When I hear people in the traditional music industry decrying the increasingly common notion that music should be free my first impression is to say “So what?”. If they control access to the music then such notions are not relevant. Alas it is not so simple. Technical means to control access to ‘intellectual property’ (IP) are ad-hoc and are deteriorating. I think that the great success of capitalism depends to a significant extent on voluntary compliance with property rights, even for abstract intellectual property. Property rights to non rivalrous goods have especially enjoyed this voluntary compliance out of what may be a cultural or innate sense of justice. The cost and inconvenience of duplicating published works, together with copyright law and this sense of justice, has until recently adequately supported a significant economic engine for intellectual property.
It is no longer inconvenient to copy most intellectual property. Copyright law is no longer easy to enforce and does not clearly delineate what actions are illegal in a world where technology routinely copies data as a necessary step in the legitimate delivery of IP to people. Case law moves much more slowly than technology. Even if people were highly inclined to pay for their own copy, the transaction cost would often dominate the value transferred to the IP owner. (Perhaps the Digital Silk Road might reduce the transaction cost, but I wouldn’t bet much on that proposition.) The notion that IP should be free seems irresistible in the presence of easy copying. I plead guilty. The commercial IP engine is sputtering. Jessica Litman has many interesting points and proposals.
The news is not all bad. New and vital sources of IP arise when the cost of publishing decreases dramatically. These low costs flow largely from the same technology that eases copying. Some deprecate the quality of such material but I sense that those voices are mostly among those who have made a profession of producing IP in the classic economic mold, academics included. Yet I will be disappointed if the economic IP engine of the future fails to produce such works as Disney’s “Monsters Inc.”.
It was this anecdote that convinced me that psychological entitlements are a real and significant policital-economic phenomenon. The entitlement to free music is with us and other IP seems likely to follow. I have even recorded some unique ideas at this site of how to control access of IP; yet I am not optimistic about the feasibility.
It seems clear that this was mere rent seeking disguised as consumer protection. An explicit contract with the auto buyer that spare parts must be bought exclusively from the producer would have been an honest alternative, but most likely resisted by the consumer. The pattern is perpetuated today in ink jet printers that include extra circuitry to degrade output if ink cartridges from third parties are used.
3D ‘printers’ are being slowly introduced to build objects from digital input. Today the resulting parts are made of material that is not very strong. Six axis milling tools can produce many parts from strong metals given digital descriptions. Today both of these technologies have high incremental and capital costs, but the costs are declining. I foresee the day when I can find on the web the ‘numerical tool instructions’ to reproduce some part of an antique automobile which has failed. This is a bit like the economic conundrum of orphan books with no identifiable copyright owner. Even when the owner is known the practice may be hard to prevent, even if there were a law to prohibit it. Should there be such a law? Perhaps cars and printers are already predominately IP. It is conceivable to build a car from entirely ‘open-source’ parts. Presumably some parts of such a car would be produced in factories specialized for those parts. It seems clear that this is not on the immediate horizon.
See this about a maverick Republican. This is the controversial memo.