Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
In the early days of the Internet, everything was free. That is, all information posted online was available to everyone free of charge. Of course, in those days there wasn't much information available that would have warranted a fee or a paid subscription. The brief information we found in those days was generally worth just about what we paid for it: nothing.
As the years went by and technology improved, many commercial companies found methods of providing more and more information online. The investment required to provide this information quickly escalated: paid authors, web servers, high speed Internet connectivity, disk farms, and more, and they all cost money. Those who have made the investments necessary to provide highly relevant information expect to be reimbursed for their expenses. Most also expect to make a modest profit in the same manner that newspapers and magazines have done for more than a century. The world of Internet publishing is no different from that of traditional publishing: the expenses are real, and bills must be paid.
I am amazed that some folks still believe “everything on the Internet should be free.” Those who believe this are ignoring basic facts of business life. The problem is compounded when the discussion turns to the publishing of public domain information, such as birth records, marriage information, death records, pension application files, and more.
Recent comments posted to message boards, blogs, and elsewhere decry the “loss” of public domain information. Some misguided individuals even seem to believe that, if a commercial company publishes information from the public domain and then posts their own copyright on the web pages, the information somehow ceases to be public domain. Such assumptions are false and misguided.
In fact, information that was free in the past remains free today and will always be free. In the United States, this is dictated by Federal law. This has always been true, and will always be true unless Congress changes the laws. Until then, public domain information will remain free to all of us.
Thanks to this Federal law, we have always been able to look at public domain information free of charge. All we ever had to do was to travel to the location where the information is available, be it in Washington, D.C. or some other archive. The information is free although we might have to pay a modest fee for photocopying. If we don't want to pay a photocopying fee, we always have the option of transcribing it by hand. That free access is not changed by the simple act of some web site placing the information online. By Federal law, that information will continue to be available free of charge to anyone and everyone who wishes to travel to the location where the information resides. There is absolutely no change to this free access.
What IS changing is that we now have more methods of obtaining that information. While we can continue to access it at no charge in the old-fashioned way, we now have new avenues – specifically, online. Companies that seek out this free information and then invest a few hundred thousand dollars in scanners, servers, data centers, high speed (and expensive) connections to the Internet backbones, programmers, support personnel, and all the other expenses are allowed to charge a fee for that access. However, the old-fashioned, in-person free access remains exactly the same as before: free.
Let me draw an analogy: water is free. If I want water, I can go to the local river or lake with a bucket and get all I want at no charge. Another option is for me to place a barrel in my yard to capture rainwater. I have always been able to obtain free water, and I can still do so today, should I wish to do so. However, if I elect to use a more convenient method, the local water company spends money laying pipes under the street and across my lawn to my house. The local water company then pays a lot of money maintaining those pipes, pumps. building reservoirs or water towers (or both), buying and installing replacement pipes as needed, and similar expenses. I then have to pay a fee for that higher level of service. The same is true here: the information remains free, but we expect to pay a fee for the expensive "pipes" that deliver that information to our homes for our convenience.
For me and for most other Americans, it is cheaper to pay for online access than it is to take a trip to Washington, D.C. or to Salt Lake City or to some other library or repository as I used to do. Using one of the new online services actually REDUCES my expenses. I am very thankful that commercial services make the information available for a modest fee so that I no longer have to pay exorbitant travel expenses. (Have you priced automobile gasoline or airline tickets lately?)
I am stunned that some people apparently still expect a company to spend money gathering free records, spend money scanning it, spend money building data centers, spend money buying servers and disk farms, spend money on high-speed Internet connectivity, spend money for programmers, spend money on customer support personnel, and spend money on advertising to let you know that the information is available, and then expect that same company to make the information available free of charge!
One simple fact remains: those who spend money making information available to all of us are allowed to recover their expenses plus a reasonable profit. Those who wish to not pay for these “pipes” are free to obtain their information in the same manner that we have been obtaining it for decades. If you don’t care for the new option, simply use the old method. You are free to choose whatever you want, but please don’t complain about new, more convenient options that many of us appreciate.