Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Ten - or maybe a dozen - Things that Will Be Free
Ethan Zuckerman, 6 Oct 05

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has been presenting audiences with a prediction and a challenge about the free culture movement: Ten Things that Will be Free. Jimmy's list is inspried by David Hilbert's address to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, 1900, where he proposed 23 critical unsolved problems in mathematics. This list was enormously influential in shaping mathematical research over the 20th century, and most of the problems have been resolved. Jimmy's list is, like Hilbert's, an outline of what we don't know how to do yet in the world of free culture, and a call to action. It's also, to a certain extent, a prediction of the future - Jimmy makes the point that it's 10 things that will be free in the next ten to twenty five years, not should be free.

In a recent (September 27th) talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where Jimmy is a non-resident fellow, he presented the most recent version of the list, updated since he presented it at the Frankfurt Wikimania conference. The list is a dynamic one - it's being reprioritized as he receives feedback from colleagues and audiences, and currently includes 12 Things that Will be Free:

1) Free the Encyclopedia - Wikipedia is probably how this will be accomplished, though the Wikipedia goal involves a freely licensed, high quality encyclopedia in every language - while we're more or less there for people who speak English or German and have broadband net access, it's a long way away for speakers of Arabic, Hindi or Bengali...

2) Free the Dictionary - While Wiktionary is working on this problem, it's proved harder to accomplish than Wikipedia. One reason - dictionary data is highly structured - every entry has certain things (an authoritative spelling, a derivation, a pronunciation...) while encyclopedia articles are less structured. A new version of MediaWiki software that better supports structured data is in development, and Jimmy thinks this will move the project forward.

3) Free the Curiculum - Free textbooks and curicula, from kindergarten through the university level. Jimmy's done some work on this with the WikiBooks project, though the project is, again, not taking off with the same rapidity as Wikipedia. Jimmy recognizes that WikiBooks hasn't been progressing rapidly, and mentioned that Wikibooks has moved to a "book module" model, encouraging people to write sections of books rather than the whole thing. Jimmy believes that public school textbooks in some US states would be easily built under the module model, since the modules are clearly specified by state standards - this would allow teachers to contribute small sections of curiculum and rapidly create free books.

(There's a lot of enthusiasm for "free the curiculum" around Berkman, especially given the H2O project's new Playlists feature.)

4) Free the Music. Most of the great works of classical music are in the public domain. But most recordings of them aren't. And many scores and arrangements aren't. The Free the Music project would encourage community orchestras to create freely licensed recordings of great works.

5) Free the Art. Again, many of the great sculptures and paintings that represent our collective cultural heritage are no longer copyrighted. But many photos of these works ARE copyrighted. Jimmy tells a story about receiving complaints from museums that Wikipedia contains "unlicensed reproductions" of works that they hold in their collections. These complaints aren't quite cease and desist letters, because the images on Wikipedia might be photos taken by Wikipedia users and released under a free license. But they are threats, designed to deter users from reproducing works of art that are in the public domain. Jimmy's response to these letters is to write back letters encouraging museum directors to feel a sense of shame in locking away cultural works from the public... he's not gotten any responses to these letters.

6. Free the File Formats - Jimmy argues that proprietary file formats are worse than proprietary software. If your data is in a proprietary format, you're trapped if you want to stop using a particular piece of software. Wikipedia uses Ogg Vorbis instead of MP3 due to patent concerns and fears of being locked into a proprietary format.

7. Free the Maps - As Google Map hackers are proving, there's tremendous interest in building GIS-enabled services. Open source hackers are concerned about building services on Google Maps because Google owns the underlying data - Jimmy believes that hackers will build their own maps database and start creating GIS and GPS enabled services on top of this data.

8. Free Product Identifiers - If you link to a book on, you have two choices in constructing your URL - an ISBN number (non-proprietary) or an ASIN number (proprietary). Jimmy recommends you link using an ISBN, so if you decide not to continue selling books as an Amazon affiliate, you can migrate to another bookseller, rather than being locked in by proprietary product identifiers. He'd like to see a world where there's a full set of free product identifiers where people could more easily participate in the world of "long tail" sales by getting an LTIN: a "long-tail identification number". (There was more than a little skepticism from the group at Berkman on this one - yes, it's worrisome that Amazon numbers are non-transferrable, but will open product ID numbers really help people sell to a global market?)

9. Free the search engine - Jimmy believes we'll see an open, transparent, ad supported search engine in the future. Unlike Google, its ranking algorithms will be published and won't rely on security via obscurity. This prediction/proposal was independent of proposals for the long-promised "semantic web" - this is more a prediction of/call for a non-proprietary search engine in the model of Google.

10. Free the Communities - The terms of service agreements at many online community sites (like my former venture, Tripod) include text giving the community host either ownership of or a perpetual license to any content you create. Jimmy believes that projects like WikiCities will start creating new community spaces where users own their content and can decide whether or not hosts can use it.

11. Free the TV listings. If you want to build your own digital video recorder, like MythTV, you need a good source of data for what programs are on when. It's not hard to believe that a group of end users could discover and enter this data on a free basis.

12. Free academic publishing. Jimmy says he's slowly but surely coming around to the Open Access model for academic publishing advocated by Peter Suber and others. Under this model, peer-reviewed academic journals are free to readers (like journal First Monday) and are edited either by volunteers or supported by publication fees paid by authors included in the journal.

One interesting proposition not included in Jimmy's list: "Free the News". While he supports the WikiNews project, he says he's not convinced that a wikipedia-like community can produce a meaningful competitor to AP or Reuters, despite some huge successes the WikiNews community has had thus far.

Some of the predictions offered seem trivially simple, while others seem profoundly ambitious. It's easy to dismiss the notion that we'll be able to download pretty good versions of Beethoven symphonies performed by a global cabal of Open Musicians... but it was easy to laugh at the idea that thousands of amateur scholars would be able to build a free encyclopedia that can challenge professionally produced encyclopedias in terms of comprehensiveness and quality.

(A rougher version of my notes from Jimmy's talk are available on my blog.)

Bookmark and Share


Ethan, thanks for posting this fascinating piece. My question will sound rhetorical, but it isn't it's a genuine question. I wonder whether any of this can information can be considered "free"? I think by "free", you mean "at no price", but that isn't the same as "at no cost" is it? After all, information is negative-entropy, with an energy cost for storage, retrieval, display, and so on. That can't be "free". I'm wondering whether you've described "12 Things That Will Be Subsidized"?

Posted by: David Foley on 6 Oct 05

(2nd try - apologies for the 1st.)

Ethan, thanks for posting this fascinating piece. My question will sound rhetorical, but it's genuine. I wonder whether any of this information can be considered truly "free"? I think by "free", you mean "at no price" - but is that the same as "at no cost"? After all, information is negative-entropy, with an energy cost for creation, storage, retrieval, display, etc. That can't be "free". I'm wondering whether you've described "12 Things That Will Be Subsidized"?

Posted by: David Foley on 6 Oct 05

Sorry, can't find the button "edit this page": Wikimania 2005 took place in Frankfurt, not in Berlin.

Posted by: akl on 6 Oct 05

some websites i know of that seem to be heading (more or less) in the directions above....

1) yup... probably wikipedia
2) (it's free to use)
3) project gutenberg (
4) &
5) (classic film, music...) + ???
6) linux.... think about it. ;)
???+ not really sure on the rest. heard of a place that's doing a free internet tv station- but don't have the address. won't be surprise to see an open source internet search engine.

Posted by: spamhippy on 6 Oct 05

David: In the GNU software movement they use the term "free software" with the clever description "Free as in speech, not as in beer". It's about liberty to own, modify, use without restriction. It doesn't mean there aren't costs involved, it's just that there is a transparency that allows for greater freedom.

Posted by: Danger Stevens on 6 Oct 05

Hardly visionary...
Wouldn't it be easier to resume all these in the term Lessig coined as "free culture" ?

Posted by: vruz on 6 Oct 05

For an example of a community entering and publishing TV program data for Australia see TVGuide.

Posted by: Graham on 6 Oct 05

Re: 5) Free the Art.

I suspect that more than one such letter is through misunderstanding. Let's say that a museum curator does a web search for its name, and gets hits for Wikipedia content; without knowing what Wikipedia is necessarily about, they feel slighted, slightly wronged, for they've probably got an artistic education of some kind, and probably feel in part that they're protecting the art from being besmirched in some way.

At this point, it appears that either profit is being made from an image of aesthetic value, somehow diluting its worth, or else it's up on an amateur webpage, or else posted up on some kind of amateurish and anarchistic accumulator of random browsers' work, without any heirarchy as would seem to be required to ensure quality of presentation (the curator is likely to be highly familiar with the traditional encyclopedia, and how its internal hierarchy is justified).

Since most apparent senarios do not suggest a competent presentation in a professional setting, their obvious reaction is to fire off a threatening letter.

Posted by: Timothy Wesson on 7 Oct 05

Hm. Perhaps it's insomnia that's driving this but I don't think "security by obscurity" is really the best dismissal of proprietary search engines like Google.

I think what really matters here is competition and diversity. Each generation of search engine prompted optimization on the part of black hat SEOs and junk sites. A link farm or spamdex that was optimal for Alta Vista was pretty much useless for Google. As long as Google has serious competition and there is a healthy diversity of search methods out there, junk information will be kept to a minimum.

I do agree that publishing your source is probably for the best but publishing your source doesn't really eliminate attacks. It just makes the attack and response--offense versus defense--cycle faster. This is good but it's not perfect. Closed source, security by obscurity, is not as good because it's attack and response cycle is slower. But the main thing that stinks here is becoming too reliant on any one method of solving a problem.

But aside from that quibble, I mostly agree: favoring open source and avoiding proprietary solutions is best.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 7 Oct 05

re: 7. Free the Maps - "Open source hackers are concerned about building services on Google Maps because Google owns the underlying data" No, most of the data is licensed - from DigitalGlobe, from NAVTEQ, from Tele Atlas... That in turn, we understand, limits how hackers can use the data.

Contrast that with Microsoft's TerraServer USA, which offers public domain data. You can do whatever you want. And, now Microsoft is looking to expand the data it publishes. See:,-State,-Locals-via-TerraServer.html

Posted by: Adena Schutzberg on 7 Oct 05

I'd add that I think we'll see the emergence of free development software along the lines of the current PLM that's gotten some press lately. We already have an open source 3D package in Blender (still primitive by many standards but still significant) and have the makings of a move to open source CAD (plus Alibre now has a "free" solid-modeler). Those are on the inside. Now if you look on the outside to something like the built-in tools Croquet offers and to the recent buzz around OpenOffice, there may be some standards emerging fairly soon that put a basic PLM package in the hands of average users.

What might this mean? Well, for one, imagine if someone designs a product but needs help with engineering and manufacturing and marketing. The ability to come together on a free, open source development platform that minimized confusion would be a blessing; would also facilitate the growth in niche product development.

If gamers can form globe-spanning teams to create mods and total conversions which have little or no monetary incentive associated with them, if coders can collaborate on something like Linux, is there really any doubt people would come together for this purpose if the tools were readily available? The biggest hitch imo is trust; but I don't doubt someone will come up with an acceptable solution afterward.

Posted by: csven on 7 Oct 05

Danger Stevens wrote: "...'Free as in speech, not as in beer'. It's about liberty to own, modify, use without restriction. It doesn't mean there aren't costs involved, it's just that there is a transparency that allows for greater freedom."

Danger, thanks for your clarification. The advantages of transparency, shared authorship, empowerment, and rapid evolution all make the costs involved seem worth it. I'm asking about the most equitable way to share those costs. Knowing little about the GNU or other "free software" groups, can you help me understand current thinking about this?

Posted by: David Foley on 7 Oct 05

Ethan, one of us should follow up with a post about projects that already exist to address some of these concepts. I don't think there's anything on the list that hasn't been in the air for a while, so I'm fairly certain we could find some interesting stuff if we could find the time to poke around.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 7 Oct 05

On number 12, Academic Publishing - since it's been something I've spent my day job at for nearly the past ten years, I know a little bit about it... It may also shed some light on the others.

The proposals for "free" academic publishing go back to at least the founding of Ginsparg's e-print archive for physics, now at It's a good model for handling of preprints, gray literature, conference proceedings. But it misses the important issue of "peer review" - which is also one of the things Wikipedia has had a bit of trouble with, sorting out how to do real quality control.

Given that peer review is a fundamental aspect of the current structure of science (and I assume the rest of academia as well), proposals to dismantle it, which have been near-practical for at least the last 10 years, have not gone very far. There are a large number of very small journals that are "free" in one or another of the senses, but anybody that does peer review has fundamental costs in information management that seem to be impossible to displace - on the order of $1000 per article, at minimum.

These costs seem to derive from the need to get several people to actually read an article at a critical level. The costs are not so much in the reading (few reviewers are paid) but in the management of the communications with reviewers, who need to feel valued, and whose responses need to be evaluated. No automated system for doing this has come anywhere close to what's needed - it requires direct human oversight by knowledgeable people (editors and their support staff) at least some of whom do need to be paid.

Then there is the copy-editing and reformatting of articles into "archival" documents. Is this necessary? Stefan Harnad argues not, but people seem to be willing to pay for consistently structured documents. The scientific literature is so large that organizing it neatly into subject-area journals with regular issues seems to be the only way people can handle it. Maybe Google will come along and solve this problem completely for us, but so far there's been nothing really close.

Then there's the "author pays" issue - somebody has to pay for peer review (as above), and if journal articles are to be free to readers, then perhaps authors should pay. Two problems here - it starts to resemble a vanity press with the slippery slope that implies, and while it may open up publishing to readers, it may close it to authors who cannot afford the peer review and publication charges. Nevertheless, we do have many journals experimenting along these lines.

In other words, I very much doubt academic publishing will look much different in 20 years than it does now.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 7 Oct 05

Wales was also down the street at MIT where I saw him last week. Got to ask him a question about wikis and news and he referred me to

Since then, I've also looked at wikibooks and found their entry on how to energy conservation pretty good ( Even added a few suggestions but they didn't seem to show up when next I looked. That page should be mirrored on the bright green wiki. (Replication of effort is a serious problem in the "free" universe it seems.)

I'd like to see somebody working on free literacy modules in all media, including cell phone and word of mouth. That seems to me to be the sine qua non for using the free encyclopedia, dictionary, books....

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Oct 05

give all softwares

Posted by: devang shah on 8 Oct 05

Why not free the voice communications?

Posted by: Chris Evans on 8 Oct 05

Very good article. Thank you. All this relates to two amazing and important fronts: freedom as in its intangible, but still worth working towards form...but also, making sure that anyone who wants to further society (i.e. anyone who feels altruism) is not restrained by the lack of capabilities society has at their disposal. One of the great crimes of our world is denying those less fortunate the ability to pursue their potential selves. It's depriving someone a touch of their humanity. So let us at least insure every kid has access to that textbook.

Posted by: gray b. on 12 Oct 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg