Wikipedia On Hard Copy
For the first time ever, Wikipedia (yes, that Wikipedia — the free encyclopaedia) is available in a more tangible form than bits and bytes. A collection of almost 2000 articles from Wikipedia has been put on CD, billed as Wikipedia 0.5.
Of course, the CD isn't priced too affordably for those of us in the third world. Without shipping, the CD itself costs USD13.90. Shipping within the US costs another USD1.54, while shipping to Malaysia will burn a hole worth USD3.01 in your pocket.
For a Malaysian, that works out to almost RM60 for a collection of articles already available online and for free. Why would you want the CD? If you really wanted those articles in hard form, you could go ahead and burn them to a CD yourself — this is actually legal. (Actually, you are encouraged and allowed to download an image of the CD and burn it yourself — the images are hosted on the website.)
Basically, what you are paying for is the assurance that the articles were selected and properly checked to make sure they aren't crap. You could wade through the immense pile of crap that is Wikipedia (because let's face it, that's what it is — a mountain of crap with several gems to be found) to harvest 2,000 articles worth reading, but would it be worth your time?
Another consideration, of course, is that much of what you are paying will end up in the pockets of the Wikimedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia. If you're the charitable sort, you won't mind paying RM60 for getting a high-quality collection of encyclopaedia articles when much of that RM60 goes to supporting the worthwhile cause that made those articles come into being.
Still, I bet that more than a few entrepreneurial pirates will soon be hitting the streets with Wikipedia CDs to complement their illicit Encarta and Britannica CDs. The only difference is that they'll actually be selling something that's completely legal, and actually encouraged.
Being a Wikipedia editor, should I be miffed that other people are mooching off my own hard work (one of my favourite articles that I've worked hard on, Parliament of Malaysia, is included on the CD)? After all, the French company Linterweb will be getting a cut of the earnings (if I'm not mistaken) for helping with the logistics, and those pirates will be earning pure profit on my work.
Nevertheless, I'm happy. Any earnings that go back to the Wikimedia Foundation will support the cause I've signed up for. And indirectly, even the earnings that go back to the pirates are supporting the cause of free information.
After all, what is the point of Wikipedia? To get information into the hands of every person on the planet — to democratise it, if we want to use those buzzwords that journalists and marketers are so fond of.
Surely you don't expect people to do the grunt work of democratising information for free. In the end, market motives will still play an important role in getting information (and thus, power, if we agree with the oft-quoted statement of Lord Acton) into the hands of the world. Those pirates are putting CDs in the hands of people who would otherwise balk at paying RM60 for the same CD — and why begrudge them a little incentive to spread the information?
Of course, it would be nice for me to get my hands on some of that money. But the world isn't fair. I think it's justice enough that maybe, just maybe, because I had too much spare time on my hands, someone out there will be able to read a proper encyclopaedia article about the Parliament of Malaysia for almost no cost.