Once upon a time...
Damnit, where was I? Oh yeah, the History of Free. I could take you all the way back to the Garden, where an apple was free, but lets keep it relative to the topic, Usenet and the various Intellectual Properties that are currently being assailed by the remorseless Legion of file-stealers to whom this article is dedicated ...and you know who you are. Probably reading this on a hot laptop. I don't really believe the majority of you guilty people are evil. You see, much of the reasons we look at Free in a slushy way is Technology causes an ongoing shift in the way we exchange our money for stuff. The most important thing to understand is the time between these technology-driven cultural shifts is getting shorter.
Someone shared a story with me about getting kicked out of college for being caught in the girls dorm after hours ...at that time a Capitol Offense. He was dragged before University Counsel and derided as a young man of obvious low moral fiber who needed to be removed from the herd of good apples so as not to corrupt. The next semester the dorms went co-ed. Sucks to be you. The moral of this story? Something may be looked at with total disdain one minute and the next minute that old gray-haired politician dies and someone with a "younger" perspective is making the laws. Translation, suddenly two 19 year-olds banging in the safety of a Dorm room is not a sociopathic event ...but you are still kicked out of college. The same is about to be true for Digital Property Rights.
Modern Digital Property Rights are not a radical concept, but they are a radical shift from relatively recent social history. For a majority of the 20th Century, music on the radio and movies on television were free, and books were free in Libraries. Wait! What do you mean "Movie"? It's circa 1850 and there ain't no such thang! Motion Pictures have not been invented yet. Long playing record? The phonograph has not been invented yet. Light bulb!? Light from a glass ball!? You are the Devil! It's 1850 and technology has yet to shift the life of the Roaming Minstrel, who's God-given gift is one of song. Everyone loves him and they travel for miles just to hear him perform. He is so awesome, fans even throw money.
Trouble is, fans only throw coins when he is actually performing, remember live performance? Anyone who was not a fan was free to listen and not pay, also anyone who did not have any coinage, or was simply not of generous spirit, could also listen and not pay. That is as fair as Fair Use gets, but in reality that's just the way society [and Physics!] worked at the time. The natural transmission of music in public makes it nearly impossible to allow only paying customers the ability to hear. Back then Digital Rights Management was putting a door on the pub. I think Modern Man gets into trouble when he applies this humanly native and centuries-old perception of free music appreciation to life in the electronic Digital Rights managed world.
No Future for Free
Flash forward a few decades and suddenly technology has provided that Minstrel an almost magical gift, the ability to record his song on a wax cylinder. Now he can duplicate it and sell it all over the world and make ungodly sums of cash ...and he only had to sing once! Radical technological shift. The device and equipment is expensive, and there are few people who understand how to manufacture and record the wax covered rolls, and that technology provides him some degree of protection ...but you know what's about to happen. Someone invents a consumer-grade device to make home recordings ...and soon after someone else figures out how to plug the player into that recorder and copy all their friends recordings without buying the originals. There outta be a law!
Apologies, going back to 1850 is a bad example since slavery in the U.S. was still legal. Choosing a time when some folks were not free, under the Law, makes c.1850 a weak example. However, it precisely proves the point that the cultural definition of "Free", and the Laws enforcing it, change with each generation. Free the Slaves, Free to Vote, Free to Serve, Free Love, Free the Planet, Free the Children, even Free Real Estate in 10 Easy Lessons. The desire to fully re-establish the societal value of "Free" is often at the heart of cultural and political revolutions. In poignant rotation, the youthful exuberance of each generation and undeniable pull of "Free", finds undiscovered cultural landscape to plow up and make a mess. The pendulum swings on wanting everything and getting everything for free, and it's not always good-times.
Whatchu Talkin' 'Bout Willis?
"Free" was a mantra for the whole Baby Boomer generation in the 60's. They ran Free into the ground wholeheartedly, acting as if they had invented the word themselves. Well not before getting a lot of cool stuff for free ...like sex. "Into the ground!?!" you ask. Allow me to clarify how worshiping "Free" can go horribly wrong. The problem with thinking you invented something is that you neglect to read History ...dooming yourself to repeat it, so listen up kids. Free is a powerful thing, but when you narcissistically fuel your experience at the expense of another, then the only Free experience is yours. There's a price to pay and that experience will also be yours ...like when your 19 year-old daughter, you didn't know you had, shows up on your doorstep holding a picture of another hot 19 year-old girl taken 19 years and 9 months earlier ...by you.
The 60's was a time anchored in live music performance. Music equipment of the day was expensive and lacked portability. Personal solutions, failed at High Fidelity and real portability. Listening however, was often free, like live music, TV, or a transistor radio. If Woodstock happened today it would probably be available live online, but back in the day it was a paid ticket event like any other. News spread that it was a "Free Concert" because they had failed to build a way to prevent just anyone from walking onto the grounds. Cries of "Free Love" were blotted out with cries of "Free Concert!" and the constituents of the "Free Everything" generation flocked to Max Yasgur's farm.
History Ain't Free
Woodstock was not only a cultural touchstone for musical reasons, it was the affirmation to it's birthing generation that all subsequent outdoor music festivals should also be set free. Like in-person Piracy, this passionate perspective was counter to any notion that bands like to get paid and promoters need cash to justify their investment, but perfectly in-line with the social revolution at hand. In 1970 the Five Man Electrical Band had an accidental hit with their B-side "Signs" which clearly resonates with the angst of every generation's coming of age and the desire for acceptance, and their notions of Free. Some are more familiar with the Tesla cover, whoa 21 years ago. Snoop Dog and Justin Timberlake covered it 10 years ago. Next!
That 60's unshackled cultural hysteria to live fully Free snowballed, starting from the Summer of Love, to Woodstock and forward to 1970, driving the last nails into the coffin of Free. This downhill slide was documented in the movie "Festival Express" about the 1970 concert tour across Southern Canada that was fraught with violent protests from gentle hipsters firmly ensconced in their fascination [demand!] to be Free ...from paying admission. So if you wonder why concerts are held under such high security now, blame it on peace-loving hippies and the defining idealism they blindly worshiped called Free.
The trend crossed the Pond and the snowball's momentum bashed the Isle of Wight Concert in 1970, which was billed as the British Woodstock. It also was fraught with similar violence for similar reasons. Here is an audio recording of Kris Kristofferson's recollection of the whole event ...jump to 3:00 to hear about concertgoers tearing the place up because they wanted a free concert. There was a popular video of Kris walking off his set [google it] during Isle of Wight but it's been taken offline by Sony, along with offending YouTube account cancellations, Sony don't play. The audio is much more in-depth and tells the full story, and luckily for us looks like it's not owned by Sony.
To the Power of Free
The word itself carries so much weight. We strive to be Free as a meaning of Life, we want to share it with the world, but like all ideals it can easily be twisted into an excuse for doing bad stuff. Don't get lost in the word, as your actions speak louder than. Don't blindly aim for Free for the sake of Free, and don't hide your guilt behind it's higher meaning. The Flower-Powered generation freely took a giant dump on Free, and what started out as a grand beginning turned into the end of it's own era. Free was taken for granted, worshiped without clarity of it's Moral meaning, and disrespected. Of course, you know I like to oversimplify and over dramatize, but in this case I think the pendulum just swung too far, as it does. Unfortunately it can quite often thwack you on it's backswing.
This was a brief History of Free. As we watch the next technical explosion cause the next legal shift, I recommend becoming a student of Free. My previous commentary on the SHACK speaks to the elevated freedoms we currently enjoy online. If we lose those, will we really be able to blame it all on the Opposition? Are we giving our own Freedom a Rusty Sheriff's Badge by insisting we get everything for free? At what point could all the Actors, Directors, and Musicians just walk off the stage? Would Justin Bieber get a fauxhawk? Beware the crack-like sucking sound of Free, instead carefully create and participate in your own free Future ...because I've seen the Future, and it's Murder.