developed and developing countries failed to reach a consensus. While developed countries could frustrate efforts of developing countries within the Berne Convention, the reverse could also happen, making GATT all the more attractive (UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 110).

17 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 116.

18 EC Directive 96/9/EC, 11 March 1996 on the Legal Protection of Databases. The EU extends such protection to other countries only on a reciprocal basis.

19 WIPO (2002) Intellectual Property Rights on the Internet: A Survey of Issues (Geneva) page 54, note 157. WIPO commissioned five studies to assess the economic impact in developing countries and countries in transition.

20 WIPO, op. cit. note 17, page 30.

21 Ó Siochrú, Girard & Mahan, op. cit. note 7, page 94.

22 WIPO, op. cit. note 17, page 51, note 140.

23 These cases in WIPO, op. cit. note 17, page 52-3.

24 Lessig, op. cit. note 4, page xvii.

The era of mass media: Public sphere versus the global media corporation

The public sphere, underpinned by rights associated with information and communication, had been established in representative democracies as a legitimate and essential part of the political landscape by the early twentieth century. Elsewhere there were varying degrees of freedom and rights in public discourse. Distinct public-service models grew and flourished in many countries; in others private sector interests played a much stronger role. But in all, an accepted role of government was to regulate and govern media to serve the public interest.

Revulsion at the horrors of the Second World War engendered a climate conducive to the internationalization of human rights, including information rights. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights25 was far-reaching and fundamental for freedom of expression, and along with others such as Article 27 (1)26 implied an obligation to maintain literacy rates and information infrastructure adequate to their realization. Indeed the climate was such that for some time thereafter an array of rights encompassing economic, social and cultural areas, both individual and collective, were endorsed internationally in a series of declarations, conventions and charters. The post-war decades saw a general decline in political control of the public sphere and information rights, and a rise in individual and collective freedoms as many countries emerged from colonialism and formally moved to a representative democratic model, though this evolution was and remains uneven.

By the 1970s, forces similar to those driving the evolution of IPRs began to take hold. Technology again played a major role as an enabler and catalyst. Some media had always been international, or a component had, such as press and news agencies, publishing and film. But the electronic media broke through national boundaries in the latter part of the century, with short-wave radio, satellite television and the general globalization of the media industry. Ease of reproduction, which facilitated illegal copying, at the same time enabled rapid roll-out and delivery of media products.

Private sector media were best placed, and equipped with the mindset, to exploit opportunities quickly. This model spread, with varying degrees of government regulation to support the public interest. With the fall of the Soviet Union and of centrally controlled regimes elsewhere, the limited cost and immediate freedom offered by the private sector model made it for many the only realistic choice. Suspicion of government involvement in media was also a factor. But in many countries, including of the former Soviet Union, the government in effect colludes with private sector media to thwart criticism and prevent the growth of a healthy public sphere.

Immense pressure was also brought to bear by the media industry on countries with a public service model to liberalize and privatize. With a failure of this model to evolve in new directions, the EU in the 1980s liberalized and established a pattern of a dual private/public service model. Pressure continues on the public service media, with the imposition of commercial imperatives across the various media.

With major new opportunities opened for private sector media, rapid expansion accompanied by concentration of ownership and convergence of different media ensued. Economies of scale and scope for those already with large domestic markets—primarily the US—led to a tighter grip on the global industry. Since the 1950s, the number of independent newspapers has been in steady decline, as with television where the private sector was the dominant player. By the 1980s, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico exhibited even higher degrees of concentration of ownership than the United States, where three national networks controlled over 90 per cent of viewership. With convergence, concentration transcended the different media and national boundaries, such that now a huge proportion of all media activities are controlled by a small number of global multi-media corporations.27

Regulation and governance also changed rapidly. At the national level, public interest regulation, beginning with the United States but following elsewhere, was relaxed or partially eliminated. Ownership limits within media sectors and cross-ownership between sectors were eroded.28

At the international level, powerful governments cleared the way inside and outside global institutions for their national media industries. A number of key battles were won. By the late 1960s, direct satellite broadcasting had become an issue because of its immunity from national legislation and regulation. The fears were various, some legitimate, regarding for instance cultural, economic and political dominance and sovereignty; others, less so, regarding the undermining of censorship. In 1972 the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a Declaration29 on the issue, stressing free flow but also prior consent. The Declaration was non-binding, and major European countries and the US refused to ratify. By 1974, UNESCO and WIPO oversaw a further convention, this time to ensure copyright protection for satellite signals, which entered into force in 1979 with full support of the major world powers.30 The shift from sovereignty, free flow and consent to property and copyright was indicative of a major shift in the balance of power.

In effect, satellite television was left without national or international regulation, which has proven to be a Trojan Force for the liberalization of all television and for other media. The global satellite television giants of today are at the forefront of peddling the commercial model of media, and of hampering the emergence of a healthy public sphere.

An even larger issue was coming into view at the same time, what became known as “trade in cultural products” and in particular in the audio-visual sector. Both regional agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the EU, and the GATT/WTO covered cultural products like newspapers and magazines. In the WTO, a famous case taken by the US against Canada ruled that regulation or tax regimes that favoured national magazines could not be defended in the WTO on the grounds of supporting national culture.31 But the larger target of the United States media industries was the audio-visual sector, including television, radio and film. Only a clash with the EU, led by France, prevented their inclusion in the final Uruguay Round in the-mid 1990s. This has come up again in respect of the WTO’s Doha Round, although with resistance from France and the EU. The inclusion of audio-visual services would not only open the door wide for global corporations to swallow up more and more national and regional media. It could also leave governments defenceless, with the threat of huge fines, against a final assault on the public sphere and its transformation into a shopping mall of bland—but highly profitable—media products.

Behind all these pressures is an issue that has yet to be confronted, the imbalance of sanctions available to trade agreements as compared to rights-based agreements. The battery of enforcement instruments available to the WTO is the strongest of any non-military international organization. It can, in theory and practice, reduce national economic sectors to penury, harnessing enormous sanctions against transgressors. By contrast, international human rights are usually non-binding. Where they are binding, they are virtually unenforceable. Where they are enforceable, the highest sanction is usually a public airing of the conclusions.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) offers a perfect example.32 The UDHR is non-binding, but a very similar provision is included as Article 19 of the later International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding on ratifying countries. But derogation from this article itself is permissible, and the means for enforcement are contained in an optional protocol. If a country has voluntarily acceded to all of these, a United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) commission of eighteen experts can receive communications directly from citizens regarding alleged transgressions, and at the end of a slow and confidential procedure, the evidence may be published and the view of the commission made known. In practice, this has yet to be fully exercised.

The point, of course, is when these two bodies of law enter into conflict—one based on contract law and the other on international agreement—there is no contest. Although in theory WTO legislation should respect UN obligations, in practice there is no means to judge whether it does, and if it does not, nothing can be done about it. Thus in the case of the public sphere and information rights, there need be no great confrontation, no showdown, just a gradual undermining of human rights in international law through their inability to respond, a slow hollowing out of meaning until merely a shell remains.

All the while, the Internet was emerging, offering huge scope for supporting an open public sphere. Its early years in particular saw a flowering of interaction and activity in civil society and between NGOs—or at least amongst those who had access. The Internet can probably be credited as one of the major factors that has seen the emergence of an as yet nascent international civil society, concerned with global issues as well as local, and the links between the two.33 The need to invent ab initio a governance structure for the Internet, during such a period of rapid change and instability and given its origins and nature, was bound to be contentious. Now this freedom of the Internet is under threat. On the one side is the growing commercialization of the Internet and the Web, including the power of search engines to include and exclude. Of greater concern are attempts by major Internet service providers such as AOL Time Warner and Microsoft to delineate and control access to various levels of the Internet,34 and the surveillance and privacy issues emerging around the design of the new technical protocol IPv6.35 On the other is the governance of the Internet, which is spread across several diverse technical and on-technical organizations, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) being the most important. Registered as a non- profit Californian corporation under the ultimate control of the United States Commerce Department, the recent elimination of ‘at-large’ members from the board does not auger well for the future. Internet governance is ever in flux, still a contested territory in which the major industry and government powers are likely to have the strongest influence on the eventual outcome.

In sum, the second half of the twentieth century began well with the institution for the first time of significant and far-reaching international information rights at international level, and the emergence of public service models of media in explicit support of the public sphere and it role in representative democracy. But the environment shifted rapidly and drastically.

In global terms, the media became larger as a sector, more centralized and interrelated in terms of ownership, predominantly private-sector owned and market-oriented, more closely integrated in content. Direct government control fell in many places, but indirect control rose too, sometimes through unholy alliances with private media. Governance as a whole has moved from UN organizations towards trade-based and commercial regimes, or in some cases the absence of formal regulation leaving the field open to the most powerful players. The Internet remains challenging and fluid as a vibrant platform for creativity and freedom, and in terms of attempts at control by government and industry, but with recent shifts in the balance towards control.

By the end of the century the net effect on national media regimes was:

  • Those countries traditionally with the US model have seen further concentration of ownership and cross-ownership, and lower levels of regulation in the public interest;
  • The European model displaced in Europe by a mixed model, but still sliding in the direction of a market-based unregulated model;
  • In many countries of the South, early aspirations of a public service model dropped in favour of a predominantly private sector model, with slight public interest regulation, and often with huge direct government control of both public and private media enterprises.

25 “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

26 “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in the scientific advancement of its benefits.”

27 For details on ownership of US media, see the Colombia Journalism Review's Who Owns What website at;
for global concentration, see Media Ownership Chart at

28 The current situation of non-profit and community media differs according to the pre-existing model. In the private sector dominated model, support for non-profit and community media as exemplified by the PEG television model in the USA, was a key concession during the 1970s in the expansion of the industry. However, since the 1980s regulatory support has been chipped away. In Europe, such community-based media were slower in coming partly because of the public service media ethos, but have been slowly growing since the 1980s when liberalization began.

29 Declaration on the Use of Satellite Broadcasting for the Free Flow of Information, the Spread of Education and Greater Cultural Exchange, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972. See Ó Siochrú, Girard & Mahan, op. cit. note 7, page 75.

30 Convention Relating to the Distribution of Programme-Carrying Signals Transmitted by Satellite (1974) administered by UNESCO jointly with ITO and WIPO.

31 WTO (1997) World Trade WT/DS31/R (Dispute Settlement - WTO Panel Cases to which Canada is a Party Canada - Certain Measures Concerning Periodicals)

32 Cees Hamelink (1994) The Politics of World Communication (London: Sage).

33 See for instance Osvaldo León, Sally Burch & Eduardo Tamayo (2001) Social Movements on the Net, Agencia Latino Americana de Información (ALAI), Quito

34 For a discussion of potential constraints on the Internet see Lessig, op. cit. note 4.

35 IPv6 is short for Internet Protocol Version 6, the next generation protocol designed by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) to replace the current version Internet Protocol, IP Version 4. Initially conceived to tackle the huge growth of domain names and to improve technical efficiency, there are serious concerns that the huge volume of additional information IPv6 can carry on each message could be used to increase surveillance, enable commercial mining, and other uses.

4 Threats and challenges

The last few decades have thus wrought huge changes in how society strives to achieve a balance between rewarding creativity and dissemination of ideas and information, and to build and sustain a space for public understanding and discourse on the political and social institutions by which we live. There have been positive and negative changes.

The dangers currently may be summarized as follows.

Copyright and that elusive balance

The monopoly given to copyright owners has been extended well beyond what might reasonably be regarded as offering an incentive to further intellectual creativity.36 Under TRIPS, while patents expire twenty years after they are filed, copyright is enforced for fifty years after the death of the author, and for a total of fifty years in the case of a corporate owner—though a Commission set up by the UK Government noted that there is no clear economic rationale for copyright protection being so much longer that for patents.37 Indeed, the very basis of such a rationale is persuasively disputed by both left38 and right,39 though obviously proposing different solutions.

Yet there is strong and sustained pressure to extend it. The United States and the EU who set the pace for copyright now give seventy years protection to owners, after death. It is only a slight exaggeration that the term of copyright (always retrospectively) is extended in the US every time Disney’s hold on Mickey Mouse is about to expire.40

What is the practical result of these rolling extensions of copyright, apart from securing ever greater profits for the copyright holders, primarily multi-media corporations?

One issue is around the balance of trade, and the enormous sums flowing from developing countries—the copyright industries are, as indicated, hugely dominated by the US and Europe. But coupled with this is the impact on efforts to developing copyright industries. Some developing countries, such as India, have made huge strides in the software—in 2001-02 worth over US$10 billion of which US$7.8 billion was exported41 —and a copyright regime equivalent to that of their major markets in developed countries is, apart from the economics of it, politically essential. Similarly, Uruguay and Brazil in 1998 had respectively 6 per cent and 6.7 per cent of their value-added in copyright industries.42 But these are the exceptions and for the most part, developing countries lack the national infrastructure that is an essential prerequisite to developing a copyright industry. Thus, although a strong copyright regime may improve the prospects for a local industry, in the absence of other requirements the effect may simply be to channel more copyright payments to foreign industries. There is also the issue that most smaller countries would have to look outside anyhow to build an industry since their domestic markets would be too small to sustain one. In short, most developing countries are likely to end up considerably worse off with the imposition of an onerous copyright regime43—which is of course why so many have opposed it.

A second related outcome is that the fruits of intellectual endeavour are more expensive than they need be. This is not just a matter of having to pay more for books, to see a video or film, or to listen to music—though for billions of poor people, this is the case.44 Scientific and research information is also covered. There have been enormous rises in the costs of scientific journals, including online subscriptions, as these niche producers are swallowed up by the publishing giants.45 A UNESCO report noted that universities in Africa, under severe financial strain due to the general economic problems, are struggling:

“Most of them can no longer afford to buy new books, and large proportions of periodical subscriptions have been cancelled. With a corresponding inability to switch to the new information technologies, African university libraries in particular, and African academics in general, face a dim future indeed.”46

Further serious obstacles are presented, even to better funded universities, by having to obtain copyright clearance and pay royalties for materials needed by teachers and students integrated into their work. Education is a huge and growing business, and having monopoly control over key resources represents a major asset. TRIPS has effectively eliminated much of the flexibility that hitherto had existed in copyright and in IPRs generally,47 thereby extending the value of these assets globally.

A further effect of the electronics revolution has been to exacerbate the tension between copyright owners and reproduction for ‘fair dealing’ and ‘fair use’, such as education, an issue carefully circumscribed under the Berne Treaty and balanced as an integral part of the copyright balance. These allow small scale, partial copying for non-commercial, research, educational and archival use. These by no means fulfil the needs of poorer countries, being far too restrictive,48 but what is there hangs under a future threat in the digital era.

Precisely because digitization permits perfect unauthorized copying at low cost, the copyright industry is increasingly using encryption technology and other means to restrict access—but without preserving the ‘fair use’ in the move. In particular, ‘fair use’ includes rights to browse, share and make private copies without infringing copyright, though they require access to an authorized copy in the first place. Especially where Internet access is poor and on-line subscriptions unaffordable, the absence of specific measures to enable fair use can represent a serious practical obstacle. The WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) is also relevant here, which has been ratified by 39 counties and entered into force in 2002.49 Article 11 spells out obligations to prevent the circumvention of encryption and other measures employed by copyright owners “in connection with the exercise of their rights under this Treaty or the Berne Convention… which are not authorized by the authors concerned or permitted in law”. Though the general principle of ‘fair use’ is carried into the Treaty, no explicit mention is made of facilitating ‘fair use’ in practice.

WIPO raises a related concern in this area, which is the tendency in digital content to establish a contractual basis for access:

“… increasingly, copyright works are not sold, in the way that a book or videocassette was sold in the past, but are licensed under certain terms and conditions of use. Our access to copyright works is increasingly governed by contract, which may impact on the applications of exceptions and limitations, the traditional checks and balances of the copyright system, aimed at preserving the rights of consumers and the public interest.”50

The obstacles to establishing fair use in practice, in the context of encryption and narrow contractual access terms, could thus be insurmountable.

The UK Commission on IPRs notes:

“An important concern here is that developing countries will come under pressure, for instance in the context of bilateral agreements with developed countries, to accede to the WIPO Copyright treaty, or even to adopt stricter prohibitions against circumvention of technological protection systems and effectively thereby reducing the scope of traditional ‘fair use’ in digital media.” 51

Whilst the Treaty permits countries to extend existing exceptions and limitations into the digital environment, or even to add new ones that “are appropriate in the digital network environment”,52 it is not automatic. It is in that gap between what is permissible and what is acted upon by governments, that bilateral pressures are most persuasive.

The 1998 US Digital Millennium Act, setting a powerful trend, goes even further. Under the WCT, thwarting encryption is outlawed only where copyright is concerned. In the United States, it is illegal even where copyright is not infringed. It is also worth noting that ‘technological protection’ is indefinite, with no stipulated time limit.

The EU’s database sui generis and copyright protection also has implications for such fair use. In both wealthy and poor countries, accessing databases—on everything from economic performance to meteorological trends to demographics statistics to research listings—are a standard part of the research process of almost every discipline. A strengthening of copyright on databases affects the cost, and this in turn has disproportionate impact on research activities in poorer countries—especially where commercial database developers believe they can maximize profits though high-priced low-volume packages. Although there are exceptions for educational and scientific use, these do not extend to other countries unless they reciprocate in legislation—which opens the door to database companies from outside and could even restrict even nationally generated information.

Then there is software. The software products for which copyright is most valuable are standard business and institutional software packages such as word-processing, spreadsheets, databases, web-browsers and the like, since these are most easily copied and have mass markets. Unauthorized copying is barely an issue in bespoke software applications. These are also the packages of most use to the less developed world, with smaller businesses, more limited availability of advanced ICT skills, and less sophisticated use of ICTs. The problem of unauthorized copying is, in fact greater in absolute terms, in developed countries where ICTs are virtually ubiquitous. But in poorer countries, unauthorized copying is probably the only option available to many users, and weak enforcement of limited copyright laws has undoubtedly been a major factor in disseminating these technologies. Inevitably, stronger protection and enforcement as in TRIPS would reduce access and use of these, limiting participation in the ‘knowledge economy’.

More recently an affordable alternative has arisen, in the form of free and open source software.53 In light of this challenge, major software firms no doubt factor in the potential of unauthorized copying and sales to create a captive market for their products for the future. Given the alternative, they may be satisfied to see the use of their software by those who can ill afford to pay, since at some time in the future, many will be able to pay. Software companies already offer special pricing and dissemination policies to bring these into the paying net, even if at a very low level, in part for fear of a widespread move to open source.

Overall, it seems that the practice of copyright has deviated far from its stated intentions and origins in various conventions, treaties and national constitutions. The founding idea was to temporarily grant a monopoly right, tolerated by the public in order to reward and so sustain creativity and innovation, but with the promise of imminent return to the public sphere without excessive delay. In the meantime ‘fair use’ and ‘fair trading’ provide the basic minimum for scientific, educational and cultural use, essential if these areas are not to be impeded. The mood today is that copyright is an asset held in virtual perpetuity, with exceptions made in special cases as long as they do not unreasonably prejudice owners’ interests.54

WIPO is a case in point, all the more unfortunate for being a UN organization. Its authoritative report quoted several times here on IPRs on the Internet avoids entirely discussion of the central principle of copyright to enter the public domain even where it explicitly raises the issue of the scope of copyright in the digital environment.55 This probably does no more than face the facts: in practice, the length of copyright protection is so extensive that it is irrelevant to the digital environment. Throughout the report, rights seem to be associated with owners, with the general public to gain access only by exception; and supporting trade seems to be the main goal. Consider the following statement on the WCT:

“… the goal of policy makers is to achieve an appropriate balance in the law, providing strong and effective rights, but within reasonable limits and with fair exceptions. If this effort is successful, the result should be a positive impact from all perspectives. Trade in copyrighted works, performances, phonograms and other protected objects will become a major element of global e-commerce, which will grow and thrive along with the value of the material that is traded. If rightsholders are secure in their ability to sell and license their property over the Internet, they will exploit this market fully and make more valuable works available through this medium. Appropriate limitations and exceptions will continue to safeguard public interest uses. The result will be a benefit to consumers, a benefit to rightsholders, a benefit to service providers, and a benefit to national cultures and economies—a true ‘win-win’ situation.”

Thus, the public interest is to be secured by appropriate limitations and exceptions, and presumably by trade, but not by entry into the public domain. Concern for a genuine balance is entirely lacking, replaced by a sense of almost generous sacrifice on the part of copyright owners regarding control of their assets in tightly controlled circumstances. Later on, in the context e-commerce, the report speaks of the need “to reassure intellectual property owners and commercial enterprises that their assets will be protected in an online environment”56 and the importance in this regard of establishing an appropriate framework of intellectual property. But no mention is made of reassuring the general public that the copyrighted material will not be withheld from the public domain in perpetuity.

The last word goes to a UNESCO report, which summed up the situation overall:

“Copyright emerged as one of the most important means of regulating the international flow of ideas and knowledge-based products, and will be a central instrument for the knowledge industries of the twenty-first century. Those who control copyright have a significant advantage in the emerging, knowledge based global economy. The fact is that copyright is in the hands of the major industrialised nations and of the major multimedia corporations placing lower per capita income countries as well as smaller economies at a significant disadvantage.”57

36 Greg Palast’s reworking of a famous remark is apt: “As Isaac Newton would say now, ‘If I see further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants too dumb to patent their discoveries’” - (2002) The Best Democracy Money can Buy (London: Pluto Press) page 66.

37 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 19.

38 See for instance: Eben Mogeln, 1999, ‘Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright’ in First Monday,
or Yochi Benkler ‘Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm’

39 For a recent review of pro-market arguments see Douglas Clement “Creation Myths: Does innovation require intellectual property rights?” in Reason Online: Free Minds and Free Markets, March 2003
or for a different approach William Landes and Richard A. Posner, 2002 Indefinitely Renewable Copyright, University of Chicago Law and Economics, Working Paper No. 154

40 Lessig, op. cit. note 4, page 107.

41 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 107.

42 WIPO, op. cit. note 17, page 31.

43 The UK Commission on IPRs (op. cit. note 6), concludes: “Many developing countries have had copyright protection for a long time but it has not proved sufficient to stimulate the growth of copyright-protected industries. Because most developing countries, particularly smaller ones, are overwhelmingly importers of copyrighted materials, and the main beneficiaries are therefore foreign rights holders, the operation of the copyright system as a whole may impose more costs than benefits for them” (page 13, Executive Summary).

44 On film, it is not only copyright on the film itself, which tends to gets its greatest use within a few years or even months. It is also the additional cost of copyright that filmmakers must pay for the use of very copyrighted image appearing anywhere in the film.

45 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 122.

46 UNESCO (1998) World Information Report 1997/98. (Paris: UNESCO), Chapter 3.

47 “The Paris and Berne Conventions… allowed considerable flexibility in the design of IP regimes. With the advent of TRIPS, a large part of this flexibility has been removed. Countries can no longer follow the path adopted by Switzerland, Korea or Taiwan in their own development” (UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 23).

48 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 111. See also S. Ricketson (1987) The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works: 1886 - 1986 (London: Kluwer) page 591, cited in UK Commission on IPRs.

49 In December 1996, after the WIPO Diplomatic Conference, a new treaty was adopted: CRNR/DC/94 - WIPO Copyright Treaty
The 39 countries had become party to the agreement by January 15th 2003.

50 WIPO, op. cit. note 17, page 41.

51 UK Commission on IPRs, op. cit. note 6, page 118.

52 WIPO op.cit. note 44, Article 10.

53 See for instance and
Open Source is not ‘cost-free’, but many believe that in the long-term its significantly lower costs, can be tailored to suit local needs, and raises the IT capacity nationally.

54 The language is from the Berne Convention and TRIPS Agreement, Articles 9(2) and 13 respectively. The point is that this form of access was never intended as the primary means to secure the public interest, as it appears to have become. See WIPO site, Intellectual Property Protection Treaties

55 WIPO, op. cit. note 17, pages 41-42.

56 UNESCO, op.cit. note 41, page 164.

57 UNESCO, op.cit. note 41, page 320, Chapter 23.

A threatened public sphere

In relation to the public sphere and information rights, current trends give rise in some respects to even more serious concerns since they are at the very foundation of representative democracy.

Above we noted that the end of the twentieth century saw the growing intrusion into the public sphere of information rendered into commodities and interactions mediated by the market, and the closure of opportunities to build a renewed and vibrant public sphere. We also saw the diminishing role of governments and UN organizations in the governance of media and communication. The rise of organizations such as WTO and ICANN can only point further in this direction.

What does this mean in practice? There are a number of areas of critical concern.

Concentration and centralization of ownership does offer the advantage of enabling economies of scale. However, such economies are not deployed in a manner that might optimise news and current affairs, educational or generally challenging content. Rather it is used to target the most lucrative audiences with programmes that can most easily be repackaged and disseminated to global markets - mainly entertainment of limited cultural specificity or interest. The key danger, however, is the reduction in diversity of programmes and of views available. The subjugation of content to commercial imperatives removes any incentive to challenge the status quo or to take risks. Rather it introduces a strong bias towards the entertainment value of all content, leading to the downgrading of news quality so evident in recent years. And this applies across the board in media. Cross-ownership of media, whereby different media are owned by a single corporate entity, tends to further reduce diversity and plurality, through further reducing the number of genuinely independent outlets and the greater sharing of content.

Private sector media also put an emphasis on advertising. Its thinly veiled but deeply ideological message of consumerism in itself has a corrosive cultural impact. Equally serious, the pressure of advertisers engenders a strong bias towards audiences with disposable income, largely ignoring those without. Especially in developing countries, this leads to a media for the wealthy.

Beyond these a further danger is in sight, quite a frightening prospect that hopefully will not proceed too far. This is the emergence in some countries of a more intimate convergence between the media and political and economic power. Already mentioned is apparent collusion between some government and private sector media, for instance in some former Soviet countries, often accompanied by intimidation. More worrying in some ways is the case of Italy, where the political leader is also the biggest media owner, and where despite assurances many believe he has used his media interests to gain power and deflect criticism. Another variation is seen in Venezuela where even the conservative Economist magazine has criticised media interests there for colluding with business in trying to overthrow the democratically elected government.58 More subtle is the situation in the United Kingdom where the Labour Government is regularly accused by all sides of implementing a regulatory regime favouring News Corporation because of the enormous power it wields to affect public opinion there. This may be an example of where the media attains a certain threshold of power and influence at which the government can no longer regulate effectively for fear of the negative consequences on its electoral performance.

These point beyond cases of media or business influence, or even of a tacit alliance or coalescing of strategic interests. They are a much closer merging of media with political and economic interests. All are cases of an undermining of the public sphere, and of the partial or complete breakdown of the ‘compact’ between people and government, in the sense that serious and deliberate distortions are introduced by sectional interests into public discourse.

A most tragic demonstration in recent history of the influence of the media and its hijacking by political power—through in this case the medium in question was simply an arm of political power—was Radio Milles Collines. This was the station that incited genocide in Rwanda, and is regarded as having played a significant role in spreading the killing rapidly and widely. These were exceptional circumstances in which all checks and balances were absent. But the question might nevertheless be asked how different this is, in its impact, to media—ultimately for commercial reasons—which in a rich and powerful country incites or supports the government to go war with another. Is the only difference that the blood is shed on another soil? This too is a question of ensuring a healthy public sphere.

In terms of information and communication rights in the digital era, the situation is also precarious and getting worse. The attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 and the response of the United States in declaring war on a globalized terrorist threat has set in train a series of efforts at both national and international levels to enact laws claiming to defend against terrorist attacks. They include curtailing hard won information and communication rights and greatly increasing digital surveillance. Little public debate has been the hallmark of many of these, rushed through in the context of a climate of fear, intolerance of dissent and polarisation of positions.

58 In an editorial, the Economist wrote: “Devoid of a coherent programme beyond anti-Chavismo, the opposition relies too much on the newspapers and TV stations it owns to take the place of political parties.” Venezuela's Conflict: No end to the pain, The Economist, Feb 6 2003. Venezuela's media is dominated by the Cisneros family, one of Latin America's richest.

Growing antagonism between copyright and public sphere

There is a further characteristic emerging in the current era, one that casts the issues in a new light and which may have major consequences for the future. It also justifies the inclusion in the one paper of these two key social sets of rules around information.

What characterises the current era is that these two pillars of social norms on information—copyright and the public sphere—are more and more coming into conflict.

Whilst there has always been tension between the two, now they are reaching a point where one is directly pitted against the other. Specifically, the depth and breadth of the copyright regime, backed up by the power of the copyright industries, their governments and the WTO enforcement procedures, has reached the point where further expansion is not only highly questionable from an economic and development perspective, it is also in danger of undermining the public sphere, and hence the system of representative democracy. What is needed, if we are to serve the needs of less developed countries and to build further on democratic principles, is the restoration of a reasonable balance.

Up until now, they rarely directly confronted each other. Human rights and the public sphere were slowing carving out their domain, built on the struggles of people nationally and a deep desire for freedom of expression and social equity, and were given a major boost in the wake of the Second World War. Copyright has continually built outwards from its initial core concern with protecting authors and publishers of books, has broadened in scope to new media even including software, and extended to claim neighbouring rights and ever longer monopoly periods. At this point, copyright and the power of industry is such that it is eating not only into the potential future public domain in general, but into that especially sensitive and important area of the public sphere and information rights.

Put another way, a central requirement of the public sphere is that all people have equal and ready access to impartial information and analysis. This part of information, partly in the public domain but also partly within the restricted sphere of copyright information, is critical to the operation of a representative democracy and to social equity. However, copyright works in the other direction, restricting information. What is now happening is that, with the increasing commercialization of the media and the weakening of regulation in the public interest, more and more information that is critical to grease the wheels of the public sphere is copyrighted. And the copyright industries are not slow to maximise the value to be obtained from their rights to this information. This in turn means that access to information is more and more determined by who can afford it; and the nature of the information itself is transformed to maximise the value and the profits to the produces.

There is both a general point here and some specific clashes. The general point is that much of the raw material for the public sphere in the form of media content is being driven by its copyright value. But the specific skirmishes are also important. A few examples, from the United States which offers the largest case history portfolio in copyright, make the point:

  • In 2001, Alice Randall went to publish a book called “The Wind Done Gone”. It was a parody of “Gone with the Wind” written from a slave’s perspective, and intended as a response to a book she feels has harmed generations of Americans. The storyline continues after the years covered in the book. The Mitchell’s trust, which owns the copyright, petitioned the court to prevent publication of Randall’s book. It claims that Randall’s book is an infringement of copyright since it would hinder their efforts to license more sequels to Gone With the Wind, despite the obvious parody.59 Parody works via ridicule and is the classic speech of protest for oppressed peoples. The goal of the book, as well as being literary (it has been highly praised by many established writers who objected to the case being taken), was also political. The case was settled in October 2002, and publication continued—but the legal issue was not resolved.
  • A second case related to music.60 Roy Orbison’s song “Oh Pretty Woman” was parodied by a rap group called “2 Live Crew”, ridiculing racially the “whit-bred original” and the social implications of the lyrics. Before recording it they sought permission to use it but were refused. They went ahead anyhow, and were sued for copyright infringement. The group had the resources to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court. The issue again came to whether the social value of the parody, which is derived from shedding light on the earlier work in a creative manner, outweighs the loss of income to the copyright holder. The Supreme Court ruled that parody was not fair use, and the case was settled by the band agreeing a licence with the copyright owners.
  • The third case demonstrates what happens in real life, to people lacking the resources to take legal action. A Professor at Michigan State University used various cartoons from a jazz magazine published in the 1940s to demonstrate an argument he was developing concerning sexism and racism of big band politics at that time. The magazine, Down Beat, however, declined to grant permission for their use. The reason given was that the drawings made the magazine “look bad”. Not having the resources to fight the case, he was forced to drop the research topic.
  • The Irish band U2 sued a 1991 ‘audio-collage’ single of San Francisco band, Negativeland. An obvious parody (the cover had a picture of a U2 spy plane, and the letters U2), it included 35 seconds of a U2 song, and samples of radio DJ Casey Kasem making disparaging comments about the band. Described in Wired Magazine as “innocuous and very funny”, you cannot judge for yourself as U2 sued on grounds of copyright and trademark violation. Faced with a massive bill, and under pressure from their minor label, the band settled and withdrew the single.61

The principle in all was whether ‘fair use’ would entitle the use of the material without the need for permission. In all, such ‘fair use’ was argued as contributing to artistic work and social or political commentary, and in none was ‘fair use’ accepted. The implication, though it is still being tested, is that copyright owners can withhold copyright to prevent political parody—a small but critical victory that if writ large would have major implications. Similar cases have also been successfully taken against the use of company logos by political activists, on the basis of breach of trademark law—again raising the question of the suppression of free speech and of dissenting opinions.

The other lesson, of course, is that taking a legal action against those without the resources to defend it is just as effective a form of censorship. It is not necessary to have the law on your side, only the lawyers.

The larger issue here for the public sphere is who defines culture and controls what it is. As Naomi Klein puts it:

“The underlying message is that culture is something that happens to you. You buy it in Virgin Megastore and Toys ‘R’ Us and rent it at Blockbuster Video. It is not something in which you participate, or to which you have a right to respond…

… the prevailing formula for copyright and trademark enforcement is a turf war over who is going to get to make art with the new technologies. And it seems that if you’re not on the team of a company large enough to control a significant part of the playing field, and can’t afford your very own team of lawyers, you don’t get to play”62

Culture, and popular culture in particular, is a key driver of society’s creativity. It is the sphere in which we implicitly learn the parameters of who controls and what is acceptable. When that lesson is taken to the public sphere, its consequences are predicable. People, and especially young people, do not expect to participate, they do not feel they have a right to participate, and they do not participate.


60 This and the next are taken from: Lydia Pallas Loren (2000) ‘The Purpose of Copyright’, Open Spaces Quarterly, February 7th.

61 Colin Berry (1995) “The Letter U and the Numeral 2”, Wired, January.

62 Naomi Klein (2000) No Logo (London: Flamingo), pages 178 and 180.

5 Conclusion and proposals

This paper does not pretend to cover all the issues arising in building an equitable and sustainable information society. We are silent on the ‘digital divide’, and ICT technology has been introduced only as a catalyst, with no calls for ubiquitous dissemination. Rather we focus here on two major issues that we feel are neglected, sometimes even deliberately downplayed, but nevertheless go to the core of any information society.

Sometimes we hear that the biggest challenge facing the World Summit on the Information Society is the general downturn in the ICT sector that has led to a dearth of investment capital required to make a real difference. We dispute this. A huge difference can be made with very limited investment in the areas that concern us here. The real challenge is to confront the interests of the multinational corporations, and their powerful supporting governments, and somehow to convince them that these issues must be addressed for the future of all of us.

How can we develop a system that ensures a steady flow of creativity and innovation, and that maximizes the benefits for all of society?

How can we sustain and build ever stronger a public sphere with true freedom of information; where the powerful in society elected or otherwise can be held accountable for what they do; where a great diversity of ideas can circulate freely and without political or commercial bias; and be considered by people well- equipped to weigh them up and make rationale and equitable choices?

First steps to long-term goals

A growing number of people, NGOs and alliances believe that the very concept of copyright desperately needs fundamental transformation. This must be the long-term goal. But a first step can be taken.

  1. A review and realignment of copyright: A thorough review is required to determine how to realign copyright with its intended purpose - not to protect assets of corporations but to strike a balance between rewarding and thus sustaining creativity, and getting information and knowledge out where it can be used to best effect, by everyone in society. Given the extraordinarily powerful vested interests in government and in industry, this will face stiff opposition. In the long-term it must rely on the emergence of a movement in civil society allied with governments and certain sections of industry. The TRIPS agreements and WIPO Conventions are of central relevance here, and issues requiring consideration include the following:
    • Whether development can be best encouraged through tailoring a diversity of copyright regimes to the different circumstances, rather than through uniformity;
    • The duration of copyright owners’ monopoly, including the possibility of variable lengths in different contexts;
    • The extent and nature of ‘fair-use’ in the context of development needs and the public sphere;
    • The special circumstances of the digital era, whose potential for creativity should be maximized, rather than restricted in the interests of copyright holders;
    • Specific recognition and support for alternatives to copyright, with more open and collective ownership structures.
  1. A declaration on the public sphere and information and communication rights. A key problem for the public sphere, as described here, is that the concept is not currently widely understood and recognized. It is clearly embedded, under various names and headings, in Constitutions and international agreements, and such notions as ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘freedom of expression’ are widely accepted. But the underlying rationale has dissipated, slowly eroded by the power of media, industry and governments. Individual rights may be left standing, but under current trends the overall right of the public to hold governments and the powerful accountable risks falling into disuse. In re-establishing the relevance of the public sphere, its protection against both political power and economic power must be clearly asserted.

The goal would be to bring some coherence to these matters in relation to their role in our democratic institutions and international cooperation.

But a declaration only lays the path for more definitive action. For these rights and the public sphere are coming under threat globally as part of the confrontation between contract based trade agreements with powerful instruments for enforcement, and UN agreement, largely unenforceable. An intergovernmental UN treaty might be one means to address this in the future. What must be achieved is a means to defend information and communication rights, and the public sphere, as more fundamental than those of trade and commerce.

The Protocol to the EU Treaty of Amsterdam protecting subsidies to public service media from accusations of market distortion is a small example of the kind of protection that could be afforded within free trade agreements.63 Many more measures could be taken, including in communication and information rights.

63 Treaty of Amsterdam Amending the Treaty on European Union, the Treaties Establishing the European Communities and Certain Related Acts: Protocol on the System of public broadcasting in the Member States. October 1997.

Practical actions

Much can also be done immediately at the practical level. The following is a list of possible measures. Many more would emerge if the environment seemed conducive to their acceptance and implementation.

5.1.1 Democratising copyright

Measures can be taken to democratise copyright, to reassert its accountability as a mechanism to serve society as a whole

  1. Promoting alternatives to copyright. The Tokyo WSIS Declaration called for open source software to be “encouraged, as appropriate”, watering down an earlier proposal in deference to the software giants. Given the huge economic and political resources that actively promote copyrighted software, unavailable to alternatives, and the strong evidence of their development benefits, they deserve at least active promotion by WSIS. A series of practical programmes to promote these alternatives, through education and information dissemination as well as practical and technical support, could have a major impact. They might also contribute to a rethink on the current concept of copyright, and the monopoly rights they confer on a tiny minority.
  2. Enhanced transparency and accountability of global copyright institutions. The WTO and WIPO as the major copyright institutions should be more transparent and accountable. Very specific actions can be designed in relation to this, without delay. This can be set alongside other calls for enhancing accountability of global governance structures, many emanating from within the institutions themselves.

5.1.2 Sustaining and expanding the public sphere

Given the many facets to the public sphere, a diverse set of proposals could be supported here.

  1. Monitor and tackle media concentration. Effective international measures are needed to combat concentration of media ownership at a global level, for media with a global scope. Of special relevance are those media that escape national regulation, such as satellite television. At national level, too, the trend must also be addressed. A start would be to agree to systematically monitor developments, and their impact, especially in developing countries, perhaps in the form of an ‘index of the public sphere’. This could regularly examine and report on the health and vitality of the public sphere, using a composite index derived from data analysis and civil society consultative mechanisms.
  2. Support community and independent media: Non-profit media, genuinely independent of government and of commercial interests already play a role, if a small one, in relation to enhancing diversity and plurality in the public sphere. Community media enable greater participation in and understanding of media, a critical aspect of the public sphere. Community and independent media faces regulatory obstacles in many countries as well as internationally. Support could be in the form of set- aside allocations of radio spectrum globally, regionally, nationally for television radio and other applications; or attaching conditions for commercial licences that would direct resources towards these media. Global public service media should be included here. 64
  3. An investment fund for the public sphere. Several of the above could be funded through a tax collected on the use of the digital commons, in particular commercial satellite use of radio spectrum. This and analogous ideas have been suggested by various international commissions over the years.65
  4. Tackling information surveillance, censorship and infringement of privacy. Growing surveillance and censorship from government and industry is of concern, especially in relation to the Internet under the term ‘Internet Security’. The indications are that some countries see WSIS as an opportunity to further agendas that would curtail current rights, and institute new regimes of control. But others see WSIS as an opportunity to move forward: to reiterate the centrality of information rights, to scrutinise all proposed measures with a view to whether they might affect these rights, and to develop proposals for strengthening these rights. The latter tendency should be supported.

Is any of this likely to happen?

A sceptic might be forgiven for concluding that a few elements may be nudged forward here and there, some laudable aspirations may be found clothing token or pilot action—but that the potential for the Summit to do harm is currently greater. Though most of the above do not cost much money, they do take courage and commitment. In the end, proposals such as these will test the resolve of governments, and of civil society, in terms of whether we want to defend and build on our democratic structures, and leave a world to our children in which they can partake and benefit from the diversity of human creativity.

64 See for instance three proposals for global public service television summarised in Reinhard Keune, “Towards a Global Public Sphere - A Future Role of International Television”, The Global South

65 For a review of the various funding options, see: Marie Thorndahl, (2003) Financements alternatifs et société de l’Information. (Pain pour le Prochain), Switzerland.

Everything You Need To Know About Book Sales Figures [LINK]
Everything About Book Sales

“How many copies of my book should I expect to sell?
What’s a good number?”

I hear that question a lot, and I understand the confusion. There’s a real scarcity of good data out there to help Authors set their expectations, so unless you’ve already published a book, preferably with a dedicated book launch, it’s hard to know what to shoot for.

It doesn’t help that the publishing industry only releases sales ranks, not actual numbers, making hard data almost impossible to find.

This blog post will solve that.

At Scribe, we publish over 250 new nonfiction books each year, and we’ve compiled that data into a comprehensive look at nonfiction book sales that I’m going to share with you.

We’ve also done a lot of our own research into book sales and marketing and I’ll share that with you too, so you can understand everything you need to know about book sales.

And then at the end, I give you some benchmarks to measure your own book against.

The Full Measure of a Book’s Success

But before I get into the numbers, I’m going to tell you something very counterintuitive:

Book sales are not a good way to measure the success of a nonfiction book.

When Authors ask me how many copies of their book they should sell, I ask them a different question:

“What are you trying to accomplish with your book?”

Some of the greatest Author success stories we’ve seen here at Scribe didn’t get huge sales numbers. They depended on a handful of sales to the right people:

  • Like Mike Brunel, who launched a second career when two friends in real estate asked him to present a series of talks based on the ideas in his book.
  • Or Tofe Evans, who created a worldwide speaking career from a book he wrote with the hope of helping just one person, any person, who really needed it.
  • Or Will Leach, who’s earned millions in revenue for his consultancy, coming almost exclusively from his book because it so deeply resonated with the right few people.

More and more authors today are finding success through focus—reaching just a few people in a profound way—because those readers are far more likely to do something with it.

This is one of the main reasons I talk so much about the virtues of self-publishing:

Authors who self-publish are free to use their book however they want: generating 6- and even 7-figure revenue through speaking, coaching, and consulting; or giving the book away just for the joy of knowing they’ve made a difference.

Traditional publishing will not let you do that. Publishers only make money by selling copies of books, which is why they obsess over book sales.

Inline One v1

But self-published Authors have many more roads to success.

Instead of asking how many books they should expect to sell, Authors are better served by asking themselves how much opportunity, revenue, and personal fulfillment they can generate by putting the right book in front of the right people.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to sell books. It’s just that focusing on book sales often trades off with other forms of success, so you have to be clear what you prefer.

If you’re still curious about book sales, I’ve compiled some statistics based on our own sales data to give you a glimpse into the world of nonfiction book publishing.

What Do Book Sales Really Mean?

There was a time when book sales were straightforward. Publishing companies printed books and sold them to bookstores. From there, bookstores sold them to readers—or returned the ones they couldn’t sell—and publishers tracked sales through physical inventory.

Today, the book market is completely different. Digital formats like ebooks and audiobooks don’t have a physical inventory, and most self-published books are printed on-demand.

Today, book sales come from 3 sources:

  • Ebook (digital) sales
  • Print book sales
  • Audiobook sales

It sounds simple, but each of these numbers has to be calculated separately.

Self-published sales

As a self-published Author, you have direct access to your own sales data, so let’s start there. How do you figure out your own total book sales?

Ebook sales

Your monthly ebook sales consist of all your sales from every ebook retailer and lender:

  • Amazon
  • iBooks
  • Kobo
  • Nook
  • Scribd
  • Overdrive
  • Hoopla
  • etc

If you’re using an aggregator like BookBaby to distribute your ebook, you’ll get full sales reports without having to add everything up yourself. That’s a huge plus and saves a ton of time.

If you’re not, you won’t know your total ebook sales numbers until you calculate them.


Ebook retailers often report US and global sales separately. Be sure to include every market in your total.

Print sales

Print book sales work basically the same way, combining:

  • Print books sold online through retailers
  • Print books sold in brick-and-mortar stores
  • Print books you sell yourself (direct sales)

As a self-published Author, your printer and/or distributor will report retail sales figures from both online and brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Add that monthly sales report to the number of books you sold yourself, and those are your monthly print sales.


AudiobooksAudiobooks, like ebooks, are digital. They can be “printed” on CDs and distributed as physical copies, but that’s very rare now. Most Authors sell only digital downloads of their audiobook.

Audiobook sales work exactly like ebook sales, with one simple difference:

It’s almost impossible to distribute an audiobook widely without using a digital distributor

In other words, most self-published Authors have only 2 choices:

  1. sell your audiobook exclusively through Audible and/or iBooks, or
  2. use a digital distributor to sell it everywhere.

Either way, you’ll get monthly reports of your audiobook sales.

Traditional publishers

If you’re not a self-published Author, you probably don’t have direct access to sales numbers.

Not even for your own book.

Traditionally published Authors get royalty statements from their publisher maybe 2 or 4 times a year, and even those don’t tell you where the sales came from.

So, what if you want to figure out how many books someone else is selling, like an industry leader or your top competitor?

Let me be very clear about this:

The best you can do is guess how many copies that book is selling based on a very limited amount of public data.

Still, if you want to make the best possible educated guess, here’s how to do it.

Step 1. Find the book on Amazon

Search for the book on Amazon and pay attention to the different editions, such as:

  • Kindle
  • paperback
  • hardcover
  • audiobook

To estimate total sales, you’ll have to look at each edition separately.

Step 2. Check the book’s Amazon sales rank

For each edition, note the book’s rank in the entire store, not just its own category. Some categories are bigger than others, so the rank within an individual category doesn’t mean much.

Once you have the book’s overall rank, enter it into an Amazon sales estimator like AMZ Scout. Be sure to choose the right Amazon store:

  • Kindle store for Kindle books
  • Books for every other edition

The calculator will give you an estimated monthly sales number for that edition of that book, given its overall rank.

Step 3. Rinse and repeat

This system is a lot better than nothing. It can give you a feel for how well a book is selling at any given moment, but it has its problems:

It estimates monthly sales based on a single data point.
That’s statistically terrible. To get a better estimate, you’ll have to enter each edition’s rank into the calculator several times over the course of a month and then take the average. The more data points you use, the better the sales estimate.

It only measures sales on Amazon.
Kindle controls a huge portion of the digital market in both ebooks and audiobooks, so the Kindle estimate is a good indicator of digital sales. But even this can be off by a big factor, and print sales are even worse.

Promotions can skew the data.
To even out the effect of short-term spikes, take the average of a book’s estimated sales across a few months. Why? There are several things that can change a book’s sales numbers dramatically, affecting the rank for days or even weeks afterward:

  • price discounts
  • advertising
  • media coverage
  • BookBub promotions
  • any other sales or marketing push

The Amazon rank algorithm rewards consistency.
In other words, a high book rank can mean either:

  • it’s selling a lot of copies in one day, or
  • it has sold a much smaller number of copies consistently all month

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Is this really the best way to estimate book sales?”

If all you have is public data, then yes. Publishing houses do not share hard numbers.

But if you’re truly dedicated to getting real sales data, there are private data sources—like BookScan, which Authors can sign up for through Publisher’s Marketplace for $2,500 per year.

Yes. $2,500. The price alone shows how hard it is to get good numbers any other way.

But everyone has a story to tell—and every potential Author should have the tools they need to do that. Which is why we’re sharing our own data on nonfiction book sales, right here.

Overall and Average Sales of Nonfiction Books

But how many copies does a single nonfiction book sell, on average?

Before I can answer that, I have to talk about what “average” really means.

There are 3 kinds of averages:

  • the middle number (median)
  • the most common number
  • the calculated average

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have 5 books, and they sold this many copies last month:

  • 2
  • 2
  • 16
  • 30
  • 300

The most common number is 2. The middle number is 16. The calculated average is 70.

I made these numbers up as an example, but they’re not a bad representation of the industry. If you’re asking about average sales, it’s critical to understand this:

There are a lot of books that sell just a few copies, and there are a few books that sell a lot.

If you’re looking for the most common number of sales for a non-fiction book, that answer is going to be pretty small. For one thing, there are a lot of self-published Authors who didn’t do their research. They didn’t:

In short, they didn’t publish a great book.

But there are also a lot of great nonfiction books, both self-published and traditionally published, that never got any marketing. Those books usually don’t sell either.

As a result, the nonfiction market is all over the place. Some books sell a ton of copies, and some hardly sell any.

Let’s look at some real numbers.

There were about 5 million adult nonfiction print books sold in the United States per week during October and November of 2019.

According to Bowker, more than 1 million books were self-published in 2017 alone.

Inline Two v1

If most of those weekly sales were for books written in the last 3 years, and if something like half of all published books are nonfiction, that leaves more than 1.5 million titles to share those 5 million sales.

That’s only 3.33 copies per title for that week, or about 14 books per month, going by the calculated average.

But the most common and middle numbers have to be even lower than that.

Does that sound dismal? It shouldn’t. It just means you have to do more than write a good book and upload it to Amazon. You have to put some real effort into marketing and sales.

Actual Nonfiction Book Sales by Timeframe

Now that you have an idea of what the overall nonfiction industry looks like, I’ll give you some of our actual sales data from the 250+ books we publish each year, as well as reasonable expectations for a new nonfiction book.

In the first week
In 2019, our median title (the middle book) sold 174 copies in the first week. That’s a good target for a new book.

The average number of sales in the first week was 359, but that’s because a few books sold far more than most. That’s why we don’t like to use the calculated average as a target. The number is heavily skewed. 174 copies is a much better target for the “average” nonfiction book.

Keep in mind that this number varies tremendously from one project to the next. Here are a few scenarios:

  • Let’s say you have an email list of 50,000 dedicated followers. If your list has an average open rate of 35%, that’s 17,500 people who will open your announcement email. If 1% of those people buy the book, that’s 175 sales.
  • For an email list of 10,000, that would be 35 sales.
  • Repetition helps—meaning more emails and posts—but with a falling rate of return. Your 175 sales from the first emails probably came from your most avid followers. The second email might produce 50 sales or fewer.
  • The same calculation applies to social media platforms, but with conversion rates that are usually lower unless you have a highly engaged following. 50,000 followers might result in 5,000 post views and maybe 50 sales.

When we create a dedicated launch plan for a new book, we include a wide range of marketing efforts, including traditional media, social media, advertising, email lists, interviews, and blog tours, to name a few. Obviously, the more of these you put together, the better your book will sell.

Let’s look at some advertising scenarios:

  • With Amazon ads, readers see your book when they search for any word in your keyword list. If you pay $0.45 per click, and 1 in 10 of those clicks leads to a sale, the ad is costing you $4.50 per sale, or $450 per 100 sales. Whether that’s worth it depends how much you’re making per book (in this case, hopefully, more than $4.50). But as you hone your keyword list, your conversion rate will rise, making the ad more profitable.
  • Linked-In and/or Facebook ads work the same way, targeting readers who are interested in your book’s subject matter. Let’s use better numbers this time. If you’re paying $0.19 per click, and 1 in 5 of those people buy it, each sale only costs you $0.95, or $95 for 100 sales.

In the first 3 months
After we publish a book, we transition the book to the Author, so we stop seeing direct sales numbers. The average traditionally published non-fiction book sells about 250-300 copies in the first year, but when we manage a book launch, our target is to sell 1,000 copies in the first 3 months.

Why 1,000? Because at that number of sales, a book has the momentum it needs to keep spreading by word of mouth.

If your book isn’t selling as many copies as you hoped over the first 2 months, it might be worth running a book promotion in month 3 to boost your numbers.

BookBub is the most successful book promotion site by far, producing on average 300-500 additional books on the day of the promotion during our test.

And, again, advertising can make a big difference. You can start by advertising on any platform at a small investment of even $5 or $10 per day. Conduct A/B ad testing until you’re seeing the numbers you want, but give each test a few days to run.

In the book’s lifetime
Research suggests that the “average” self-published, digital-only book sells about 250 copies in its lifetime.

By comparison, the average traditionally published book sells 3,000 copies, but as I mentioned above, only about 250-300 of those sales happen in the first year.

For a traditional publisher to think of a nonfiction book as a success, it has to sell more like 10,000 copies over its lifetime.

That’s a lot of failures for the publisher. But for a self-published Author who fully leverages the expertise, credibility, and profound connection that a great book offers, a handful of sales can bring in a lot of business.

Book sales are more of a marathon than a sprint. Sticking around with a decent number of sales week-in and week-out is a lot better than rocketing into the ranks for one day and then plummeting into obscurity.

Let me leave you with one final example:

If you sell 1,000 books in week 1, and then 1 per day after that, you’ll sell:

  • 1,358 books in year 1
  • 365 in year 2 (1,723 total)
  • 365 in year 3 (2,088 total)

BUT, sell only 200 books in week 1 and then 5 per day, and you’ll sell:

  • 1,990 books in year 1
  • 1,825 in year 2 (3,815 total)
  • 1,825 in year 3 (5,640 total)

Authors who worry less about rank and more about consistently reaching the right people—people who will read and love their book—often end up with a much wider reach, and much more lucrative results.

How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Be a Bestseller?

If you’ve read this far and you’re still curious how many sales it takes to get on a bestseller list, here’s the breakdown. Keep in mind that each list has its own system for measuring sales numbers, so one bestselling list is not the same as another.

For more details on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal lists, read my full post on hitting bestseller lists.

On Amazon
For Amazon, it depends which list you mean. There are several ways for a book to be called an Amazon bestseller:

  1. Reach the #1 spot in any Amazon category
  2. Reach #1 on the Kindle store
  3. Reach #1 in Amazon books
  4. Be in the top 20 most sold for the week
  5. Be in the top 20 most read for the week

If that sounds like a lot of ways, well, it is. Amazon is great at selling books. It gives Authors a lot of roads to success, and its algorithm rewards that success. Let’s look at each one.

Amazon categories
Reaching the top rank in any category on Amazon will earn your book an orange bestseller flag. Once you’ve earned it, even for an hour, you have the right to call yourself a bestselling Author.

But some categories are easier to top than others. There are a lot more books on marketing than there are on boat building, so it takes more sales to capture the # 1 marketing spot.

That said, a new book usually needs 100 sales or more in the first 48 hours to capture the top spot in its least-competitive category.

Kindle store
Reaching #1 on the entire Kindle store takes a lot more sales. Even selling enough to hit the top 100 is a challenge.

AMZ Scout reports:

  • 5,577 within 2-3 days to hit #1
  • 2,243 within 2-3 days to hit #100

Why is it so difficult to hit the top 100? Because Amazon rewards consistency. Selling 75 books every day for a month is harder to do than selling 75 books just once.

Amazon books
Hitting #1 here is even harder. Why? Because Amazon Books includes every kind of book:

  • hardcovers
  • paperbacks
  • Kindles
  • audiobooks
  • calendars (strange, but true)

Topping this list means topping the sales of every edition of every book on the planet, at least for an hour.

Keep in mind that your book is competing against every other book available, fiction and nonfiction. The top-selling engineering title isn’t likely to make the top 100 when it comes to all books.

The list is also relative, so the sales you need to top the chart in May aren’t anywhere near what you need to top it during the December holiday rush.

Top 20 most sold & most read
Amazon also reports the top 20 most sold and the top 20 most read books each week, separated into fiction and nonfiction. These spots are arguably even more coveted because they don’t change by the hour, so you probably won’t earn one through a one-and-done promotion.

“Most read” is an unusual category because it reports literally what’s being read, which brings up an important point:

Kindle readers track the number of pages read in a Kindle book, giving Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading books a huge leg up in every Kindle category.

Even though reading a book doesn’t usually pay the Author as much buying it, Authors whose books are in Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading have a much better shot at a high sales rank.

Some Authors earn more than half their total royalties from page reads.

In The Wall Street Journal
Hitting the bestseller list in WSJ takes about 6,000 sales over the first week, but the trick here is this: pre-ordered books count as sales on the day of publication.

In other words, you don’t really have to sell 6,000 books in one week. You have to sell 6,000 books over several weeks or even several months, assuming you put your book up for preorder.

Keep in mind that the list ranks book sales against each other, so the magic number isn’t always 6,000. Books sell more in December than they do in April, for example. Getting on this list during a busy season can take a lot more sales.

In The New York Times
The NYT bestseller list is as elitist as it gets. It doesn’t count Amazon sales. It weighs sales from independent bookstores more heavily than chain stores. In short, the list is skewed heavily against self-published Authors.

Hitting this list usually takes 10,000 sales or more over the first week. Like the WSJ list, pre-orders count as sales on the day of publication, but the NYT list is still a lot harder to crack. Here’s why:

  • Amazon sales don’t count
  • Bulk sales don’t count

NYT tries to take bulk sales out of the equation. If you sell 1,000 books to a corporation for its new training program, NYT doesn’t want to count any of those sales toward its bestseller list. Not even one.

It’s not impossible for a self-published Author to get on this list—David Goggins did it for example—but you’ll need very wide distribution and a serious marketing push to make it happen.

Final Thoughts: A Sales Benchmark

If you are just looking for some numbers to benchmark your non-fiction book against, given our experience working with thousands, this is what we tell our Authors.

Now, understand that it is impossible to give a “one size fits all” set of benchmarks. I have to make a lot of assumptions to even get to the numbers below, and this is the benchmark that we give to most of our Authors at Scribe.

These numbers assume a normal Author, who has no audience waiting to buy their books but a decent set of personal connections, and they wrote a book that solves a clear problem for a real audience.

First Week Sales

  • Industry Average: 50
  • Scribe Target: 150
  • Homerun: 500

First Quarter Sales

  • Industry Average: 200
  • Scribe Target: 500
  • Homerun: 1000

Daily Average Sales

  • Industry Average: 0-2
  • Scribe Target: 3-5
  • Homerun: 6-10

First-Year Sales

  • Industry Average: 400
  • Scribe Target: 1000
  • Homerun: 2500+

Five Year Sales

  • Industry Average: 1000
  • Scribe Target: 2500
  • Homerun: 5000+
About the Author

tucker max
Tucker Max

Tucker has sold over 5 million books as a 4x NYT Bestselling Author and is the co-founder of Scribe.

Scribe is the World’s #1 Professional Publishing Company

We’ve worked with over 2,000 authors in the past seven years including 21 New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestsellers.

We believe everyone has a story to tell. We’re here to help you share yours.

You have a story to tell and expertise to offer the world. We believe it should be in a book so your legacy will have a lasting impact.

But historically, writing a book has been complicated, time-consuming, and painful while getting a book published has been equally challenging.

Traditional publishers only publish a small number of books each year, keeping ownership, creative control, and freedom away from authors. They say they do it to “maintain high quality.”

The self-publishing industry is full of dishonest parties who will put out anything, producing cheap, low-quality work. They say they do it to “increase ownership and freedom for authors.”

why scribe

The solution? Professional Publishing with Scribe.

Working with us, you’ll keep creative control and full ownership of your book so you can turn your vision of being a published author into a reality.

We’ll move fast and give you the best professional book expertise money can buy. From writing to publishing to marketing your book, we’ll support you every step of the way.

And if you can’t afford our services or just want to do it yourself? Register for Scribe Book School. It takes you through the same process, The Scribe Method, created by our 4x New York Times bestselling author and co-founder Tucker Max and is 100% free.

Book Royalties 101: How They Work (Complete Guide)  [LINK]

Book Royalties

You’ve probably heard the term “book royalty” get tossed around a lot in publishing.

But what does it really mean?

To put it simply: a book royalty is the amount that a publisher pays an Author for the rights to publish their book.

While simple in concept, this can bring up a host of other questions for first-time Authors:

  • Do Authors start earning royalties right away?
  • How much can you earn as an Author?
  • What’s the typical profit margin on a nonfiction book?

Still, royalties don’t have to be a mystery. In fact, they’re pretty easy to figure out.

In this post, I’ll explain what royalties are, how much Authors can earn, and how you can calculate them.

What Is a Book Royalty?

A book royalty is the amount that a publisher pays an Author in exchange for the rights to publish their book.

Royalties are calculated as a percentage of book sales. For example, an author might earn 7.5% royalties on every paperback sold and 25% on every eBook sold.

Royalties are typical in traditional publishing, where Authors sell the rights to their book to a publisher. In self-publishing, royalties don’t exist because the Author sets the prices and decides on the profit margin.

Even though they’re a common way for Authors to make money, royalties don’t always work in an Author’s best interest. That’s because a royalty-based financial model forces publishers to focus entirely on book sales.

Authors have plenty of ways to make money, aside from selling their book. They can give talks, find new clients, consult, launch a product, become a coach, or build a personal brand. Of course, it’s great to have a book that sells a million copies, but that’s an extremely rare event.

For publishers, royalties are the only way to earn money. It doesn’t matter if an Author gives 50 talks a year to packed rooms of thousands. If those talks don’t translate to direct book sales, they have no value for a publisher.

It’s unfortunate, but the royalties model forces publishers into a short-sighted focus when it comes to Authors and the power of books. They only buy books that they think will sell in large numbers, and they have to market them to the largest audience possible.

In the long run, that narrow focus can be an obstacle for Authors who want to use their book to expand their personal brand or achieve other goals.

What Are Typical Rates for Book Royalties?

Royalty rates vary slightly, but on average, you can expect the following from traditional publishers:

  • Hardcover sales: 15%
  • Trade paperback sales: 7.5%
  • Mass-market paperback sales: 5%
  • eBook sales: 25%
  • Audiobook sales: 25%

Some contracts include graduated royalties. For example, you might earn 10% on the first 5,000 hardcover copies sold, 12% on the next 5,000, and 15% on every copy thereafter.

How Are Book Royalties Calculated?

Most publishers pay royalties based on the retail price of the book. That means if the book retails at $20, and the royalties rate is 5%, you will earn $1 per book sold. These kinds of royalties are often called “list royalties” or “retail royalties.”

Occasionally publishers pay Authors “royalties on net sales.” Publishers sell to book outlets at different prices. For example, a publisher might offer a large wholesale discount to Amazon and a lower discount to an independent bookstore that only buys a few copies.

Royalties on net sales are calculated after factoring in all those price differences and discounts.

It’s generally better for Authors to receive retail royalties since the list price is the highest price a book sells for.

At this point, book royalties might sound great. You’re making money on every sale, and $1 for every book adds up.

But here’s the tricky part: Authors don’t earn royalties right away. You only get them once you’ve earned out your advance.

What Is an Advance?

An advance is a negotiable up-front payment that a publisher pays an Author.

You may have heard about million-dollar advances for hot-topic or in-demand books from major publishers.

Most advances are much more modest. There is no average advance, but six-figure advances are fairly rare outside of the large houses, and 5 figure advances are far more common. And there are even very small advances. Some academic presses might only offer $1,000 for an advance.

That discrepancy exists because an advance is based on the number of books a publisher thinks they can sell. Trendy topics from established authors can sell a lot of books, which means the Author gets a higher advance. Niche topics can sell only a limited amount of books, so there’s not as much money at stake.

There isn’t an average advance amount, but most major publishers don’t offer small ones. If they don’t think a book will sell well enough to earn back six figures, they usually won’t put the effort and resources into publishing it.

Advances aren’t charitable gifts. They are payments against future royalties. That means if a publisher gives you a $100,000 advance, they expect to make more than $100,000 off book sales.

Once an Author gets an advance, they won’t see another cent until their book has sold enough copies to pay the advance back.

In other words, if your book is earning royalties at a rate of $1 per copy, and you got a $100k advance, you’d have to sell more than 100,000 copies before you’d receive royalty payments.

Advances are great if you can get them, but they’re hard to get. Publishers want to know that a book is going to be a sure success before they give an Author an advance.

(Thankfully, if you don’t earn back your advance, the money is still yours to keep. But publishers might be wary of taking on your next book.)

Unless you already have thousands of followers on social media or a highly visible personal brand, it’s hard to break into the world of traditional publishing. Publishers don’t want to take risks, and most Authors don’t have the platform to guarantee 25,000 sales.

If you are lucky enough to score an advance, there are still trade-offs to consider.

You will no longer own the print license for your book, which means you can’t do anything else with the content. If you wanted to break it into smaller chunks and sell it on your website, you couldn’t. If you wanted to turn it into a magazine article, you’d have to get the publisher’s permission.

Then, if the book is a major hit, you’re only going to get a small fraction of the profits. Let’s say you earn back that $100k advance and sell another 200,000 copies. With royalties, you’d earn another $100k.

But if you had self-published that same book, you’d earn 100% on each sale after recouping your production costs. That’s a lot more than 5%.

Instead of $200,000, you could be making millions.

Example of Book Royalties with an Advance

Let’s say you found an agent, wrote a book proposal, got an offer, accepted that offer from a traditional publishing house, negotiated a publishing contract, wrote the book, and the book is ready to launch. Here’s a deeper look at how your book royalties and advances would work.

Your $100,000 advance would likely be split into three payments. You’d get $33.3k when you sign the book contract, $33.3k when you deliver the manuscript and another $33.3k when the book is published.

Your retail royalties are 7.5%. The list price for your book is $20.

That means you’ll earn $1.50 in royalties per book.

Now, let’s say you mobilize your contacts for your book release, and in the first month, you sell 5,000 copies. Most big publishers want 25,000 sales in the first month, but very few books actually sell that well.

(For the record, 5,000 copies a phenomenal launch. In 2019, Scribe’s median title sold 174 copies in the first week. That’s a better target for the “average” nonfiction book. It may not sound like much, but that number creates enough momentum to keep spreading by word of mouth.)

That means in the first month your book earned $7,500 toward your advance.

You have $92,500 to go before you’ll get a royalty check.

If your book keeps selling at a steady pace, it will take you just over 12 months to earn out your advance. Afterward, any royalties are yours.

It’s really hard for a book to sustain its first-month sales for over a year. But let’s say you get some good press and miraculously, sales stay steady. If you continue to sell 5,000 copies every month, at the end of two years, you will have earned:

Your $100,000 advance + 7.5% royalties on another 53,333 books = $180,000

Amazon’s Self-Publishing “Royalties”

When you self-publish, you keep the rights to your works. That means, technically, Amazon’s payments aren’t really “royalties,” even though that’s what Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) calls them.

You have two royalties options for KDP eBooks: 35% or 70%. The choice for higher royalties might seem obvious, but there are some stipulations involved, like pricing and geographical availability.

You also have the offer to enroll your book in the KDP Select program, which offers a different royalty structure. You can find out more about all those options in this post.

No matter which royalties plan you choose, here’s an important point: Authors on KDP keep complete control over their book’s price and promotions. You have the right to use the book however you want to.

At the end of the day, your book should be working for you, not the other way around. If you can get a large advance and already have a strong following, traditional publishing might be your best option.

But maybe not.

You have to decide whether the trade-offs are worth it.

How many books can you expect to sell?  by Stephanie Chandler

The truth about book sales and the keys to generating income from publishing.

book stack

Recently I read a post in an online writers’ forum that broke my heart. A woman reported having dipped into her savings AND retirement accounts to invest in several expensive book marketing educational programs with the expectation that they would help her sell huge quantities of books. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on programs that promised big results.

Despite all of her efforts, she sold just a single copy of her nonfiction guide. Just ONE book.

Sadly, her results weren’t surprising to me. Any program that promises massive book sales is about as reliable as one of those “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” schemes. You know that old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The reality is that nobody can promise specific results with a generic book marketing campaign because there are just too many factors involved. Let’s look at some of the challenges.

Challenge #1: Target Audience

The first, and perhaps most challenging obstacle to overcome, is that you must define, and then find, your target reader. As much as we’d like to believe that everyone will want to buy our books, that simply isn’t the case.

For example, if you’ve authored a memoir about living with a disability, you need to find readers who are interested in this kind of inspiration. A how-to guide for getting healthier is only going to be of interest to people who want this kind of advice. A book on the history of WWII will best appeal to those who share this interest.

Unfortunately, too many authors miss this point entirely. Before you can find your target audience, you must first define who they are. And though it may sound counter-intuitive, the more narrowly you define your audience, the higher your chances of connecting with potential readers.

So, if your book is a memoir about your experiences growing up as a Christian, then it makes sense to pursue readers of Christian books. But that alone is not likely narrow enough. You may find that you’ll better connect with potential readers who are Christian mothers, single Christian mothers, or older Christian women who grew up during the same era that you did.

The point is that a memoir of a Christian woman’s journey growing up won’t necessarily jump out at every Christian reader. But if a single mom finds a book written by a fellow single mom, then it can greatly increase the likelihood of the potential reader connecting with the subject matter.

Defining a narrower audience has proven to be powerful in my own journey. I work with, and write books for, nonfiction authors. Though I could certainly write content for all kinds of authors, I purposely chose nonfiction for several reasons. Nonfiction is where my own passion lies, because I believe in the power of books to make a difference in the world. I identify with nonfiction writers because we tend to have similar goals.

Nonfiction is also an area that has little competition. The vast majority of my competitors aim to reach all authors. Sure, their potential audience is larger, however, with my focus on nonfiction, my content appeals directly to a very specific set of ideal readers. This should be your goal, too.

Challenge #2: Reaching Ideal Readers

Once you define your target audience, everything you do should speak to them. Your website and blog content should address them directly, and so should your email marketing campaigns, videos and podcasts you produce, presentations you give, and every other piece of content you put out in the world.

Many of the expensive author marketing programs out there, like the ones the author that inspired this article invested in, fail to teach authors how to find and communicate with their target audience. Instead, they take a blanket approach of teaching authors to churn out social media content and send mass email blasts, without taking time to tailor the messaging and marketing activities specifically to the intended audience.

Instead of churning out announcements to a large audience that doesn’t connect with your subject matter, go figure out where your audience spends their time. Find the online groups they participate in, the trade associations they belong to, the blogs and magazines they read, the events they attend, and the podcasts they listen to. Then, target your marketing efforts accordingly.

Challenge #3: Reading Habits and the Competitive Book Market

One of the most sobering factors that impacts book sales is the sheer number of books released each year (over 2 million new titles were released worldwide last year) verses how many books people actually read each year. A report from Statisa reveals that 22% of Americans read fewer than five books per year, 20% read up to ten books per year, and 17% read up to fifteen books per year. Interestingly, adults age 60 and over read the most books, with 43% reporting they read more than 15 books per year.

Think about what this means. Even those who read upwards of 15 books per year are still only buying 15 or 20 books in a calendar year. And they’re choosing from a selection of millions and millions of titles. With so many choices, it is crucial that your potential readers connect with your book—that it grabs them and inspires them to purchase. There are simply too many other choices.

And this isn’t just about the book market as a whole. It’s also about the categories of books available for purchase. At this moment on Amazon, there are an astonishing number of titles available in various categories:

  • 80,000+ books in Biography and Memoirs
  • 70,000+ books in Parenting
  • 70,000+ books in Military History
  • 30,000+ books in Women’s Health
  • 30,000+ books in Meditation
  • 30,000+ books in Art Therapy and Relaxation (this one blows my mind!)

Some sub-categories also have staggering competition.

  • 20,000+ books in Buddhism
  • 10,000+ books in Children’s Health
  • 5,000+ books in Adoption
  • 3,000+ books in Lesbian and Gay Biographies
  • 2,000+ books in Schizophrenia

If you do your homework, you might find some sub-categories you didn’t know existed, with far less competition than others.

  • 1,000 results for Health, Fitness & Dieting > Children’s Health > Learning Disorders
  • 1,000 results for Business & Money > Taxation > International
  • 810 results for Military History > Prisoner of War
  • 111 results for Health, Fitness & Dieting > Alternative Medicine > Chelation (What is chelation?!)
  • 5 titles listed for Computers & Technology > Databases & Big Data > Data Modeling & Design > iPhone & iOS

Studying the book categories can help when designating categories for your book, and even in defining your target audience. For example, if your memoir covers your struggles to navigate life with a learning disability, where you do you think you’ll find more success? In the memoir category with 80,000+ competitors or the Learning Disorders category with just 1,000 results?

The reality is that there is tremendous competition no matter the subject of your book, which gets back to the first key points of this article: You must define your target audience, ideally as narrowly as possible, and then do the work to locate them and help them connect with your book.

How many books can you expect to sell?

As the woman who inspired this article learned, it’s not easy to sell books. There are all kinds of statistics bouncing around out there, but generally speaking, most self-published authors will likely sell around 250 books or less. A few years ago, the industry was buzzing when statistics revealed that the average self-published author earns less than $500 from her books. That figure doesn’t even cover the cost of quality editing.

This is why authors hear the word “platform” over and over again. Having a platform means that you have a captive audience ready to buy your book. That audience can come from blog readers, YouTube subscribers, social media followers, email subscribers, audiences at speaking engagements, and any other place where you can cultivate your tribe. A platform makes it easier to sell books, though it still doesn’t guarantee massive book sales. Remember, you need to inspire your target readers to buy the book.

My Advice: Keep sales expectations low, and shift your focus to building a business around your book.

Being an author makes you an instant AUTHORity. Use your book to help you land speaking engagements, where you can sell books at the back of the room. Use it to impress potential consulting or coaching clients. Use it to show your credibility for teaching in-person or online classes. Another option: write more books. Each book you publish builds your “back list,” and those sales build on each other.

Please don’t get into publishing with the expectation that one book will generate a substantial income—that simply isn’t the reality for the vast majority of authors, unless you’ve built a substantial platform and a loyal audience of buyers. Get into publishing because you want to make a difference.

Let your book be your credibility-builder, while you cultivate a loyal tribe and build a thriving business. When you do the work, book sales will follow, and so will other opportunities. But it takes time and persistence. Focus on the long-term effort involved, and how your book can make an impact on the world. This can be a fun and rewarding journey when you shift your perspective and set your expectations accordingly.

What is education? A definition and discussion [LINK]

Education is the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning and change undertaken in the belief that we all should have the chance to share in life.

— Mark K Smith explores the meaning of education and suggests it is a process of being with others and inviting truth and possibility.
Drawing the future adult
Dessiner le futur adulte by Alain Bachellier | flickr ccncnd2

When talking about education people often confuse it with schooling. Many think of places like schools or colleges when seeing or hearing the word. They might also look to particular jobs like teacher or tutor. The problem with this is that while looking to help people learn, the way a lot of schools and teachers operate is not necessarily something we can properly call education. They have chosen or fallen or been pushed into ‘schooling’ – trying to drill learning into people according to some plan often drawn up by others. Paulo Freire (1973) famously called this banking – making deposits of knowledge. Such ‘schooling’ too easily descends into treating learners like objects, things to be acted upon rather than people to be related to.

Education, as we understand it here, is a process of inviting truth and possibility, of encouraging and giving time to discovery. It is, as John Dewey (1916) put it, a social process – ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’. In this view educators look to learning and being with others rather than acting upon them. Their task is to educe (related to the Greek notion of educere), to bring out or develop potential both in themselves and others. Such education is:

  • Deliberate and hopeful. It is learning we set out to make happen in the belief that we all can ‘be more’;
  • Informed, respectful and wise. A process of inviting truth and possibility.
  • Grounded in a desire that at all may flourish and share in life. It is a cooperative and inclusive activity that looks to help us to live our lives as well as we can.

In what follows we will try to answer the question ‘what is education?’ by exploring these dimensions and the processes involved.

Education – cultivating hopeful environments and relationships for learning

It is often said that we are learning all the time and that we may not be conscious of it happening. Learning is both a process and an outcome. As a process, it is part of being and living in the world, part of the way our bodies work. As an outcome, it is a new understanding or appreciation of something.

In recent years, developments in neuroscience have shown us how learning takes place both in the body and as a social activity. We are social animals. As a result, educators need to focus on creating environments and relationships for learning rather than trying to drill knowledge into themselves and others.

Teachers are losing the education war because our adolescents are distracted by the social world. Naturally, the students don’t see it that way. It wasn’t their choice to get endless instruction on topics that don’t seem relevant to them. They desperately want to learn, but what they want to learn about is their social world—how it works and how they can secure a place in it that will maximize their social rewards and minimize the social pain they feel. Their brains are built to feel these strong social motivations and to use the mentalizing system to help them along. Evolutionarily, the social interest of adolescents is no distraction. Rather, it is the most important thing they can learn well. (Lieberman 2013: 282)

The cultivation of learning is a cognitive and emotional and social activity (Illeris 2002)

Alison Gopnik (2016) has provided a helpful way of understanding this orientation. It is that educators, pedagogues and practitioners need to be gardeners rather than carpenters. A key theme emerging from her research over the last 30 years or so that runs in parallel with Lieberman, is that children learn by actively engaging their social and physical environments – not by passively absorbing information. They learn from other people, not because they are being taught – but because people are doing and talking about interesting things. The emphasis in a lot of the literature about parenting (and teaching) presents the roles much like that of a carpenter.

You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with.

Instead, Gopnik argues, the evidence points to being a gardener.

When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labor and the sweat of our brows, with a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure. And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted. The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink, the rose that was supposed to climb the fence stubbornly remains a foot from the ground, black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated.


Education is deliberate. We act with a purpose – to build understanding and judgement and enable action. We may do this for ourselves, for example, learning what different road signs mean so that we can get a license to drive; or watching wildlife programmes on television because we are interested in animal behaviour. This process is sometimes called self-education or teaching yourself. We join with the journey that the writer, presenter or expert is making, think about it and develop our understanding. Hopefully, we bring that process and understanding into play when we need to act. We also seek to encourage learning in others (while being open to learning ourselves). Examples here include parents and carers showing their children how to use a knife and fork or ride a bike; schoolteachers introducing students to a foreign language; and animators and pedagogues helping a group to work together.

Sometimes as educators, we have a clear idea of what we’d like to see achieved; at others, we do not and should not. In the case of the former, we might be working to a curriculum, have a session or lesson plan with clear objectives, and have a high degree of control over the learning environment. This is what we often mean by ‘formal education’. In the latter, for example, when working with a community group, the setting is theirs and, as educators, we are present as guests. This is an example of informal education and here two things are happening.

First, the group may well be clear on what it wants to achieve e.g. putting on an event, but unclear about what they need to learn to do it. They know learning is involved – it is something necessary to achieve what they want – but it is not the main focus. Such ‘incidental learning’ is not accidental. People know they need to learn something but cannot necessarily specify it in advance (Brookfield 1984).

Second, this learning activity works largely through conversation – and conversation takes unpredictable turns. It is a dialogical rather than curricula form of education.

In both forms, educators set out to create environments and relationships where people can explore their, and other’s, experiences of situations, ideas and feelings. This exploration lies, as John Dewey argued, at the heart of the ‘business of education’. Educators set out to emancipate and enlarge experience (1933: 340). How closely the subject matter is defined in advance, and by whom, differs from situation to situation. John Ellis (1990) has developed a useful continuum – arguing that most education involves a mix of the informal and formal, of conversation and curriculum (i.e. between points X and Y).

informa formal continuum

Those that describe themselves as informal educators, social pedagogues or as animators of community learning and development tend to work towards the X; those working as subject teachers or lecturers tend to the Y. Educators when facilitating tutor groups might, overall, work somewhere in the middle.

Acting in hope

Underpinning intention is an attitude or virtue – hopefulness. As educators ‘we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know’ (hooks 2003: xiv). In other words, we invite people to learn and act in the belief that change for the good is possible. This openness to possibility isn’t blind or over-optimistic. It looks to evidence and experience, and is born of an appreciation of the world’s limitations (Halpin 2003: 19-20).

We can quickly see how such hope is both a part of the fabric of education – and, for many, an aim of education. Mary Warnock (1986: 182) puts it this way:

I think that of all the attributes that I would like to see in my children or in my pupils, the attribute of hope would come high, even top, of the list. To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live. Hope is akin to energy, to curi­osity, to the belief that things are worth doing. An education which leaves a child without hope is an education that has failed.

But hope is not easy to define or describe. It is:

An emotion. Hope, John Macquarrie (1978: 11) suggests, ‘consists in an outgoing and trusting mood toward the environment’. We do not know what will happen but take a gamble. ‘It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk’ (Solnit 2016: 21).

A choice or intention to act. Hope ‘promotes affirmative courses of action’ (Macquarrie 1978: 11). Hope alone will not transform the world. Action ‘undertaken in that kind of naïveté’, wrote Paulo Freire (1994: 8), ‘is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism’. Hope and action are linked. Rebecca Solnit (2016: 22) put it this way, ‘Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope… To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable’.

An intellectual activity. Hope is not just feeling or striving, according to McQuarrie it has a cognitive or intellectual aspect. ‘[I]t carries in itself a definite way of understanding both ourselves – and the environing processes within which human life has its setting’ (op. cit.).

This provides us with a language to help make sense of things and to imagine change for the better – a ‘vocabulary of hope’. It helps us to critique the world as it is and our part in it, and not to just imagine change but also to plan it (Moltman 1967, 1971). It also allows us, and others, to ask questions of our hopes, to request evidence for our claims. (See, what is hope?).

Education – being respectful, informed and wise

Education is wrapped up with who we are as learners and facilitators of learning – and how we are experienced by learners. In order to think about this, it is helpful to look back at a basic distinction made by Erich Fromm (1979), amongst others, between having and being. Fromm approaches these as fundamental modes of existence. He saw them as two different ways of understanding ourselves and the world in which we live.

Having is concerned with owning, possessing and controlling. In it we want to ‘make everybody and everything’, including ourselves, our property (Fromm 1979: 33). It looks to objects and material possessions.

Being is rooted in love according to Fromm. It is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. Rather than seeking to possess and control, in this mode, we engage with the world. We do not impose ourselves on others nor ‘interfere’ in their lives (see Smith and Smith 2008: 16-17).

These different orientations involve contrasting approaches to learning.

Students in the having mode must have but one aim; to hold onto what they have ‘learned’, either by entrusting it firmly to their memories or by carefully guarding their notes. They do not have to produce or create something new. … The process of learning has an entirely different quality for students in the being mode. … Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, they listen, they hear, and most important, they receive and they respond in an active, productive way. (Fromm 1979: 37-38)

In many ways, this difference mirrors that between education and schooling. Schooling entails transmitting knowledge in manageable lumps so it can be stored and then used so that students can pass tests and have qualifications. Education involves engaging with others and the world. It entails being with others in a particular way. Here I want to explore three aspects – being respectful, informed and wise.

Being respectful

The process of education flows from a basic orientation of respect – respect for truth, others and themselves, and the world. It is an attitude or feeling which is carried through into concrete action, into the way we treat people, for example. Respect, as R. S. Dillon (2014) has reminded us, is derived from the Latin respicere, meaning ‘to look back at’ or ‘to look again’ at something. In other words, when we respect something we value it enough to make it our focus and to try to see it for what it is, rather than what we might want it to be. It is so important that it calls for our recognition and our regard – and we choose to respond.

We can see this at work in our everyday relationships. When we think highly of someone we may well talk about respecting them – and listen carefully to what they say or value the example they give. Here, though, we are also concerned with a more abstract idea – that of moral worth or value. Rather than looking at why we respect this person or that, the interest is in why we should respect people in general (or truth, or creation, or ourselves).

First, we expect educators to hold truth dearly. We expect that they will look beneath the surface, try to challenge misrepresentation and lies, and be open to alternatives. They should display the ‘two basic virtues of truth’: sincerity and accuracy (Williams 2002: 11). There are strong religious reasons for this. Bearing false witness, within Christian traditions, can be seen as challenging the foundations of God’s covenant. There are also strongly practical reasons for truthfulness. Without it, the development of knowledge would not be possible – we could not evaluate one claim against another. Nor could we conduct much of life. For example, as Paul Seabright (2010) has argued, truthfulness allows us to trust strangers. In the process, we can build complex societies, trade and cooperate.

Educators, as with other respecters of truth, should do their best to acquire ‘true beliefs’ and to ensure what they say actually reveals what they believe (Williams 2002: 11). Their authority, ‘must be rooted in their truthfulness in both these respects: they take care, and they do not lie’ (op. cit.).

Second, educators should display fundamental respect for others (and themselves). There is a straightforward theological argument for this. There is also a fundamental philosophical argument for ‘respect for persons’. Irrespective of what they have done, the people they are or their social position, it is argued, people are deserving of some essential level of regard. The philosopher most closely associated with this idea is Immanuel Kant – and his thinking has become a central pillar of humanism. Kant’s position was that people were deserving of respect because they are people – free, rational beings. They are ends in themselves with an absolute dignity

Alongside respect for others comes respect for self. Without it, it is difficult to see how we can flourish – and whether we can be educators. Self-respect is not to be confused with qualities like self-esteem or self-confidence; rather it is to do with our intrinsic worth as a person and a sense of ourselves as mattering. It involves a ‘secure conviction that [our] conception of the good, [our] plan of life, is worth carrying out’ (Rawls 1972: 440). For some, respect for ourselves is simply the other side of the coin from respect for others. It flows from respect for persons. For others, like John Rawls, it is vital for happiness and must be supported as a matter of justice.

Third, educators should respect the Earth. This is sometimes talked about as respect for nature, or respect for all things or care for creation. Again there is a strong theological argument here – in much religious thinking humans are understood as stewards of the earth. Our task is to cultivate and care for it (see, for example, Genesis 2: 15). However, there is also a strong case grounded in human experience. For example, Miller (2000) argues that ‘each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace’. Respect for the world is central to the thinking of those arguing for a more holistic vision of education and to the thinking of educationalists such as Montessori. Her vision of ‘cosmic education’ puts appreciating the wholeness of life at the core.

Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity. This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge. He is satisfied, having found the universal centre of himself with all things’. (Montessori 2000)

Last, and certainly not least, there is a basic practical concern. We face an environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions. As Emmett (among many others) has pointed out, it is likely that we are looking at a global average rise of over four degrees Centigrade. This ‘will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth would become a hell hole’ (2013: 143).

Being informed

To facilitate learning we must have some understanding of the subject matter being explored, and the impact study could have on those involved. In other words, facilitation is intelligent.

We expect, quite reasonably, that when people describe themselves as teachers or educators, they know something about the subjects they are talking about. In this respect, our ‘subject area’ as educators is wide. It can involve particular aspects of knowledge and activity such as those associated with maths or history. However, it is also concerned with happiness and relationships, the issues and problems of everyday life in communities, and questions around how people are best to live their lives. In some respects, it is wisdom that is required – not so much in the sense that we know a lot or are learned – but rather we are able to help people make good judgements about problems and situations.

We also assume that teachers and educators know how to help people learn. The forms of education we are exploring here are sophisticated. They can embrace the techniques of classroom management and of teaching to a curriculum that has been the mainstay of schooling. However, they move well beyond this into experiential learning, working with groups, and forms of working with individuals that draw upon insights from counselling and therapy.

In short, we look to teachers and educators as experts, We expect them to apply their expertise to help people learn. However, things don’t stop there. Many look for something more – wisdom.

Being wise

Wisdom is not something that we can generally claim for ourselves – but a quality recognized by others. Sometimes when people are described as wise what is meant is that they are scholarly or learned. More often, I suspect, when others are described as ‘being wise’ it that people have experienced their questions or judgement helpful and sound when exploring a problem or difficult situation (see Smith and Smith 2008: 57-69). This entails:

  • appreciating what can make people flourish
  • being open to truth in its various guises and allowing subjects to speak to us
  • developing the capacity to reflect
  • being knowledgeable, especially about ourselves, around ‘what makes people tick’ and the systems of which we are a part
  • being discerning – able to evaluate and judge situations. (op. cit.: 68)

This combination of qualities, when put alongside being respectful and informed, comes close to what Martin Buber talked about as the ‘real teacher’. The real teacher, he believed:

… teaches most successfully when he is not consciously trying to teach at all, but when he acts spontaneously out of his own life. Then he can gain the pupil’s confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil’s confidence has been won, ‘his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so he learns to ask. … (Hodes 1972: 136)

Education – acting so that all may share in life

Thus far in answering the question ‘what is education?’ we have seen how it can be thought of as the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning. Here we will explore the claim that education should be undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life. This commitment to the good of all and of each individual is central to the vision of education explored here, but it could be argued that it is possible to be involved in education without this. We could take out concern for others. We could just focus on process – the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning – and not state to whom this applies and the direction it takes.

Looking beyond process

First, we need to answer the question ‘if we act wisely, hopefully, and respectfully as educators do we need to have a further purpose?’ Our guide here will again be John Dewey. He approached the question a century ago by arguing that ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’ (Dewey 1916: 100). Education, for him, entailed the continuous ‘reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience. (Dewey 1916: 76). His next step was to consider the social relationships in which this can take place and the degree of control that learners and educators have over the process. Just as Freire (1972) argued later, relationships for learning need to be mutual, and individual and social change possible.

In our search for aims in education, we are not concerned… with finding an end outside of the educative process to which education is subordinate. Our whole conception forbids. We are rather concerned with the contrast which exists when aims belong within the process in which they operate and when they are set up from without. And the latter state of affairs must obtain when social relationships are not equitably balanced. For in that case, some portions of the whole social group will find their aims determined by an external dictation; their aims will not arise from the free growth of their own experience, and their nominal aims will be means to more ulterior ends of others rather than truly their own. (Dewey 1916: 100-101)

In other words, where there are equitable relationships, control over the learning process, and the possibilities of fundamental change we needn’t look beyond the process. However, we have to work for much of the time in situations and societies where this level of democracy and social justice does not exist. Hence the need to make clear a wider purpose. Dewey (1916: 7) argued, thus, that our ‘chief business’ as educators is to enable people ‘to share in a common life’. I want to widen this and to argue that all should have a chance to share in life.

Having the chance to share in life

We will explore, briefly, three overlapping approaches to making the case – via religious belief, human rights and scientific exploration.

Religious belief. Historically it has been a religious rationale that has underpinned much thinking about this question. If we were to look at Catholic social teaching, for example, we find that at its heart lays a concern for human dignity. This starts from the position that, ‘human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction’ (Groody 2007). Each life is considered sacred and cannot be ignored or excluded. As we saw earlier, Kant argued something similar with regard to ‘respect for persons’. All are worthy of respect and the chance to flourish.

To human dignity a concern for solidarity is often added (especially within contemporary Catholic social teaching). Solidarity:

… is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. On Social Concern (Sollicitudo rei Socialis. … ), #38

Another element, fundamental to the formation of the groups, networks and associations necessary for the ‘common life’ that Dewey describes, is subsidiarity. This principle, which first found its institutional voice in a papal encyclical in 1881, holds that human affairs are best handled at the ‘lowest’ possible level, closest to those affected (Kaylor 2015). It is a principle that can both strengthen civil society and the possibility of more mutual relationships for learning.

Together, these can provide a powerful and inclusive rationale for looking beyond particular individuals or groups when thinking about educational activity.

Human rights. Beside religious arguments lie others that are born of agreed principle or norm rather than faith. Perhaps the best known of these relate to what have become known as human rights. The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it this way:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 26 further states:

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. …

These fundamental and inalienable rights are the entitlement of all human beings regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status (Article 2).

Scientific exploration. Lastly, I want to look at the results of scientific investigation into our nature as humans. More specifically we need to reflect on what it means when humans are described as social animals.

As we have already seen there is a significant amount of research showing just how dependent we are in everyday life on having trusting relationships in a society. Without them even the most basic exchanges cannot take place. We also know that in those societies where there is stronger concern for others and relatively narrow gaps between rich and poor people are generally happier (see, for example, Halpern 2010). On the basis of this material we could make a case for educators to look to the needs and experiences of all. Political, social and economic institutions depend on mass participation or at least benign consent – and the detail of this has to be learnt. However, with our growing appreciation of how our brains work and with the development of, for example, social cognitive neuroscience, we have a different avenue for exploration. We look to the needs and experience of others because we are hard-wired to do so. As Matthew D. Lieberman (2013) has put it:

Our basic urges include the need to belong, right along with the need for food and water. Our pain and pleasure systems do not merely respond to sensory inputs that can produce physical harm and reward. They are also exquisitely tuned to the sweet and bitter tastes delivered from the social world—a world of connection and threat to connection. (Lieberman 2013: 299)

Our survival as a species is dependent upon on looking to the needs and experiences of others. We dependent upon:

Connecting: We have ‘evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives’ (op. cit.: 10)

Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically… This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly (op. cit.: 10)

Harmonizing: Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own. (op. cit.: 11)

One of the key issues around these processes is the extent to which they can act to become exclusionary i.e. people can become closely attached to one particular group, community or nation and begin to treat others as somehow lesser or alien. In so doing relationships that are necessary to our survival – and that of the planet – become compromised. We need to develop relationships that are both bonding and bridging (see social capital) – and this involves being and interacting with others who may not share our interests and concerns.


Education is more than fostering understanding and an appreciation of emotions and feelings. It is also concerned with change – ‘with how people can act with understanding and sensitivity to improve their lives and those of others’ (Smith and Smith 2008: 104). As Karl Marx (1977: 157-8) famously put it ‘all social life is practical … philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; ‘the point is to change it’. Developing an understanding of an experience or a situation is one thing, working out what is good and wanting to do something about it is quite another. ‘For appropriate action to occur there needs to be commitment’ (Smith and Smith 2008: 105).

This combination of reflection; looking to what might be good and making it our own; and seeking to change ourselves and the world we live in is what Freire (1973) talked about as praxis. It involves us, as educators, working with people to create and sustain environments and relationships where it is possible to:

  • Go back to experiences. Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. We have to look to the past as well as the present and the future. It is necessary to put things in their place by returning to, or recalling, events and happenings that seem relevant.
  • Attend and connect to feelings. Our ability to think and act is wrapped up with our feelings. Appreciating what might be going on for us (and for others) at a particular moment; thinking about the ways our emotions may be affecting things; and being open to what our instincts or intuitions are telling us are important elements of such reflection. (See Boud et. al. 1985).
  • Develop understandings. Alongside attending to feelings and experiences, we need to examine the theories and understandings we are using. We also need to build new interpretations where needed. We should be looking to integrating new knowledge into our conceptual framework.
  • Commit. Education is something ‘higher’ according to John Henry Newman. It is concerned not just with what we know and can do, but also with who we are, what we value, and our capacity to live life as well as we can . We need space to engage with these questions and help to appreciate the things we value. As we learn to frame our beliefs we can better appreciate how they breathe life into our relationships and encounters, become our own, and move us to act.
  • Act. Education is forward-looking and hopeful. It looks to change for the better. In the end our efforts at facilitating learning have to be judged by the extent to which they further the capacity to flourish and to share in life. For this reason we need also to attend to the concrete, the actual steps that can be taken to improve things.

As such education is a deeply practical activity – something that we can do for ourselves (what we could call self-education), and with others.

Conclusion – so what is education?

It is in this way that we end up with a definition of education as ‘the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life’. What does education involve?

We can begin with what Aristotle discusses as hexis – a readiness to sense and know. This is a state – or what Joe Sachs (2001) talks about as an ‘active condition’. It allows us to take a step forward – both in terms of the processes discussed above, and in what we might seek to do when working with learners and participants. Such qualities can be seen as being at the core of the haltung and processes of pedagogues and educators (see below). There is a strong emphasis upon being in touch with feelings, attending to intuitions and seeking evidence to confirm or question what we might be sensing. A further element is also present – a concern not to take things for granted or at their face value (See, also, Pierre Bourdieu on education, Bourdieu 1972|1977: 214 n1).

Beyond that, we can see a guiding eidos or leading idea. This is the belief that all share in life and a picture of what might allow people to be happy and flourish. Alongside is a disposition or haltung (a concern to act respectfully, knowledgeably and wisely) and interaction (joining with others to build relationships and environments for learning). Finally, there is praxis – informed, committed action (Carr and Kemmis 1986; Grundy 1987).

The process of education

The process of education

At first glance, this way of answering the question ‘what is education?’ – with its roots in the thinking of Aristotle, Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Dewey (to name a few) – is part of the progressive tradition of educational practice. It seems very different from ‘formal tradition’ or ‘traditional education’.

If there is a core theme to the formal position it is that education is about passing on information; for formalists, culture and civilization represent a store of ideas and wisdom which have to be handed on to new generations. Teaching is at the heart of this transmission; and the process of transmission is education…

While progressive educators stress the child’s development from within, formalists put the emphasis, by contrast, on formation from without— formation that comes from immersion in the knowledge, ideas, beliefs, concepts, and visions of society, culture, civilization. There are, one might say, conservative and liberal interpretations of this world view— the conservative putting the emphasis on transmission itself, on telling, and the liberal putting the emphasis more on induction, on initiation by involvement with culture’s established ideas.(Thomas 2013: 25-26).

As both Thomas and Dewey (1938: 17-23) have argued, these distinctions are problematic. A lot of the debate is either really about education being turned, or slipping, into something else, or reflecting a lack of balance between the informal and formal.

In the ‘formal tradition’ problems often occur where people are treated as objects to be worked on or ‘moulded’ rather than as participants and creators i.e. where education slips into ‘schooling’.

In the ‘progressive tradition’ issues frequently arise where the nature of experience is neglected or handled incompetently. Some experiences are damaging and ‘mis-educative’. They can arrest or distort ‘the growth of further experience’ (Dewey 1938: 25). The problem often comes when education drifts or moves into entertainment or containment. Involvement in the immediate activity is the central concern and little attention is given to expanding horizons, nor to reflection, commitment and creating change.

The answer to the question ‘what is education?’ given here can apply to both those ‘informal’ forms that are driven and rooted in conversation – and to more formal approaches involving a curriculum. The choice is not between what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ – but rather what is appropriate for people in this situation or that. There are times to use transmission and direct teaching as methods, and moments for exploration, experience and action. It is all about getting the mix right and framing it within the guiding eidos and disposition of education.

Further reading and references

Recommended introductions

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963). In this book, Dewey seeks to move beyond dualities such as progressive/traditional – and to outline a philosophy of experience and its relation to education.

Thomas, G. (2013). Education: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Simply the best contemporary introduction to thinking about schooling and education.


Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (eds.) (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1972|1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. First published in French as Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle, (1972).

Brookfield, S. (1984). Adult learners, adult education and the community. Milton Keynes, PA: Open University Press.

Buber, Martin (1947). Between Man and Man. Transl. R. G. Smith. London: Kegan Paul.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

Dewey, J. (1916), Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education. (1966 edn.). New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963).

Dillon, R. S. (2014). ‘Respect.’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[ Retrieved: February 10, 2015].

Ellis, J. W. (1990). ‘Informal education – a Christian perspective.’ Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Emmott, S. (2013). 10 Billion. London: Penguin. [Kindle edition].

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. With notes by Ana Maria Araujo Freire. Translated by Robert R. Barr. New York: Continuum.

Fromm, E. (1979). To Have or To Be. London: Abacus. (First published 1976).

Fromm, E. (1995). The Art of Loving. London: Thorsons. (First published 1957).

Gallagher, M. W. and Lopez, S. J. (eds.) (2018). The Oxford Handbook of Hope. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children. London: Random House.

Groody, D. (2007). Globalization, Spirituality and Justice. New York: Orbis Books.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum. Product or praxis. Lewes: Falmer.

Halpern, D. (2010). The hidden wealth of nations. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Halpin, D. (2003). Hope and Education. The role of the utopian imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching Community. A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.

Hodes, A. (1972). Encounter with Martin Buber. London: Allen Lane/Penguin.

Illeris, K. (2002). The Three Dimensions of Learning. Contemporary learning theory in the tension field between the cognitive, the emotional and the social. Frederiksberg: Roskilde University Press.

Kant, I. (1949). Fundamental principles of the metaphysic of morals. (trans. T. K. Abbott). New York: Liberal Arts Press.

Kaylor, C. (2015). Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
[ Retrieved March 21, 2015].

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the climate. London: Penguin. [Kindle edition].

Liberman, M. T. (2013). Social. Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liston, D. P. (1980). ‘Love and despair in teaching.’ Educational Theory. 50(1): 81-102.

MacQuarrie, J. (1978). Christian Hope. Oxford: Mowbray.

Marx, K. (1977). ‘These on Feurrbach’ in D. McLellan (ed.) Karl Marx. Selected writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moltmann, J. (1967). Theology of hope: On the ground and the implications of a Christian eschatology. New York: Harper & Row. Available on-line:

Moltmann, J. (1971). Hope and planning. New York: Harper & Row.

Montessori, M. (2000). To educate the human potential. Oxford: Clio Press.

Rawls, J. (1972). A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rorty, R. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

Sciolli, A. and Biller, H. B. (2009). Hope in the Age of Anxiety. A guide to understanding and strengthening our most important virtue. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seabright, P. (2010). The Company of Strangers. A natural history of economic life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, H. and Smith, M. K. (2008). The Art of Helping Others. Being Around, Being There, Being Wise. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Smith, M. K. (2019). ‘Haltung, pedagogy and informal education.’ The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.
[ Retrieved: August 28, 2019].

Smith, M. K. (2012, 2021). ‘What is pedagogy?’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.
[ Retrieved February 16, 2021)

Thomas, G. (2013). Education: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Kindle Edition].

United Nations General Assembly (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: United Nations.
[ Accessed March 14, 2015].

Warnock, M. (1986). ‘The Education of the Emotions.’ In D. Cooper (ed.) Education, values and the mind. Essays for R. S. Peters. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

Williams, B. (2002). Truth & truthfulness: An essay in genealogy. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


Picture: Dessiner le futur adulte by Alain Bachellier. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

The informal-formal education curriculum diagram is reproduced with permission from Ellis, J. W. (1990). Informal education – a Christian perspective. Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education. Buckingham: Open University Press. You can read the full chapter in the informal education archives:

The process of education diagram was developed by Mark K Smith and was inspired by Grundy 1987. It can be reproduced without asking for specific permission but should be credited using the information in ‘how to cite this piece’ below.

This piece uses some material from Smith (2019) Haltung, pedagogy and informal education and (2021) What is pedagogy? (see the references above).

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2015, 2021). ‘What is education? A definition and discussion.’ The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.
[ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2015, 2021

Last Updated on June 18, 2021 by

Cognisance of the Cosmos [LINK TO EXTERNAL SOURCE]

Our present abnormal manner of living has its roots in a system of education which lacks essential understanding of the purpose of human existence. Because of the emphasis given by formal education, says Orage, cognisance of the cosmos has disappeared from the psyche of human beings. Just as we are aware of the flora and fauna of nature and of the civilization in which we exist, “so three-centered beings should be aware of the function of the cosmos—the sun in relation to the planets, the Earth to the moon… A normal three-centered being would understand cosmic phenomena and how he is affected by radiations, emanations and tensions.” Such an understanding of cosmic laws Gurdjieff calls “being-knowledge,” which he believes should be the possession of every normal human being. If systems of education were to emphasize a knowledge of cosmic phenomena, believes Gurdjieff, we would find ourselves developing naturally in the direction of Objective Reason.

Should Higher Education Be Free? [LINK]

Library Books

by Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai

In the United States, our higher education system is broken. Since 1980, we’ve seen a 400% increase in the cost of higher education, after adjustment for inflation — a higher cost escalation than any other industry, even health care. We have recently passed the trillion dollar mark in student loan debt in the United States.

How long can a business model succeed that forces students to accumulate $200,000 or more in debt and cannot guarantee jobs — even years after graduation? We need transformational innovations to stop this train wreck. A new business model will only emerge through continuous discovery and experimentation and will be defined by market demands, start-ups, a Silicon Valley mindset, and young technology experts.

Neither the pedagogical model nor the value equation of traditional higher education have changed much in the past fifty years. Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are still considered the best schools in the world, but their cost is significantly higher today than two decades ago.

According to Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, who spoke at the Davos conference this past January, there are three major buckets that make up the total annual expense (about $50,000) of attending a top-notch university such as MIT: student life, classroom instruction, and projects and lab activities.

There is a significant opportunity to help reduce the lecture portion of expenses using technology innovations.

According to the American Institute of Physics (PDF), as of 2010, there are about 9,400 physics teachers teaching undergraduates every September in the United States. Are all of these great teachers? No. If we had 10 of the very best teach physics online and employed the other 9,390 as mentors, would most students get a better quality of education? Wouldn’t that lead to lower per unit cost per class?

Yes, you might argue the lack of “classroom experience” is missing. But when it comes to core classes which don’t require labs or much in-person faculty interaction, does the current model justify the value-price equation?

What is traditional college education really worth?

In a recent interview, Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, said, “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — there is no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation.” Even more fascinating is his statement that “the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time,” leading to some teams in which 14% have not gone to college. “After two or three years,” Bock said, “your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different.”

Mr. Bock’s comments suggest that smart people can figure out how to pass college tests if they can master what the professor wants, resulting in great test scores — but this skill and knowledge has very little relevance to solving daunting business problems with no obvious answers.

Once leading companies embrace what Google is already doing, seismic shifts and breakthroughs will occur in college education. Maybe a two year college degree will be sufficient instead of four. Imagine a business model where you take two years of courses online with the world’s best teachers, followed by two years in structured problem-solving environments. Driven by market forces, such new business models could emerge faster than we expect.

So what is happening now? Who are some of the new education providers experimenting with new business models?

Emerging new education models
There are three strong players with millions of students and thousands of course offerings, all for free and available to anyone in the world. Coursera, Udacity, and edX have over four million enrolled students in their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

All three uniquely (and differently) replicate the classroom experience. Each uses top-notch professors and technologies in a creative manner — but not without challenges. One of the authors (Jatin Desai) enrolled in a few courses to test out the environments and found that, just like in the traditional classroom, courses vary greatly based on who is teaching. Some professors use the technology brilliantly and others use it as minimally as possible. (Access to higher bandwidth greatly enhances the experience.)

These three are not the only ones in the MOOC movement; many others are quickly joining. In fact, the New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” and Time magazine said that free MOOCs open the door to the “Ivy League for the Masses.”

According to a recent Financial Times article, many employers are unsure of what to make of MOOC education — unsurprising, since many new technologies and business models go through multiple evolutions. The good news, according to the article, is that 80% of respondents surveyed would accept MOOC-like education for their internal employee development. We can extrapolate from this survey that the employer demand for online education exists — and, moreover, that it is only a matter of time until universities and well-funded venture capitalists will respond to this white space in the market very soon.

Georgia Tech, in fact, has already responded; in January, it will begin offering a master’s degree in computer science, delivered through MOOCs, for $6,600. The courses that lead to the degree are available for free to anyone through Udacity, but students admitted to the degree program (and paying the fee) would receive extra services like tutoring and office hours, as well as proctored exams.

In the near future, higher education will cost nothing and will be available to anyone in the world. Degrees may not be free, but the cost of getting some core education will be. All a student needs is a computing device and internet access. Official credentialing from an on-ground university may cost more; in early 2012, MIT’s MOOC, MITx, started to offer online courses with credentials, for “a small fee” available for successful students — and we’re eager to see how Georgia Tech’s MOOC degree will transform the education model.

What’s next? How far are we away from new business models where MOOC-type pedagogy will dominate the first two years of college experience? When will most employers begin to accept non-traditionally credentialed MOOC-based education? And what will this mean for the education industry? With luck and ongoing innovation, perhaps the US’s broken education system may be repaired.

Vijay Govindarajan Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and faculty partner at the Silicon Valley incubator Mach 49. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. His latest book is The Three Box Solution. His Harvard Business Review articles “Engineering Reverse Innovations” and “Stop the Innovation Wars” won McKinsey Awards for best article published in HBR. His HBR articles “How GE Is Disrupting Itself” and “The CEO’s Role in Business Model Reinvention” are HBR all-time top 50 bestsellers. Follow Vijay on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Jatin Desai is co-founder and chief executive officer of The Desai Group and the author of Innovation Engine: Driving Execution for Breakthrough Results.

Education should be corruption free [LINK]

Education should be corruption free

POLITICIANS should not dip their hands in the budget of education because that is an investment in the future. The oft-repeated claim that politicians are for education should be viewed in terms of walking the talk and not just be solely dependent on an ayuda (financial aid), which is purely a dole out without financial literacy coupled with it.

A thousand pesos a month for 10 months is P10,000 per school year per student. For a term (three years) of a mayor, that amounts to P30,000 per student per year. If the student population is 10,000, that's a whopping P300 million for three years. In exchange for the ayuda, community service is supposed to be the contribution of the students. Good for developing character, one would say, but budgets should not only look at the supply side. There is the demand side of providing quality education, and that requires building systems that deliver a complex service day after day in various campuses over the course of many hours to the student population.

It is only when academic institutions are managed well that learning happens. Reforms are integration of policies, strong political commitment and effective implementation capacities. But everything begins with the budget, and for local universities and colleges (LUCs), corruption needs to be reined in so the budget allocated redounds to the development of the institution, its processes, human resources and good fund management.

LUCs are created by their local governments "to directly provide and address the intellectual and socio-economic needs of their community." As such, an LUC can be the bridge between the local government and the private sector in the area. An LUC can be the think tank of the city or hall and provide impact/gap analysis on ordinances and programs. It can design the road map of the city. It can produce the graduates needed by the local economy if, and only if, city hall knows its competitive advantages and framed as part and parcel of fiscal restraint and responsibility: you do not borrow the future to fast-track plans in one term because one will end up with the most expensive annual expenditure if one adds income and borrowings.

Colleges and universities differ in program offerings and degree types. "University" refers to larger institutions offering both undergraduate and graduate programs, while "college" refers to community colleges and technical schools as well as liberal arts colleges. This is material because for an LUC to grow, develop and be "world class" would mean complying with the minimum requirements set by the state.

And the heavy lifting becomes clear when an LUC has been gamed for quite sometime from the hard to the soft requirements of an academic institution. Hard refers to buildings, classrooms, laboratories, cafeteria, rest rooms, preventive maintenance and cleanliness. And soft pertains to functions of registrar (assessment to enrollment to payment), curriculum, having more full-time rather than part-time faculty, ensuring those teaching have masters degrees, research as a way of life in the institution and so much more. Add to this the need to ensure salaries are delivered on time and prepared correctly.

So, when an LUC's procurement plan is sidelined (including emergency procurements because of the pandemic), or 40 percent is deducted from the obligation request, one wonders why? And when capital outlay is not released in the previous administration because of absorptive capacity, one is stumped to push things fast so that the problem on absorption can be remedied by innovation. The other problematic practice is the non-release of fourth quarter allotments because of so-called end-of-year expenses. If that is good governance, departments should instead defend not a full-year budget but only for three quarters, right?

Then again, why dip your fingers into the trust funds of an LUC? Trust fund is for a special purpose and it cannot be intermingled with the general fund. Thus, when you are confronted by this, it is but normal to make a report to the leader of the city and expect a solution to it, most especially if the trust fund amounted to several millions over time. Non-action is what? And then there is the fiscal autonomy grant made in April 2019 and remains pending due to so many issues that boggles the mind, and when solved and attended to, city hall does not want to let go so that the inefficiencies are not carried into the academic institutions. Imagine officials threatening the institution's officials to get them to conform to "nakagawian." One cannot question, suggest or innovate. The template has to be followed or non-action or delay becomes the sword to snuff one's air for reform.

The short cuts are awful to conform with the minimum requirements of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) in order to tap into Unifast, or Republic Act (RA) 10931, otherwise known as the "Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act." The law promotes universal access to quality tertiary education by providing free tuition and other school fees in state universities and colleges, local universities and colleges, and state-run technical-vocational institutions, establishing the tertiary education subsidy and student loan program, strengthening the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education.

On Feb. 13, 2018, CHEd approved the inclusion of 78 LUCs that are eligible to accept students who will avail of free tuition and other school fees under RA 10931, starting school year 2018-2019. The 78 LUCs have undergone institutional and program evaluation by CHEd since 2017. The LUCs are given two years to comply with all other institutional and program requirements in order to be part of RA 10931. Failure to do so will result in their exclusion from the list of LUCs under RA 10931.

An LUC can be "world class" if city hall allows it to be and when a leader declares academic institutions as outside of the realm of corruption. Education has to be corruption-free because that is an investment in the future. If not, any investment in education becomes mere lip service, residual as it is and not transformative, as should be. Local bureaucrats need to understand social equity in education to level the playing field. Corruption in education has an immediate impact, both economic and social. Because of what economists call "allocative inefficiencies," the quality decreases creating a breeding ground for further corruption and self-perpetuating under the provision of human capital. Corruption is a barrier to education, too. In the end, corruption in education becomes problematic because it affects the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable disproportionately. It deepens economic and social inequality and hinders social mobility. May all local government officials be reminded of this.

Ma Lourdes Tiquia

By Ma. Lourdes Tiquia | November 2, 2021 | Read 470 times

Right to Education: Situation of children’s right to education worldwide [LINK]


Today, education remains an inaccessible right for millions of children around the world. More than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school and 759 million adults are illiterate and do not have the awareness necessary to improve both their living conditions and those of their children.

Causes of lack of education

Marginalisation and poverty

For many children who still do not have access to education, it is notable because of persisting inequality and marginalization.

In developing and developed countries alike, children do not have access to basic education because of inequalities that originate in sex, health and cultural identity (ethnic origin, language, religion). These children find themselves on the margins of the education system and do not benefit from learning that is vital to their intellectual and social development.

Factors linked to poverty such as unemployment, illness and the illiteracy of parents, multiply the risk of non-schooling and the drop-out rate of a child by 2.

Undeniably, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are forced to abandon their education due to health problems related to malnutrition or in order to work and provide support for the family.

UNHCR J Redfern 1

Financial deficit of developing countries

Universal primary education is a major issue and a sizeable problem for many states.

Many emerging countries do not appropriate the financial resources necessary to create schools, provide schooling materials, nor recruit and train teachers. Funds pledged by the international community are generally not sufficient enough to allow countries to establish an education system for all children.

Equally, a lack of financial resources has an effect on the quality of teaching. Teachers do not benefit from basic teacher training and schools, of which there are not enough, have oversized classes.

This overflow leads to classes where many different educational levels are forced together which does not allow each individual child to benefit from an education adapted to their needs and abilities. As a result, the drop-out rate and education failure remain high.

UNHCR Schwetz

Overview of the right to education worldwide

Most affected regions.

As a result of poverty and marginalization, more than 72 million children around the world remain unschooled.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected area with over 32 million children of primary school age remaining uneducated. Central and Eastern Asia, as well as the Pacific, are also severely affected by this problem with more than 27 million uneducated children.

Additionally, these regions must also solve continuing problems of educational poverty (a child in education for less than 4 years) and extreme educational poverty (a child in education for less than 2 years).

Essentially this concerns Sub-Saharan Africa where more than half of children receive an education for less than 4 years. In certain countries, such as Somalia and Burkina Faso, more than 50% of children receive an education for a period less than 2 years.

The lack of schooling and poor education have negative effects on the population and country. The children leave school without having acquired the basics, which greatly impedes the social and economic development of these countries.

Inequality between girls and boys: the education of girls in jeopardy


Today, it is girls who have the least access to education. They make up more than 54% of the non-schooled population in the world.

This problem occurs most frequently in the Arab States, in central Asia and in Southern and Western Asia and is principally explained by the cultural and traditional privileged treatment given to males. Girls are destined to work in the family home, whereas boys are entitled to receive an education.

In sub-Saharan Africa, over 12 million girls are at risk of never receiving an education. In Yemen, it is more than 80% of girls who will never have the opportunity to go to school. Even more alarming, certain countries such as Afghanistan or Somalia make no effort to reduce the gap between girls and boys with regard to education.

Although many developing countries may congratulate themselves on dramatically reducing inequality between girls and boys in education, a lot of effort is still needed in order to achieve a universal primary education.

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