Copyright 2002 Robert G. Ferrell

The Price

Far out on the edge of the world, in the tiny kingdom of Avar, lived a bard. He was one of the last of his kind in an ancient and honorable profession. The bards of Avar travelled the kingdom, collecting and passing along the oral history of its peoples, cultures, and traditions. This bard, whom his parents had named Pfanig, was blessed with near-perfect powers of recall, as indeed were all of the best bards. He could recite without flaw long passages relating to the lineage of kings, the myriad herbs of Avar and their various uses, and the family histories of all the major Avarian clans.

He could relate all that was known about the beasts of the field and forest, the birds of the air, and the fish in the sea. He was, in effect, a walking, talking reference library of all that was Avarian.

The people of Avar relied upon bards such as Pfanig to settle disputes about matters of historical record, trace their ancestry, educate themselves and their children, and indoctrinate new arrivals concerning the laws and traditions of their adopted nation. While there were both barristers and judges in Avar, the bards in their capacity as Lawspeakers were the interpreters of all laws, and the final arbiters of disputes arising from discrepancies in conflicting laws, regulations, ordinances, policies, proclamations, and dicta.

Bards spent much of their lives shuttling from village to village, collecting stories from the old and incorporating them into the ever-growing body of Avarian lore. A bard never charged for his services; the information he carried was derived from all the peoples of Avar and belonged to them, not to the bard himself. Bards were beloved of the Avarians, however, and never wanted for food, drink, lodging, or clothing. People in each village vied with one another for the privilege of hosting the bard whenever he visited, for to host a bard was to ensure the continuation of the oral record of their families and beliefs.

One fine summer day a stranger arrived in Avar, who went by the name of Wipo. He was a barrister trained in the distant land of Tort, and he brought with him an insatiable lust for gold. There was gold to be had in Avar to be sure, for many of the world's finest artisans and most successful merchants called the tiny kingdom their home. The bards preached, as they had for many generations, that the accumulation of wealth unshared was a waste of resources and a sin unto the natural order, so no one was truly impoverished in the entire kingdom. Those upon whom fate had smiled shared freely with the unfortunate, so that hunger and homelessness were unknown throughout the land. This axiom did not prevent some Avarians from acquiring great wealth, so long as they shared some of that wealth with the needy in their villages. It was a stable system, and one that had worked well in Avar for as long as anyone (including the bards) could remember.

Wipo looked around at the trusting, basically socialistic culture of Avar and was disturbed. While it was obviously possible to gather gold unto oneself here, it was apparent to him that the wealthy had expended far too much effort to achieve their riches. They had ignored many opportunities to capitalize on economic circumstances and to expand their markets. They doled out charity to the poor that could better be invested in root crop futures. In short, they were clueless about the principles of robust commerce. He, Wipo, would make it his life's work to bring about needed reforms and drag the sleepy little kingdom into the modern age, for his, that is its, own good.

He set out upon this noble crusade by standing in the market square of each village, delivering his message of capitalistic fervor using passionate, podium-pounding polemic. At first the villagers regarded Wipo with amusement, if they regarded him at all. A few of them stopped on their way to market their radishes or returning from having new plow blades forged at the smithy to listen respectfully to this passionate orator. Most of them smiled tolerantly, though his arguments were totally foreign to them, and slipped off into the lush greenery of the park as soon as the opportunity presented itself--for though they could not agree with nor even fully comprehend his message, they did not wish to appear inattentive or unwilling to listen to it. But they had crops to tend and families to raise, and so after paying him all the heed they felt necessary for politeness, they returned to their lives unswayed by the lure of high finance.

In each village where Wipo spoke, however, there was at least one person who stayed for the entire lecture. As he or she listened to the silvered promises of wealth and a life of ease, and felt their pulse race at the prospect of gaining victory in the battle for commercial domination of the marketplace, a change gradually overtook their kindly features. Their eyes began to glow with the fierce light of competition; their hearts pounded with the desire for increased market share, and their skin glinted with the sheen of perspiration from grinding business rivals into the free market dirt. They came away with a new purpose and a new spring in their step.

As these enlightened few returned to their familiar lives, they felt for the first time unfulfilled by their pastoral existences. Living and working largely for the common good was not enough to satisfy their newly awakened cravings for personal success. They began to search for ways to ensure their rise to the ranks of Avar's wealthiest citizens. They opened large stands whose prices undercut those of their competitors. They paid farmers to supply produce only to them, thereby cornering markets. They embarked on massive advertising campaigns, plastering their self-promoting posters on every public wall. And most significantly, they began to think on the new concept of intellectual property.

By tradition and long practice, every person in Avar had a responsibility to offer up his story to a bard for incorporation into the collective historical record of Avarian society. In return, every person had the right to hear the entire history without restraint or omission. All information was available to all citizens, whenever a bard was available to convey it to them. All they had to do was ask.

The enlightened ones, who had taken to calling themselves the "Society for Commerce," looked at this tradition and saw great profit for themselves in it, as well as great potential for control. He who controls access to information controls the economy, they reasoned, and he who controls the economy stands to gain most from it. They began to agitate for the right to sell their own parts of the history of Avar, rather than to supply it to a bard for free distribution. "What we do and how we do it is information that belongs to us by inherent right," they argued, "And it is wrong that we should allow others to make use of that information without compensating us."

This was such a novel approach that few paid them any heed in the beginning. Most citizens of Avar simply ignored the issues, although a few of the more conservative elders decreed that history which must be bought was not history that needed to be preserved. A few Avarians went along with the Society for Commerce, however, and paid them for the right to hear (although not repeat) their part of the history of Avar. Since the Society were anxious to sell their stories to as many people as possible, they began to elaborate upon and eventually blatantly to fabricate details of their exploits, in order to increase the marketability of their product. Absolute verity had always formed the backbone of Avarian oral history up until now; no one would dream of attempting to "dress up" the facts in order to make themselves appear in a more positive light. History was history, and must be related as it happened, so that posterity might pass its judgments on the actions therein, and, perhaps more importantly, so that mistakes made in the past might be avoided by future generations. "Those who forget the past," said one Avarian sage, "are doomed to repeat it."

Now that the precedent had been set, however, support for the idea of individual ownership of information began to take hold in the popular imagination. The bards found it increasingly difficult to convince people to relate their stories or accounts of local happenings without some form of recompense. Since bards had no source of income other than the kindness of the citizens whom they served, they had nothing to offer those who demanded payment except other parts of the history of Avar. Thus was the age-old system of free exchange of information destroyed, since neither the Avarian people nor their bards could any longer afford to relate the lore of Avar for free. It became a strict pay-as-you-go society, until there was nothing left that carried no price tag.

Even a peaceful and self-absorbed culture such as the Avarians had always possessed was occasionally faced with the prospect of war from less civilized and more belligerent neighbors. In the past, Avar had always managed to defeat the invaders, and carefully preserved all details of strategies and tactics employed in the oral history of the bards, for free dissemination to the military leaders charged with defending the homeland in future conflicts. One such invading army now stood precariously on the borders of Avar, bristling with spears and engines of war, determined to ravage the kingdom of its wealth and take its denizens as slaves. The generals now called upon the bards to recount the histories of past wars so that they might formulate an effective strategy against the aggressors.

The bard who answered this call was Pfanig. Although he had reluctantly adopted the pay-for-play system out of economic necessity, he felt to the very core of his being that it was wrong, and wished fervently that things could return to the former, more honorable system. He tried to offer up his knowledge for free to the military leaders, out of a sense of duty to his country. They, or rather their bureaucratic infrastructure, would have none of it. Bids must be issued, contracts drawn up, oversight committees appointed, and quality control reviews conducted. Hours turned into days, and days into weeks. Meanwhile, the capital city of Avara was under full siege, with more enemy troops arriving on the borders daily.

When at last Pfanig was allowed to recite for the Avarian military leadership, he found that, while his memory for dates and names was as sharp as ever, he could not easily distinguish between factual information and the embellishments of those who wanted to paint history as favoring their own reputations. Bards were not trained to separate fact from fancy, but to take all information supplied to them at face value and memorize it verbatim. Avar's generals, in turn, had not been trained to evaluate information gained from a bard for truthfulness; never before had such an issue arisen. The result of this new and ugly ambiguity was an atmosphere of chaos and an undercurrent of uncertainty that finally brought the city, and then the kingdom, to ruination.

Few escaped the ensuing carnage, and those who did found themselves the slaves of the conquering army. For many generations the slaves toiled under the whips of their cruel masters, but finally there arose a newly forged race of Avarians who threw off the chains of their oppressors and once more formed a nation of their own. They took this for their guiding principle:

Knowledge is power, and power cannot be brokered. Only with the free and open exchange of information can a people survive.

And they lived happily ever after...

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