The Free Lunch

The old cliché that there is no such thing as a free lunch is being tested in a variety of ways in modern society.

The newspaper business is finding that out the hard way.

Newspapers survive by charging people to buy their new newspapers and by charging advertisers to run their ads so that the people who buy newspapers will see (if not read) their advertisements.

But people are buying fewer newspapers (especially young people) and advertisers are taking their business elsewhere as a result.

The reason why fewer people are buying newspapers is quite simple, actually. They can get their news for free on the Internet.

And no matter how hard the newspapers try, they can’t make up the lost revenue.

A similar dynamic has devastated the recording industry. The Internet made it easier for kids (mostly) to swap digital music with friends without having to pay for it. The industry responded by filing lawsuits against thousands of kids (and their parents), trying to scare the bejesus out of would-be pirates, but that strategy has been largely unsuccessful. They then sued for peace with Apple, and made it easier for people to buy digital music.

The Internet has been governed by one overriding philosophy: freedom. And freedom has successfully propelled the World Wide Web to unprecedented and dizzying success.

But freedom shouldn’t necessarily mean a free lunch. Some left-wing philosophers of the Internet disagree with that contention, saying that all property should be, in a sense, free, and that efforts to put up barriers that protect property rights should be eliminated.

The “open-source” movement has its supporters in the Obama administration and with Democratic members of Congress. But tearing down content protection means intellectual property rights have real-world implications when it comes to job creation and prosperity.

One member of Congress has suggested that the government should give newspapers a way to survive that would, in a sense, make them a ward of the state, by giving them nonprofit status. But such an effort would also destroy the independence of the Fourth Estate, and sap it of the intellectual vigor that comes with a real-world profit motive.

Congress understands that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. And instead of pushing to make newspapers a ward of the state, it should vigorously enforce intellectual property rights so that inventors, artists, authors and businessmen can continue to get rewarded for their talent and hard work.


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