On Copying and Owning

The world today faces a crucial battle between individuals and massive corporations. The individuals share stuff online for free -- even stuff made by those massive corporations. The massive corporations call this "piracy" and are fighting to stop the flow of it. Mike Loukides wrote a nice blog post on this, called On Pirates and Piracy. He turns the problem on its head, to say that the individuals are really just "shoplifters" and the sweeping lobbyist control of the corporations amounts to true piracy.

I thought this was interesting but not quite mind-blowing. So let me share with you three aspects of this battle which I find absolutely mind-blowing. First off, that technology today will push the fight far beyond just "rights to copy" and into entrenched fighting over ownership. Second, our society has not yet figured out what exactly our artists are entitled to. Third, whether you like it or not, I think both sides are fighting for their lives.

Ready? Let's go.

Copyright, by any other name

First we must phrase the copyright question: when we name the demon, we empower ourselves to understand and control it. "Copyright" names a chunk of law, and I don't care about the law, that's not the real problem. The problem is ownership.

Imagine a hypothetical device -- let's call it a "cloner" -- which takes an object in one box and assembles a perfect replica inside an attached box. You insert your umbrella in one side, you get an identical umbrella in the other side. Now, how are cloners going to be used?

You'll back up your stuff. You'll want a copy of your umbrella, in case it breaks in the wind. You'll think, "wait, people had to go to an umbrella stand when that happened? What if it was closed, or too far?" Maybe some things can't be backed up by cloners, like food, but you won't think much about them. (Before reading this essay you probably never dreamed of backing up your umbrella, after all.)

But this launches us immediately into the social use. If a friend needs an umbrella, you will no longer say "here, have mine" -- then you would no longer have your umbrella. You will say, "one second, let me clone it for you. Here you go, have an umbrella." You'll give a copy away.

Does that sound reasonable to you? You must not be an umbrella manufacturer. Senz makes umbrellas which withstand 100 km/hr winds. If you clone one for your friends, they'll be quite frustrated. To them those are lost profits! They might use cloners to make their umbrellas and they'll still be upset about the lost profits.

In the era of cloners comes an erosion of owners. It is happening today. "I didn't sell you the umbrella," the corporations say, "I sold you the legal right to borrow my umbrella, to use it in certain contractually specified ways. That list of ways did not include cloning it, so: pay me lots of money for breach of contract."

That blows my mind. You bought the umbrella without getting it! How absurd, this world we live in! Today it is utterly free to perfectly copy information and send it anywhere across the world -- the cost is that today we buy information without really getting it. You bought the right to use Microsoft Windows on your computer, but you do not own Windows. Microsoft owns Windows. You're just borrowing it.

That's the demon we're facing now. It is the erosion of true ownership.

If you truly owned a DVD player, then breaking encryption and region-locks on that player is like breaking into your own car: it might look fishy to someone on the street, but it wouldn't actually be illegal. If you truly owned a CD, ripping a copy and putting it on the Web would have the same status as scanning your meticulous college notebooks and putting them up on the Web.

And even if someone reads your notes while taking the same class, and even if they decide, "these notes are so good that I don't need the textbook," we wouldn't describe that as a lost sale. Certainly the textbook authors couldn't sue you -- if you didn't copy them directly. That is the RIAA and MPAA at their most reactionary -- they sue people and, when questioned, say "we're losing X dollars due to piracy!" If you truly owned the CD or DVD, then uploading it would be like uploading your notes -- but you don't, under modern law.

I called it "absurd", but I don't have an answer. Renting and borrowing are pretty ordinary: they aren't the problem. The problem is that our technology magically gave us a freedom, and we responded by changing our business model to take it away again. When should we own things? When should we have this freedom? I don't know.

What rights come naturally?

The older generation calls my generation "entitled". This happens especially when some service like Megaupload or Napster goes down, and my generation complains. "You were getting something for free!" they scoff. My peers mostly blow that criticism off. I'm not sure we should.

I actually like the word 'entitlement'. It cuts to the heart of the matter. Why should we feel entitled to own and clone umbrellas? And why complain when they shut down our cloners? They're serious questions.

Like Mike Loukides, I'd like to turn this around on itself, to say that maybe, at some deep level, we are entitled to own the things which we buy -- and maybe we should bemoan the injustice when someone takes away those rights.

Imagine that Hollywood becomes dominated by aliens with truly amazing technology. You go to a theater and you receive an incredibly engaging experience -- great jokes and poignant, cutting insights. You sit down in the cafe with your friends and talk about it afterwards for a couple hours, really stimulating discussion.

And then the aliens zap you, and make you forget it. You and your friends are smiling, you know that you just had a wonderfully fun time, but like a black-out drunk, you have no idea what exactly just happened. You complain to the aliens, "HEY! You stole my memory!". You felt entitled to keep that.

Those crazy humans. Imagine the days before memory wiping--imagine the lost profits! Hollywood used to spend hundreds of millions of unnecessary dollars to make new movies for them, just because they got bored when they stored a copy of that movie in their heads.

Absurd though it sounds, this was the discussion when people started recording radio to tape. And it really turns the entitlement question around. Now it's the aliens who feel entitled to our money! Entitlement cuts both ways, and we're both complaining about something we were technically getting for free. (Licensing a CD to a buyer is not actually some horrible technical process which requires an expert, nor is burning a CD.)

So we have to ask, "why are they entitled in the first place?", and there is a very good answer. At least in the U.S., the law states outright that Congress creates copyright and patent laws to make art a financially viable lifestyle.

I'm not talking utopia. We don't live in a crazy Marxist paradise where robot slaves will take care of our mundane needs, so that everyone is free to be an artist. We live in a real, pragmatic, capitalist world, where many real artists struggle to make ends meet. How do we make their careers viable?

In some cases, copyright isn't important. Artisans, like programmers and engineers, do art which will always have a place in a service economy. If a shipping company needs a package-sorter, engineers will design it. If they want to track shipments online, programmers can make that. Both will save them money and give them a competitive advantage. Orchestras survive well without copyright, mostly via governments and philanthropists and audiences. A TEDxUSC talk by Johanna Blakley suggests that the fashion industry lives off of a feeling of authenticity -- some companies make cheap knock-offs, but people pay lots of money to get an original.

But other artists remain. Flash game developers have big problems making a living out of ad revenue. It's a valid question whether modern pop musicians can thrive in a world where record associations were forced to compete with the free market. Competitive markets are pretty cutthroat. That's not "stealing", it's Econ 101 -- the perfectly competitive markets are always the least profitable.

We have to figure this out. We're entitled to own, but artists are entitled to live off their art. Most of the big philosophical problems require choosing the lesser of two evils. Often, their resolutions require that we talk about the problem in a new way, where we see a third option. But I don't see any such new way.

Sometimes the abyss stares back

If those perspectives aren't mind-blowing enough for you, I would like to offer one ultimate one, Zen in its simplicity: the RIAA and MPAA are fighting an existential battle right now.

In 50 years, everyone in the U.S. Congress will have pirated something. Your boss? He downloaded that TV show he was raving about yesterday. The students on campus are pirates. And those folks will become the voters, and the politicians in office, and they will staff the MPAA. In fifty years, who knows? Maybe Anonymous will field a candidate for president.

So our generation feels entitled to own the CD, and guess what? We're coming. Where does this leave them?

The MPAA is in trouble. Not just lighthearted "let's sue someone for downloading Inception" trouble, but "holy crap we're about to lose our entire business" trouble. They're competing with kids who will smuggle cameras into a theater for free, illegally, just to hear a thousand faceless others online saying "thx 4 the up."

It's the same existential fear that you and I struggle with, as time marches onward to our inevitable deaths. They can feel it too. And that's why. It's why they paid their lawyers absurd amounts to threaten grandmothers -- "give us $1000 or we'll sue you!" It's why they lobbied Congress over the DMCA and SOPA and PIPA. It's why they took down Napster, and why the FBI has now taken down Megaupload.

Desperation can go two ways. It could be that they're just cornered and frightened, acting irrationally. Or it could be a "Hail Mary" pass, acting rationally. Either way is scary, and we're in trouble, too.

The individuals will eventually win in any democracy, so the only way I know that they might stop us -- and it would be crazy policy and a poor business model -- would be to assault the Internet and free thought at the level that North Korea does. It's insane, but it's the only thing I can think of which would work: we'll eventually destroy them, and the only response they really have is to destroy us first.

Will they? Probably not. It's too desperate. A real CEO would resolve to go quietly into that good night -- you can always find another investment for your money, and shift business to something better. But right now they're not going gently, and their existential battle is our existential battle. It has prompted Y Combinator to asks for startup ideas that could kill Hollywood.

To me, those three ideas each blow my mind each time I come back to them. We buy umbrellas without getting them; then we both feel entitled to own the umbrella -- and we're both correct to feel that way; and then we return back to our corner of the boxing ring, frightened for our very existence.


This essay was authored by Chris Drost of drostie.org. To the extent possible by all laws in all countries, I hereby waive all copyright and any related rights under the Creative Commons Zero waiver/license, which you may read online at:

http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/
This means that you may copy, distribute, modify, and use my essay without any fear of lawsuits from me. It also means that my essay is provided with NO WARRANTIES of any kind, so that I may have no fear of lawsuits from you.

I always enjoy emails or messages about strange new places where my code and writings are being used, but I place no obligation on anyone to notify me of such things.