What if digital possessions are free?

A guy using Internet
[image by Joselito Briones]

I’ve been thinking of what I wrote about digital possessions. Commenter Elad Kehat mentioned something about digital possessions being free, therefore ownership of possessions won’t need to be tracked.

This has ramifications. We’re not talking about information that’s in the public domain, and so is freely available to anyone with Internet access. We’re talking about that new ebook, that new song or new movie in digital format, being free. Maybe there’s a period where the creators charge for access, but it’s probably weeks, maybe months (and not years).

What if you could read that latest bestseller thriller right now on your preferred digital device, for free? What if you could listen to any song, old or new, for free? What if you could watch any movie, be it dated or newest blockbuster, without having to pay for it?

It could happen. It could work. I’m saying that society at large might have to change their views on ownership. Because there won’t be any for digital possessions.

The creators will definitely suffer, in the short term if nothing else. That’s where they make their money. But we’re already in that phase. We have self-publishers of ebooks and songs and video. A viable means of still profiting is to cut out the middle man (as much as possible). This also have the effect of focussing on the content and taking advantage of the medium, in this case, digital. As Elad mentioned in his comment, the middle man (publishing houses, record studios, Amazon) wants to

preserve the exclusive property of non-digital content as it becomes digitized

Which is nonsense. Because a child of 12 can reproduce an ebook with copy and paste faster than a publishing house can print a Dan Brown novel. There is no exclusivity. But until society accepts that for digital content and digital ownership, the middle man can still profit from the populace’s perception that ownership is important.

Chris Anderson (who wrote the book “Free”) already wrote much on this. The price of digital content tends to go to zero. I have to admit, it’s a distinct possibility.

So let’s assume that digital content is free. There won’t be the concept of digital possessions, because possessing assumes ownership. If it’s free, do you care if you own it?

If something isn’t free, and you own it, then you care, because you don’t want people to take it unjustly away from you. You want to have control over who can use it, appreciate it, look at it, listen to it, read it, have fun with it.

What if someone steals your free digital possession? Well, you could go get another copy of it. I mean, it’s free. But if it’s free for you, then it’s free for the thief as well. Then there’s no need for theft. And thus, no need for keeping track of ownership.

Recently, I watched a talk given by Merlin Mann. It’s not really related to the topic at hand (still worth watching, if a bit long), but he mentioned something. Tragedy of the commons.

Basically, that concept goes that there is a common piece of property, and if everyone used their fair share, the property can sustain them indefinitely. But if someone selfishly decides to bite off more than his fair share, he gains more. As other people see this selfish behaviour, they see no reason why they have to keep their end of the bargain. And then mayhem ensues. Everyone squeezes as much from the common property as they can. Eventually, the common property is ravaged beyond help. And everyone loses.

The Internet doesn’t seem to have this limit. You need more space for websites, blogs, PDFs, songs, videos, just get a few more servers. Buy some hard disk with more storage capacity. They go by the terabytes now. Digital content won’t run out of space, hence the “common property” won’t be limited. Just install more hard disks and you get more “common property”.

But hard disks and servers are made of physical materials. Maintaining them have a real cost and thus limit. Who’s going to pay for them? Powering them requires energy, and we have a problem, because there’s limited oil and fossil fuels, and the alternative forms of energy still need some time to be viable.

So we have a sociological barrier (ownership), an economic barrier (creators suffering), and a physical barrier (limit to physical materials). It’s an interesting problem to think about, and hopefully, solve. What do you think?

  1. Elad Kehat

    Regarding the physical barrier, I don’t believe that it belongs in this discussion at all. The cost in terms of physical resources is borne whether the content is free or not, and it bears proof that there’s a clear correlation between the cost of content and the amount of it that gets produced/shared.
    Also, people are evidently willing to pay for those resources – when you share files on bittorrent you buy for the hard drives and pay your ISP for the bandwidth. In both cases it costs several orders of magnitude less per bit than paying for the content itself.

    Another aspect that we should add to the sociological issue IMO is that of culture: It’s natural for online debates in English to revolve around American-based cultural concepts, and the perception that the intellectual can be property is West-European and American through and through. If you take a broad historic perspective, then it looks like Asian cultures, to name one example, put much less emphasis on ownership of creative works as a way to exclude others. Copying art for instance was commonly seen as a form of showing respect for or even veneration of the original creator.
    In addition, let’s not forget the Swedish pirate party, as a prime example of a West-European country where public views on intellectual property may be very different from those in the US.

  2. Vincent

    I don’t quite understand the link from
    “The cost in terms of physical resources is borne whether the content is free or not”

    to it being proof

    “that there‚Äôs a clear correlation between the cost of content and the amount of it that gets produced/shared”

    And I understand that payment is spread out among a lot of people. They pay their ISPs, and the ISPs pay for something else, and it spreads out the cost.

    So Elad, if you’re a content producer, how would you go about making money (if not charging directly for it)? It’s a question I’m struggling, so I’m interested in your opinions.

    “Copying art for instance was commonly seen as a form of showing respect for or even veneration of the original creator”

    I know. I’m Chinese. It’s probably why China grows so quickly. Copying is not really a moral negative.

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