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Information Wants to Be Free

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"As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master."
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Commissioner Pravin Lal, "U.N. Declaration of Rights"

Alice has something she wants to share with the world. A scientific advancement, most often. She's going to go public and make the world, perhaps, a little better. Maybe it's the cure for a disease, a solution for world hunger or the key to fusion energy. Maybe it's of alien origin. In any case, Alice doesn't want to limit access to it through copyrights or patents or anything of the sort, but... uh oh, Bob doesn't like it. You see, he has ties to a big business that stands to lose a lot if that invention is released to the general public. If only Alice wasn't so into this "free for everybody" nonsense, they could do some business exploiting the oppressed masses like he has been doing with much success so far. Having questioned Alice about potential confidants, the decision is made, that she must die and her research with her.

It is the quest of the heroes to save Alice's precious information and release it before the Big Bad can usurp it or destroy it. In the process, they may find out there were those with similar discoveries who were Killed to Uphold the Masquerade.

In the real world it's usually not this bad, generally the other party will sue to get an injunction to stop disclosure, and, in some cases where it involves government secrets, people get prosecuted, as has happened to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The slogan "Information wants to be free" was coined by writer Stewart Brand, invoked against limiting access to information by governmental control.

Plots following this trope in 20 Minutes into the Future (or Like Reality, Unless Noted) settings tend to end with the villain realizing he Can't Stop The Signal even if he manages to stop the idealistic character.

Super-Trope to Withholding the Cure. Compare Digital Piracy Is Okay and Keeping Secrets Sucks. Contrast Digital Piracy Is Evil and Endangering News Broadcast (when an info should be made secret from the public for a good reason). This trope is one of several reasons why the Streisand Effect exists.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Sand Land concerns the efforts of the main characters to find an oasis in a world that's nothing but desert. They're opposed by the king and his government who control the only other source of water.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: This is the reason for Laughing Man's struggle. A scientist found an effective cure for cyberbrain sclerosis (a phenomenon where people with electronic brain implants would have parts of their organic brains harden, essentially the future version of alzheimers and AIDS), but various people with ties to nanobot companiesnote  suppressed the discovery (they didn't outright kill the scientist, just discredited him and arranged a media blackout) so that they could continue selling expensive nanobot treatments which (at the time) were much less effective.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn: This is the main conflict concerning Laplace's Box, a mysterious object rumored to hold something with the power to destroy the Earth Federation. At the beginning of the Universal Century, a group of conspirators blew up the original constitution along with the first Prime Minister on his space station. The new version created afterwards lost two of it's articles, and when the original, unedited copy of the constitution ended up in the hands of Syam Vist, he blackmailed the Federation for power and wealth. See, 70 years later came the rise of Zeon and the One Year War and one of the articles seemingly justifies the original philosophic background of said Zeon. Now the Federation and the various Zeon remnant groups are scrambling to get their hands on it because in the Federation's hands, it would be destroyed to maintain the status quo whereas in Zeon's hands, it would grant their ideology a dangerous level of perceived legitimacy and might incite the colonies to rebel and start another devastating war. In the end, the contents are released to the public by a third party in a way that not only denies it to Zeon as a propaganda weapon but also discredits the extremist parts of their ideology, putting an end to the successive Zeon insurgencies of the past decades for good.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Hiccup the Useless: On top of being completely honest with Chief Mogadon, Hiccup thinks that the Chief could be trusted with the secrets of dragon taming as a means of solidifying their treaty. While Stoick is against this, citing the kind of danger having more than one Viking tribe with this secret, Hiccup argues that pretty much everybody knows about them at this point and that it would be better if they taught him how to properly do it rather than him trying to beat them into submission like the Outcasts and Berserkers do.
  • Magic School Days: The C-plot folks eventually start learning all about magic via careful infiltration, and manage to keep the wool over the eyes of the Aurors for long enough that they get all the proof they need. Then they release it. On CNN.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Antitrust: The Big Bad Corrupt Corporate Executive acquires code for his Killer App through multiple crimes, up to and including murder. The good guys, upon exposing him, release the source code online, accompanied by an e-mail saying, "Human knowledge belongs to the world".
  • Johnny Mnemonic tells us about a man with a cybernetic brain implant designed to store information. The information he's hired to keep turns out to be the cure for a global disease, while Big Pharma thugs want to steal his head so the cure won't be given to the public. On the flip side, the underground resistance fighting the corporations want to share the information for free.
  • The Saint (1997): The female lead has invented cold fusion, thus solving the world's energy problems. Naturally, many folks want this information quashed.
  • TRON: Handled with all the subtlety of a speeding truck, making it another example of Older Than They Think. Dillinger and Master Control locked down all information and user access on our side of the screen, and it took the form of a totalitarian state on the other side of the screen. The User-Believer Programs frequently speak of their longing for a "free system" while Sark and Master control speak of "control" and "order." The lockdown is also why Alan and Lora decide to team up with Flynn in order to get Tron online in the first place.
  • TRON: Legacy: Sam Flynn stages an undercover operation to release the source code of Encom's operating system to the public. He's the controlling-interest stockholder of the company, it's legal for him to do so.
  • Unknown (2011): The assassins' goal is to prevent the open-source release of a new variety of corn on behalf of agribusiness giants.


  • 12 Miles Below:
    • Keith's initial goal is to recreate the Internet, connecting all the clans and cities across the world so that they can share information and finally make true progress towards the future. Of course, many of those clans and cities make quite a bit of money off of secrets, so maybe not everyone would be happy with this if they actually thought it would work.
    • A more modern version is referenced. Software past the '90s is basically impossible due to the "DRM wall," the point where everyone started making their programs need license keys to work. Since there's no way to get them from corporations that have been dead for millennia, the software is useless. Windows 95 is considered advanced software technology because of this.
  • Cory Doctorow:
    • Information Doesnt Want To Be Free discusses how attempts to prevent copying are actually damaging to the producer and the consumer, only benefiting the "lock makers".
    • Printcrime: A corrupt, corporatist regime tries to suppress the use of a new type of 3D printer. They are about as successful as you would probably expect.
  • "The Dead Past", by Isaac Asimov: Director Araman's primary duty is to avert this trope, but Nimmo went ahead and distributed Foster's design for home-built chronoscopes to six different publishers early. Each of the publishers have probably sent it to other scientists to verify the information. The possibility of everyone having one in their home is considered a virtual certainty. Subverted in that if Director Araman had just told Ninmo why the invention was suppressed Ninmo would have stopped it himself, as the chronoscope could allow you to see anything anywhere only a second in the past, destroying all privacy.
  • Cradle Series: Emriss Silentborn, a sacred tree who gained sapience, spent her long lifetime trying to improve the world. By the time she was a Herald, she had invented Dream tablets, a Magi Tech internet, and was in the middle of constructing a Portal Network, all so that people could share information and travel wherever they chose. Three different Monarchs worked together to kill her. "Free, unlimited knowledge is a threat to those who hoard secrets." However, that was not the end for her; her Remnant collected all the Dream tablets she had left behind, reconstructing her consciousness and eventually allowing her to ascend to Monarch herself. Now she focuses on spreading a Common Tongue so that everyone can communicate. The other Monarchs largely dismiss her as harmless, but the Abidan reports note that she has merely changed tactics, not goals. The ability to cooperate is often more dangerous than direct knowledge.
  • The Dispossessed: The third-act conflict centers around Shevek's discovery of the physics needed to create instantaneous intergalactic communication. He wishes for this technology to be made available to all, but knows that A-Io will attempt to patent and sell it, Thu will seize it for the state and impose strict controls, and even his anarchist homeworld Anarres stands a good chance of rejecting it out of ingrained custom. His eventual solution is to give it to the Earth ambassador after negotiating with her to make sure it will be given freely to all. Later novels in the same universe indicates that this technology is universal, so he succeeded.
  • The Expanse: Leviathan Wakes has this conflict as a major element in the story. Holden firmly believes in this trope, though bad things tend to happen when he follows through on it. He causes Mars to go to war with the Belt and Earth to go to war with Mars by releasing incomplete information.
  • "The Green Leopard Plague", by Walter Jon Williams, (available here) features a main character uncovering the history of how the invention of photosynthesis in humans to solve world hunger was suppressed by regimes who used hunger as a weapon.
  • The Kingston Cycle: Invoked by Zelinde after inventing a revolutionary wind power generator. The Crown orders that Zelinde turn over the design, so Zelinde complies, but sends copies to every newspaper in the city, destroying the fantastically valuable royal monopoly on power.
  • The Lost Symbol has the antagonist trying to destroy all evidence of scientific research proving Noetic Science.
  • Newsflesh: In the backstory, the unauthorized release of an experimental virus designed to cure the common cold is one of the factors leading to a Zombie Apocalypse.
  • "Think Twice", an Ayn Rand short story, has an inventor who wants to exploit his invention as he sees fit, while his financial backer wants to give it away to the public essentially for free. The backer is later murdered, and the prime suspect is the inventor.
  • When Women Were Dragons: Critical research about dragons is being suppressed by the U.S. government as it concerns an "un-American" topic. Prominent dragon researchers, like Dr. Henry Gantz, are blacklisted from academia and slapped with fines and the threat of prison time. However, when the dragons return, the scientists start to gain traction and make their findings known.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: A running theme is the security vs. privacy debate, as well as the control vs. freedom of information debate. Interestingly, despite Whedon being liberal, the show mostly comes down in favor of the security and control of information sides. The message seems to be that it's easy to demand freedom of information when you're not responsible for its consequences.
  • Castle: One episode centers around a mysterious diamond. It turns out it's a lab-created diamond, huge and flawless, and capable of putting diamond mines out of business. Except for the fact that the process is owned by a diamond corporation that bought the patent to squash it. The people who want the information to be free are mostly concerned with letting people know there is an alternative to the brutality of diamond mining, while the diamond corporation wants to maintain their monopoly. Then there's a third party at play the original creator of the process, who sold the rights before he realized exactly what he'd discovered, and his wife, the one who's desperate to keep the secret at all costs, because the diamond corporation would destroy the couple's lives for allowing the process to get out.
  • The Lone Gunmen:
    • "Like Water for Gasoline": Inverted. Langley, Byers and Frohike are trying to find an experimental prototype water-powered car before an agent of an oil company, who presumably intends to destroy it. It turns out that the agent wants to see it mass-manufactured, and its original creator hid it away because he realized that freedom from oil would ultimately mean more cars and more consumption (a reference to Jevons' Paradox) - his "miracle" would accelerate corporate devastation of the environment rather than stop it.
    • Played straight any other time. They are three underground journalists who allied themselves with Fox Mulder and not only work on exposing the alien conspiracy, but many of the more mundane unsavory dealings of corporations and government.
  • Sliders: One episode has the heroes hit a world close to ours but suffocating under a dictatorship. They manage to distribute a copy of the otherwise-unfamilar Bill of Rights by outright email spam. Though it's hard to believe that there would be public access to the Internet in J Edgar Hoover's fascist America, or that he'd manage to repress all copies held outside the USA.
  • Touched by an Angel: One episode revolves around a retired engineer who develops a device that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen with only a small input of sunlight. He sells it to the president of an energy company, who promptly destroys the prototype and all the plans so that he can keep making a killing on oil.

  • Classical Mythology: The Titan Prometheus stole the secret of making fire from the Olympian gods and, as you could say, put it in the public domain for all mortals to use. Zeus was not amused. (He got better though.) Incredibly, this makes this trope Older Than Feudalism.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Battletech: The Inner Sphere was falling apart under the increasing strain of the Forever War and Lost Technology pushing things back to the Industrial Age in places. Then the Grey Death Legion finds a Star League memory core on a planet they was supposed to be given — and realizes they were framed for war crimes specifically to try to stop them from finding it. They download it, make a bunch of copies, and give them to anyone who will take them.
  • Hunter: The Vigil: Network Zero is a compact driven by the belief that the public has a fundamental right to know the truth about the ghoulies, ghosties, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, and its members go to great trouble to record the activities of the dwellers in the shadows, compare notes, and release the information into the net. They rarely get anywhere — a combination of public disbelief and the work of the multiple conspiracies and monsters that puppeteer society does a quick job of hiding most of their work — but they keep trying.
  • In Nomine: This is the center of the conflict between the angels of Revelation and the demons of Secrets. The Archangel Litheroy believes that no part of God's creation should remain hidden away or obscure, and he and his angels labor tirelessly to uncover secrets, untangle conspiracies, and make the wonders of the world visible to all. The Demon Prince Alaemon instead views knowledge as a resource to be carefully hoarded and judiciously spent, and his minions work to bury away all knowledge of themselves and anything important to them behind layers of untruth, misdirection and deceit.
  • Mage: The Ascension: The Virtual Adepts practically breathe this trope. They do include a variant on that theme. The Cypherpunks believe that information doesn't want to be free; it wants to flow, travelling to the places where it is most useful. Truly free information would be like a flood, where the user is overwhelmed by massive amounts of information that is not relevant to him/her at the time. Meanwhile, information that is useful could be drowned out by the information that isn't.
  • Shadowrun: Runners can make good money off pirate radio operators, underground rebellions, or rival governments/corporations from missions involving digging up and airing some corp or government's secret dirty laundry.

    Video Games 
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty: Emma Emmerich explains that Arsenal Gear's AI, GW, is programmed to censor and filter information that it feels people do not need to know because information flows too freely and can quickly be filled up with garbage information that people don't need to know. Along with stopping the terrorists, you're also tasked in destroying the AI so that freedom of information remains free and not censored. You fail on that second part.
  • Octopath Traveler: This is part of Cyrus's theme, with his fervent belief that knowledge is to be taught, not hoarded. He does hesitate when he gets his hands on a Tome of Eldritch Lore and contemplates burning it due to how dangerous the knowledge within... Then decides any knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands anyway, so that's no reason to compromise his principles on this one.
  • PAYDAY 2: Inverted in the Big Oil heist. A scientist has managed to discover the secret to cold fusion, and the crew is contracted by the Elephant to steal his only working prototype, as fusion energy would spell the end for the oil companies that sponsor the Elephant's career. After the heist is over, the Elephant says that the engine will be safeguarded and mass-produced by the oil companies "when it becomes profitable to do so."
  • [PROTOTYPE]: Dr. Alex Mercer would have released the secrets of the Blacklight Virus to all of New York City. Blackwatch and its partner, Gentek, weren't about to let that happen. In this case, however, the secret-holder's motives were not at all altruistic, the ultimate goal being simply to become too dangerous to eliminate, get up the nose of the former employers, and failing that, go out with one hell of a bang.
  • Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space: Parodied. In "Moai Better Blues", when Sam calls out the C.O.P.S.'s questionable internet research on Easter Island, Bluster Blaster retorts "INFORMATION WANTS TO BE WRONG!"
  • Shadowrun Returns: An underlying theme in Dragonfall, and one that's played with a bit. Although there is a faction in the game that offers to pay you for nearly any corporate secrets you can get your hands on, and promises to make any such knowledge public thanks to their nearly-fanatical adherence to this trope, the player is forced to seriously question whether or not some of the information they recover SHOULD be shared at all. Given that the data they can share can involve things such as research notes on genocidal blood magic or how to subject someone to a Fate Worse than Death as an enslaved barely-living weapon, the trope winds up generally being subverted.

  • Follower: Drs. Calway and Wolzarski see a news broadcast that exposes the casualties of a claimed chemical spill in Montpelier, Vermont as to have actually been caused by a violent military crackdown on a peaceful protest. It's implied the anchor and her accomplices are arrested or killed for this.
  • Freefall: Parodied, as the trope name is the catchphrase of resident Robotic Mad Scientist Dvorak. First he accidentally invents robot poison and uploads the schematics to the internet. Then someone points out how it be used to kill robots without a trace, and then he uploads that to the internet. It turns out that after his owner died, he mechanized his corpse for a Day of the Dead celebration. Which wouldn't have been too bad, except he uploaded the plans for that as well. It was very memorable.
  • Girl Genius: Taken to the next level. The Incorruptible Library believes very strongly in freedom of information, which is why they are one of the strongest forces against tyranny in what is otherwise a Crapsack World.
    Raid Leader: After all, to read what you want—
    Everyone: YOU HAVE TO BE FREE!
  • Genocide Man: Used in the backstory, where various hackers that firmly believed this released a lot of information in bio-modification as Open Source. The various genocides and acts of terrorism that followed which made use of the technology that was released led to the development of the United Nations GENOCIDE Project, which not only believes against this trope, but inverts You Cannot Kill An Idea to the most brutal extreme.
  • The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!: When Dean Martin steals Jean Poule's research data to make a monster of his own, he justifies the theft by saying, "But information wants to be free! I had a public duty to steal it!"
  • Paranatural: Subverted for laughs when Lisa buys and sells information at the Student Store.
    Lisa: Information may want to be free, sure, but then, so do most prisoners.
  • Schlock Mercenary: Early on, the mercenaries are attacked repeatedly by the F'sherl Ganni Gatekeepers, due to experimenting with (and holding the patent for) the 'Teraport', a method of Faster-Than-Light Travel that far outstrips the unwieldy Portal Network that got the F'sherl Ganni their name as well as discovering that said Portal Network also works as a series of duplicators allowing the F'sherl Ganni to torture clones of their MILLIONS of users for information then kill them. Finally, Admiral Breya Andreyasn figures out that there's a way to stop the attacks: Release the Teraport into Open Source, essentially spreading the technology freely across the galaxy, and removing the Gatekeepers' reason to specifically target Targon's Toughs.
    • This has the unfortunate side effect of starting a LOT of wars.
    • During the HTRN takedown arc, Petey quotes the trope name when letting the battleplate Popagai know that the Fleetmind warship Plaited Daisies was broadcasting their communications on an open channel so that Tagon was also in the loop.

    Real Life 
  • The phrase is attributed to Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, whose original quote covered both sides' motives:
    "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."
  • Anonymous can be considered this.
    • WikiLeaks can also be considered this.
    • Edward Snowden was willing to go to jail because of this belief.
    • Bring up the name Julian Assange in most free speech circles. You'll hit a Berserk Button for sure due to how they feel he's been treated.
  • However, is the inversion of this; information is used for slightly safer purposes than the above two.
  • The entire Free Software/Open Source movement lives by this trope.
  • Academic paywalls are (obviously) large opponents of this trope.
  • The Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, Common Crawl, and Library of Alexandria. Notable in that while the former three function more like the Library of Congress for the internet, the latter two contain millions of documents usable for any purpose, the Library of Alexandria including (somehow) a trove of old Russian passports.
  • Taking things a step further is Defense Distributed, which produces and hosts CAD files for making fully functional 3D-printed guns. The centerpiece of their project is the "WikiWeapon," which is an open-source handgun made almost entirely out of plastic.
  • Benjamin Franklin intentionally never patented any of his inventions: "as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously"
  • This is very much zig-zagged in Real Life and is the source of many heated debates. Indeed, as some experts argue, it opens up a can of worms, such as whether this trope is in practice desirable, let alone achievable or whether unhindered access to information is itself a good thing.
  • After Volvo invented the three-point seat belt in 1959, they allowed other car manufacturers to use it for free, believing that increasing the safety of all cars should come before one company's bottom line.
  • applies this trope to repair instructions for just about everything, but especially electronics.
  • Elon Musk cites this as his reason for releasing the patents on Tesla Motor Company's battery-technology into the public domain.
    Musk: If we're all in a ship together, and the ship has some holes in it, and we're sort of bailing water out of it, and we have a great design for a bucket, then even if we're bailing out way better than everyone else, we should probably still share the bucket design.
  • The Streisand Effect is largely this. Once people learn that information is being kept from them, they become greatly motivated to not only access it but also share that information as much as humanly possible, even if it's something they know they would otherwise not care about (such as a photo of Barbra Streisand's home, which inspired the name for the effect when her attempts to censor it made everyone want to see it).
    John Gilmore: The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.