Culture is Anti-Rivalrous

from the it-increases-in-value-the-more-it's-used dept

Economists talk about rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, but Culture is neither rivalrous, nor non-rivalrous; it is anti-rivalrous.

I. Rivalrous

Rivalrous goods diminish in value the more they are used. For example, a bicycle: if I use it, it gets me from here to there; if you use it, it gets me nowhere. If I acquire your bicycle, you don’t have it any more. Only one of us can have the bicycle at one time. We can share it to a limited extent, but the more it’s used the less it’s worth; it gets dinged up and wears out. The more people use the bicycle, the less utility it has.

If I steal your bicycle, you have to take the bus

All material things – things made of atoms – are rivalrous, because an object cannot be in two places at the same time. Everything in the physical world is rivalrous, even if it’s abundant.

A commons is a rivalrous good. Hence the "tragedy of the commons": the more people use a square of land, the less valuable it is to each of them. The grass gets eaten too fast to grow back, the soil can’t handle the incoming rate of sheep shit, and degradation ensues.

the commons
Fig. 1: a lovely day for grazing on the commons

tragedy of the commons
Fig 2: Tragedy strikes

Rivalrous and non-rivalrous are often confused with scarce and abundant, but they’re not the same thing. Air is abundant, but it is still rivalrous – some "users" could make it toxic for the rest of us, because air is not infinite. Land and water are so abundant in North America that Native Americans couldn’t imagine owning or depleting them, and look what happened. We treat the oceans as infinite, but they are not; human pollution and exploitation is killing ocean life. We also pollute the vast ocean of air – hence acid rain. Air and oceans are commons.

Commons are commonly-held rivalrous goods. Because they are rivalrous, some uses (or over-use) can poison them or otherwise diminish their value. For that reason, Commons(es) actually merit rules and regulations.

But Culture is not a commons, because Culture is not rivalrous and can’t be owned.

II. Non-Rivalrous

Non-rivalrous goods, as their name implies, don’t diminish in value the more they are used. A favorite example of a non-rivalrous good is the light from a lighthouse. It shines for everyone. No matter how much you look at it, I can see it too.

Everyone can see the light from the lighthouse…

This is a pretty good example, but it’s not quite right. Theoretically, if enough tall boats are in the harbor, they actually can crowd out your lighthouse light.

…except when they can’t. Once again, too many sheep ruin everything.

Consider sunlight in Manhattan; yes, the sun shines for everyone, but if they build a high-rise next to your apartment you won’t see it any more. There’s only so much sunlight that hits a certain area, and that light is rivalrous. You can always move, of course – except land, while abundant, is definitely rivalrous and not infinite, so you’ll have to engage in some rivalry to do so.

The light metaphor has another problem: is light a particle, or a wave? If it’s a particle, then light is rivalrous. If it’s a wave, then it’s not.

Thomas Jefferson used the example of candle fire, writing "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." Of course candles burn out but it’s not the light that’s diminished, it’s the candle. That’s a great metaphor for attention, which is scarce: once our attention is used up, the light goes out.
But Culture is not non-rivalrous either.

III. Anti-Rivalrous

Anti-rivalrous goods increase in value the more they are used. For example: language. A language isn’t much use to me if I can’t speak it with someone else. You need at least two people to communicate with language. The more people who use the language, the more value it has.

Which language do you think more people would pay to learn?

  • English
  • Esperanto
  • Latvian

More people spend money and time learning English, simply because so many people already speak English.

Social networking platforms increase in value when more people use them. I use Facebook not because I love Facebook (I certainly don’t), but because everyone else uses Facebook. I just joined Google+, and will use that instead of Facebook if enough other people use it. If enough people flock to yet another platform, I’ll use that instead. Meanwhile I love Diaspora in principle (I was an early Kickstarter backer, before they surpassed their initial $ goal), but I don’t use it, because not enough other people do. When it comes to social networks, I am a sheep.

I'm surrounded by stupid sheep
A classic "Nina’s Adventures" comic, which I only realized was anti-rivalrous a few years ago. ♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy and share.
Culture is anti-rivalrous. The more people know and sing a song, the more cultural value it has. The more people watch my film Sita Sings the Blues, or read my comic strip Mimi & Eunice, the happier I’ll be, so please go do that now and then come back and read the rest of this paragraph. The more people know a movie or TV show, the more cultural value it has. Monty Python references attest to the cultural value of Monty Python – we even use the word "spam" because of it. Shakespeare‘s works are culturally valuable, and phrases from them live on in the language even apart from the plays ("I think she doth protest to much," etc.). The more people refer to Monty Python and Shakespeare, the more you just gotta see em, amiright? Or not, it doesn’t matter whether you see them, you’re already speaking them. That all culture is a kind of language, I’ll leave for another discussion.

Cultural works increase in value the more people use them. That’s not rivalrous, or non-rivalrous; that’s anti-rivalrous.

IV. Some Exceptions That Prove The rule

I know what you’re gonna say now: "what about my credit card number? That doesn’t increase in value if it’s shared!!" That’s right, Einstein, because your credit card number is not culture. Here are two things that aren’t made of atoms and are nonetheless rivalrous:

1. Identity
2. Secrets

Identity is some mysterious mindfuck that my very smart friend Joe Futrelle says no one has satisfactorily defined yet. But whatever identity is, it’s rivalrous. If more people were named Nina Paley and had my home address and social security number, I’d be screwed. But that should highlight that my name, home address, and social security number aren’t culture. They may be information, but they’re not culture. They don’t increase in value the more they are used.

Secrets have power as long as they’re secrets. They lose their power when they are shared. When I become conscious of some secret that’s weighing on me, I share it with at least one other person (even if they are a confidante also sworn to secrecy): I can feel the secret’s power diffused just by the act of sharing. Notice I use "power" here instead of "value." Secrets may be of little or no cultural value – most people don’t really care who that guy slept with 6 years ago – but they can certainly have power, especially when used for blackmail. Which is why it’s important they remain secrets, so they’re not used for blackmail, or harassment, or any reason at all. Privacy is important. Because secrets aren’t culture. Culture is public. Secrets are, well, secret. Until they’re public, whereupon we get scandalous stories that are culture – humans love to gossip – but aren’t secrets any more. The story might gain value, but the secret loses it.

Money vs. Currency
And how about money? Money is scarce, right? It has to be, or it doesn’t work (thanks Wall Street & Federal Reserve for screwing that up). But currency has more value the more it is used! Would you rather have your scarce 100 Euros in Euros, or in giant immoveable donut-like stones on a remote island?

A large rai stone in the village of Gachpar

I remember when the US dollar was a valuable currency; markets all over the world wanted dollars, because they were so widely used and exchangeable. So you want your money to be scarce, but you want your currency as widely used as possible.

V. Conclusion

It’s important to treat scarce goods as scarce, abundant goods as abundant, rivalrous goods as rivalrous, and so on. Wall Street treated money, a scarce and rivalrous good, as though it were infinite/non-rivalrous, and look what happened.  Power companies, and the politicians they own, treat the environment, which is a rivalrous commons, as though it were non-rivalrous, and we have dying oceans and mass extinctions and other events you don’t want to think about so much that you’ll just get mad at me if I point them out here so I’ll stop. The RIAA and MPAA, and the politicians they own, treat Culture, which is anti-rivalrous, as though it’s rivalrous. They are doing for Culture what Wall Street did for the economy. If you want to help make this better, treat Culture like what it is: an anti-rivalrous good that increases in value the more it is used.


Addendum: Why do I say Culture is not a Commons?

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Comments on “Culture is Anti-Rivalrous”

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out_of_the_blue says:

I'll treasure this, for when I think MY writing wanders,

with no discernible point. Whew. You’ll get a few geek-a-zoid favorable comments simply because you’re a woman (or so I assume from name), but gotta tell ya, this is… difficult to follow — no, it’s /difficult/ to even start: took will power to get past the first sentence, almost impossible to follow.

Paul (profile) says:

Secrets lose their value...

… unless they don’t.

When secrets hold actual information (such as how to build automation for textiles, the basis for the development of computers), their value increases when the secrets are broken (i.e. widely shared). The value only decreases for those that held them and could leverage the information at the expense of everyone else.

Now this is just the TINIEST nit on a wonderfully insightful post, and in fact does not contradict the main ideas of the post (I don’t think). I would like a discussion of how this way of viewing “products” would apply to technology and patents as well as to content and copyright.

out_of_the_blue says:

Malthus will be proven correct eventually.

Earth is a finite resource, and no way in sight off this little rock. Except for the rampant squandering of finite petroleum, what Malthus foresaw would already have occurred — in limited form, as human population could never have reached present levels without mechanical energy from petroleum.

Paul (profile) says:

I'll treasure this, for when I think MY writing wanders,

Maybe the fault isn’t with her writing? I took a re-gander at the first few paragraphs, and cannot quite understand your difficulty in understand the ideas presented, nor following the progression of the article in discussing these ideas.

Heck, they are even outlined for you.

Maybe I am just too much of a geek to get your problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nina, congrats one once again attempting to entirely reframe the universe in your vision, and once again failing.

You go a long way to try to establish your point of view, but you are going over the standard techdirt commons, land that has been overwhelmed by people and comment crap, such that it no longer supports anything. The grass isn’t greener over there.

Culture is a nice idea, a grand concept. But culture in and of itself doesn’t fit well into our society. We don’t have the luxury of the government paying artists to produce. We don’t have a socialist system that allows us to share equally. We don’t have a command economy. Rather, we have a demand economy, were goods and services are provided at a price based on demand in the market place.

Culture material (music, movies, books, whatever) is not anti-rivalrous. Rather, culture is what it is. Someone quoting Shakespeare today doesn’t make me go to see a play tomorrow. Complaining about spam mail doesn’t make me want to see Monty Python. Rather, I see those things or enjoy that part of culture because it is enjoyable in and of itself, without outside prodding.

Your views are a chicken and the egg situation, and you are choosing not the most logical choice, but the choices that support your world view. I cannot fault you for making such a choice, it is your nature. But I can also say that your conclusions as a result aren’t going to be any better then your preconceived notions. You started with your desires result, and backfilled the ideas. You did an excellent job, but that doesn’t make the result any more valid.

Paul (profile) says:

Secrets lose their value...

I get that power and value are much alike. But the fact is, the value to the population increases in both your example and mine with the distribution of the ideas.

Face it, the progression of the technology would have been stunted if England could have kept the lid on their textile technology. And if one person alone cannot do much for everyone in the world without sharing their knowledge of how to cure cancer.

In both cases, the sum value (from the perspective of the entire population) of the secrets actually increases with disclosure. I would say this is because the secret isn’t just who slept with who, but it actually holds information.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Secrets lose their value...

The value to the population/public only increases when that information is no longer a secret.

With secrets, the value is entirely held by the person with the power. So it is not valuable in the same sense that culture is valuable. This is much like how copyright and patents work. They are meant to add an artificial secret layer on top of a public culture. These works have value and increase in value the more they are shared, but that threatens the power of the copyright/patent holder.

As a secret, there is not value only power, which is a form of value granted, but not in the same way as culture. Once the secret is unmasked and the information becomes a part of culture and can be shared, that is when it becomes anti-rivalrous as Nina explains.

Anonymous Coward says:


You missed my point entirely. If you look only at the distribution of content, then yes, there is an unlimited supply. Reality is thought that there is a very limited supply of movies and music, and what you are paying for isn’t the distribution, but the scarcity of the actual product.

An unlimited number of copies of nothing is still nothing. There are only so many Bruce Springsteen songs. What you pay for isn’t the method of distribution, what you pay for is the scarce Springsteen song.

The price doesn’t go to zero on the scarce good, no matter how you managed to replicate it. It’s still scarce.

John says:

Re: Re:

That is so untrue.

Sundance just had over 12,000 films submitted for example.

The amount of films being produced is increasing constantly as the means becomes ever more accessible & knowledge to do so more widely spread.

Since recording has been invented, the entire world catalog of good art is always increasing rapidly, but attention isn’t, it is ever more divided.

Art is so ubiquitous, I bet I could fulfill all my entertainment needs just from second hand shops if I wanted, only reading, watching and listening to classic stuff.

Note also how none of that money would go to the creators. Would that make me a thief, only ‘consuming’ classics? They are everywhere. Nearly a century worth now.

I would also have the advantage of knowing in advance which I am likely to enjoy most.

That is the trouble with things like movie trailers, that don’t really tell you anything about the film. They don’t want you to be able to decide it is good or not until after they have your money.

John says:

Re: Re: Re:

When recording was first invented, there was a lot of stink that it would end up destroying music and professional musician’s lives.

Maybe they were right? Maybe they foresaw the ever increasing amount of material would one day swamp us (and detract from them). It created a century long bubble (but made a lot of people rich in the mean time though).

Is that bubble due to burst like others have been?

John Doe says:


Your reality doesn’t exist in reality. There are literally thousands of singer/songwriters, many who never make more than a side income from it. If they are doing this for little to no money now, then you really think by making digital music free would stop them in their tracks?

The image of the starving artist didn’t appear out of thin air. It exists because many artists never make it big, yet they still do it. So your point is pointless.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:


Obviously you do not know what you speak of. I shall attempt to aid your understanding:

   /skɛərs/ [skairs], scarc?er, scarc?est, adverb
insufficient to satisfy the need or demand; not abundant: Meat and butter were scarce during the war.

Given the state of present technology, within the space of a day everybody on the planet who owns a computer/smart-phone/mp3 player could have a copy of a song which didn’t exist the previous day. Without doubt, this easily falls into the category of “not scarce”, eg ABUNDANT.

Just Another Moron In A Hurry (profile) says:


Hi, Nina. Nice article. I have a request though.

“If you want to help make this better, treat Culture like what it is: an anti-rivalrous good that increases in value the more it is used.”

I’d like to know how treating Culture like an anti-rivalrous good will make anything better.

It seems like you are saying that if we share Culture, it will stop the RIAA and others from crashing the economy of Culture.

First, I’d like to know what exactly the RIAA can do to our Culture?
Second, I’d like to know how sharing our Culture will prevent whatever it is that they are doing.

Thanks for taking the time to explain things to this Moron. ๐Ÿ™‚

John Doe says:


I believe what he is saying is that there are a limited number of songs, movies, paintings, etc being produced though their distribution (digitally) may be unlimited. My point above is that he is only taking into account the large, mainstream movies, songs, art. There are many times that number produced you never hear about.

He ignores the idea that alternate business models could use the abundant resource to sell a scarce resource.

Myself, I personally feel people are fully willing to pay for content, they just aren’t willing to pay today’s artificially inflated prices.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:


Culture is a nice idea, a grand concept. But culture in and of itself doesn’t fit well into our society. We don’t have the luxury of the government paying artists to produce.

There is so much wrong with this statement it makes my head hurt.

Culture is what created our society to begin with. Take the US for example. Muc h of today’s social mores and norms come from a Puritan Christian heritage (whether that is for the better of society is another discussion) It was only through the sharing of that culture that a free society that was free to express religious beliefs was born. That is culture.

Let’s look at folk lore. The tales of John Henry, Danial Boon, Paul Bunyan etc. These were all stories shared and shared until they became a part of the US’s unique identity in the world. Each of these started as a work of fiction by a single person. Yet each of these have moved to what could conceivably be called the mythology of the United States. This is culture.

Even today we have our culture being expanded upon by other writers and artists. The works of Mark Twain, Poe, Disney, Stan Lee etc etc. These are all a part of our culture, whether the copyright holders want them to be or not. Things don’t have to be a part of the public domain to be a part of culture. Why do you think day care centers use Disney artwork in their decor? Its not because they are trying to steal from Disney. It is because they want to bring the culture of the children they care for, into the grounds so that those children will be more comfortable. It is a part of the cultural upbringing of those children.

Culture material (music, movies, books, whatever) is not anti-rivalrous. Rather, culture is what it is. Someone quoting Shakespeare today doesn’t make me go to see a play tomorrow.

Much like rivalrous goods, some culture isn’t valued by some individuals. I personally hate the idea of owning a Ford Mustang, yet many people in the US value such ownership very highly. Same for aspects of culture. Some people value references to Shakespeare more than others while others value references to Monty Python.

You not liking some aspect of the collective culture of the society you live in, does not automatically mean that that culture has no value for all involved.

JMT says:

I'll treasure this, for when I think MY writing wanders,

Nina’s great post will get favourable comments because its very, very good, not because of her gender. What an imbecilic thing to say.

And I understood the post perfectly, and it certainly improved my understanding of the topic. If you had trouble following it, I’d say any shortcomings are entirely yours.

Well done Nina.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:


Not sure if I can be of much help, but here is how I see the aspect of culture from a music perspective and the related entities within.

Songwriter – this person creates the cultural object, in this case the song.

Performer – one avenue of sharing the cultural object. They perform the song to the public.

Label – another avenue of sharing the cultural object. They advertise and distribute copies of the culture.

RIAA – Their primary objective is to limit the sharing of the cultural object through the use of Copyright law and the legal process. This seems to be antithetical to the other involved parties.

First, I’d like to know what exactly the RIAA can do to our Culture?

Honestly, I think the best thing the RIAA and other similar organizations can due for culture is to shrivel up and die. They have no goal but to stop the free flow of culture.

Second, I’d like to know how sharing our Culture will prevent whatever it is that they are doing.

I don’t think that sharing will directly change or counter what the RIAA is doing. What it will do is eventually wear down the governments of the world and result in a change to copyright laws.

I remember reading a comparison between media piracy and land squatters. Early in the days of the US people would squat in land that had no clear ownership. This land was theoretically owned by the respective state and federal governments. Yet people still moved onto those lands and started living. Early on, the government tried to evict these people and stop people from living in them. But this eventually became impossible to enforce.

This lead the US government to create homesteading laws. Under these laws, people were allowed to move onto public lands free of charge as long as they did something productive with them.

I can see copyright law going in a similar direction.

Anonymous Coward says:


I don’t ignore them alternate business models. I still get back to the source. There is a limited amount of source material. The value is in the source material, not the delivery method.

The delivery method alone isn’t the key to the game. It only takes into account one part of a very complex situation.

Anonymous Coward says:


You said: “You not liking some aspect of the collective culture of the society you live in, does not automatically mean that that culture has no value for all involved”

Me: I didn’t say I like or don’t like the culture. I am saying that someone quoting from it doesn’t suddenly make me want it more (or less). Value is not created by having someone repeat it over and over again, if anything it is likely to get us incredibly bored of it, and thus making it less valuable to us.

It isn’t a question of what parts of culture I like or don’t like, and it never is. That argument usually comes from people like Marcus, who want to kill arguments by making them about taste. This isn’t at all about taste.

chris (profile) says:

Secrets lose their value...

I get that power and value are much alike. But the fact is, the value to the population increases in both your example and mine with the distribution of the ideas.

what you seem to be missing is that power and value are also very different.

value is determined by marginal benefit: how much benefit to how many people? power is determined by control: how much control do you have over how many people?

the people that you have power over will derive value from the sharing of the secret (benefit*people). that value may exceed the marginal value that the secret itself held for you (control*people)-(costs). however, regardless of the overall benefit, 100% of the power that secret gives you (or has over you) be lost once the secret is shared.

power has nothing to do with benefit and everything to do with maintaining control.

sharing an idea means giving up a lot of control over that idea. a lot of people are willing to sacrifice a lot of benefit to maintain a small amount of control over their ideas because they believe (mistakenly, in my opinion) that they can use that control to gain additional benefit.

MrWilson says:


Someone quoting Shakespeare or Monty Pythons is an inherent expression of culture. If you weren’t alive when they were first performed, without culture you wouldn’t have watched them because no one would have quoted them to you. Culture is a social communication. You know what you know collectively with others because of culture. Your absurd denials of culture is a part of our culture.

Here, I’ll be as absurd as you:

Language doesn’t exist! You’re not reading this because you can’t communicate anything! Language doesn’t fit well with communication!

Ron Rezendes (profile) says:


“Value is not created by having someone repeat it over and over again, if anything it is likely to get us incredibly bored of it, and thus making it less valuable to us.”

Actually, as Nina so poignantly explained, the quoting of a cultural item, as in the example, gives the work more cultural value. Each individual component of culture may not have this same effect on you personally, but society as a whole now has more shared culture. Many of us believe this is a good thing and this leads us to align ourselves against those who wish to limit our exposure to said culture whether it be through monopolistic practices, unreasonable copyright lengths, over restrictive patent practices or even (gasp!)unreasonably priced content some of which is actually stolen from the public domain then restricted and re-sold.

Cultural value doesn’t necessarily have to have a monetary value and it could be well argued that culture is priceless, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Why isn't there universal adoption of culture?

First of all, I really like Nina’s article. A very good explanation of economic concepts.

But it got me thinking and I’ll toss this out, not as a criticism but to get a discussion going.

Anti-rivalrous goods increase in value the more they are used. For example: language. A language isn’t much use to me if I can’t speak it with someone else. You need at least two people to communicate with language. The more people who use the language, the more value it has.

Let’s look at language or religion. I think people who currently speak a certain language or practice a certain religion might feel the world would be a better place, or at least an easier place to navigate in, if everyone spoke the same language or practiced the same religion. Yet there is resistance to that. It doesn’t appear that there is universal agreement that as more people share a culture, there is more value in that culture. If there were, don’t you think we’d have more groupthink or at least more willingness for people to come to the table to talk about adopting some universal cultures?


Paul (profile) says:

Secrets lose their value...

We are kinda splitting hairs here.

The point is that Trade Secrets and Patents do something of the same thing, allowing (potentially) a company to make a product that others cannot make.

Once we are talking about secret information which is in and of itself valuable, then the pros and cons of sharing the secret change. Even if it is just a regular secret (like Joe slept with Marge), the pros and cons might be more complex than implied in this brief post.

But let’s consider trade secrets (as an example where the information itself has broad applications).

There is a fine line where keeping a trade secret might hurt the market for your product (where people need to validate the nature of your product before they will buy, for example. Or where your product is ignored because you are the only vendor and you haven’t any customers. Or many other cases).

Furthermore, one might not be able to license one’s know how if nobody knows what exactly it is that you know. Sharing to one extent or another might be required to gain the “power” or “value” of your secrets.

Just some observations off the top of my head.

Paul (profile) says:


We have an ever increasing supply of content. Since the middle of the last century, and to an ever increasing degree, every bit of produced music, video, movies, and writings remains available for consumption.

So while you are literally correct, that there is a limited supply of content, that supply of content is already much greater than anyone could possibly consume. For all practical purposes the supply of individual songs, movies, articles, comments, books, papers, poems, pictures, etc. are already approaching infinity, and that content is increasing all the time.

The fact is that the biggest competitor to the successful content producer becomes themselves, and those previous content producers whose work inspired them. Because increasingly, the consumer can access it all. Their work, the previous work, and the work previous to that, and all their contemporaries.

We are at the beginning of this trend. There will soon come a day when you might pick up a product that has a century of video in a single device, already loaded and indexed. One might never have to view current content ever again to be entertained.

So yes, by any pragmatic measure, content is infinite.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Why isn't there universal adoption of culture?

It doesn’t appear that there is universal agreement that as more people share a culture, there is more value in that culture.Actually, there is unanimous agreement that shared culture is more valuable. The difficulty lies in deciding which aspects or which cultures should become the dominant or only shared culture. The French want French culture and language, whereas English speakers disagree. Catholics want their beliefs, Mormons want theirs, atheists want none of the above. Sci-fi geeks want everyone to appreciate a good sci-fi novel, readers of harlequin romance novels disagree. Their is universal agreement that more people sharing a culture the more value that culture has. It’s just that we can’t all agree which culture should be the most shared.

Anonymous Coward says:


Add to this the fact that most of us feel that we have paid enough times for the ‘culture’ we grew up with and you have some idea of why we would rather get things for ‘free’ than continue to pay over and over for the things we thought we bought and owned.

I may be dating myself, but I grew up with a suitcase style record player as my first ‘music player’ and my first ‘record’ was a 45 of Spinning Wheel by Blood, Sweat, and Tears (which I still have in storage… I could put most hoarders to shame with my collection of ‘stuff’, but that’s another story). I later acquired the same song on LP, 8-Track, and Cassette (notice I said acquired, only one was a purchase from a store, the others were trades or second hand purchases).

Now since I still have the 45 and a record player, I could create a ‘digital’ copy of the song by recording it myself, or I could go ‘download’ a digital copy, which one makes sense? which one would get me potential fines and punishment according to the **AA’s? Should I feel like I’m ‘stealing’ the song if I go download it instead of creating my own copy? I don’t and I have no problem acquiring digital copies of the media I’ve already purchased in various formats over the years.

It may not be ‘legal’ according to some, but why should I get in trouble for downloading things I already own?

MrWilson says:


First, I’d like to know what exactly the RIAA can do to our Culture?

They can do what they’ve always tried to do – lock up culture. Copying is an inherent aspect of culture. If you can’t repeat a story you heard from someone else, it isn’t culture. The RIAA and other have always tried to monetize culture and they easiest way they can see to do that is to restrict it, to make in an artificially scarce good. The problem is that it’s not culture if it’s not shared. They want to rewrite the definition of culture to mean one-way transmissions in exchange for payment. Culture is more like playing Telephone. The cultural artifacts evolve with each telling and become further ingrained in the culture.

Second, I’d like to know how sharing our Culture will prevent whatever it is that they are doing.

As I illustrated above, sharing is the lifeblood of culture. If we don’t share it, it isn’t our culture. If we refuse to accept the copyright maximalists’ worldview and continue to share as naturally as it comes to us, we are refusing to live in their world and they’ll have to adapt to ours instead.

David Muir (profile) says:

Universal Culture and Diversity

Suzanne, you’re bringing up really excellent corollaries to Nina’s main point. I firmly believe these concepts are not mutually exclusive:
1. Value in culture increases the more it is shared.
2. Diversity improves thinking, language, and culture.

The variety of different cultures out there means that there is “plenty” of culture to go around. If there were only one universal culture, it could possibly improve “navigation” as you said, but it would also not be as rich. Diversity (the collision and intermingling of cultures) brings fresh ideas and thus spins up value. (Example: how do you make a “team” smarter? Add more women. Proven today in this comment thread but also mentioned here: )

As each culture increases, there is what I would call “spillover”. Popular French words or phrases are used in English: for example laissez-faire, tete-a-tete, and bonbons. Unfortunately I don’t speak another language properly, but I know this spillover happens from English to many other cultures too. I’ve used language as an example, but the same is just as true with art, fashion, and architecture.

And I’ll add my kudos to Nina on a truly excellent article too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Awesome article, Nina! I recognise the sheep from Santa Cruz Comic News. You continue to impress me.

I know how you feel about your work: share it, share it, share it. But do the publications those works were in, such as the SCCN and the Daily Illini, feel the same way? Could I take something from Joyride and republish it without the DI getting all litigious at me?

Jay (profile) says:

Why isn't there universal adoption of culture?

” It doesn’t appear that there is universal agreement that as more people share a culture, there is more value in that culture. “

It depends on the value of the language. I recall that even though India has a lot of diversity, it is still English that is most prevalent. It’s actually a hangover from the colonial days of the British Empire. English was imported and never left.

The reasoning is quite simple. You have a number of people that speak Hindu, but a native speaker would actually have an advantage over others. So English is considered a neutral language. That increases the value of the English language in Indian culture and also tests the intellect of Indian children in learning the language.

Just something else to consider.

Anonymous Coward says:


“Value is not created by having someone repeat it over and over again, if anything it is likely to get us incredibly bored of it, and thus making it less valuable to us.”

So why do some people keep repeating:

Infringement is theft.
Copying is stealing.

These campaigns of copyright holders have been repeated so often that it no longer has any value.

illuminaut says:

Good argument...

…except that it isn’t true. The value isn’t in the Bruce Springsteen song itself, it’s in Bruce Springsteen creating the song. The fact that it can be replicated increases the value because more people get to hear it, making his next creation even more anticipated.

Just compare this to the time when there was no copyright on songs. Mozart could write a song and many people would “copy” it by playing it themselves, but the real value was in Mozart actually performing the song himself. People would pay to see him perform live, just like people today pay for seeing Bruce Springsteen perform live. The more people hear about it, the more valuable that performance becomes. Granted, today’s copies are of much higher quality, but they themselves still don’t hold actual value because they are just that, copies in infinite supply.

It’s mind-boggling that an industry that was created to continuously reap profits off a product with no actual value by artificially limiting access to an otherwise unlimited supply keeps claiming that it would be in our best interest. It is still culture, and artists will need to make money the same way they’ve always done. Once they embrace that they’re the ones who are scarce but not the actual song or form of delivery we can all sleep better, except for record label executives who of course would be out of a job.

Gabriel Tane (profile) says:


“Value is not created by having someone repeat it over and over again, if anything it is likely to get us incredibly bored of it, and thus making it less valuable to us.”

You do realize that no one is talking about repeating things to the same person each time, right?

When Nina said that value increases when it’s repeated, she meant that the value is increased because it’s repeated to new people who haven’t heard it before. Think of how much more value the Boss’s songs are when they reach a new audience they otherwise wouldn’t have reached if they weren’t repeated.

Gabriel Tane (profile) says:


well, look at it mathematically:

A chicken is a chicken. Constant.

An egg is not necessarilly a chicken… it may become a chicken, or it may become breakfast. Variable.

In mathematically equations, you place the constant before the variable (i.e. “3x”). Therefore, the chicken came before the egg.

(NOTE… yes, this is rediculous. If anyone took it seriously and wants to rip into an angry mathematical rant, take a few deep breaths and go find something more important to worry about)

Gabriel Tane (profile) says:

Why isn't there universal adoption of culture?

There are more layers here than just an individual culture vs. another individual culture. Think of our global, human culture. It is rich and diverse with many different religions, world-views, languages, beliefs, and music (enjoying some Putumayo right now, actually). The value of that culture to any one group or individual is in how it helps enhance that individual or group’s world view.

So the value to me in hearing a new piece of music is that I am entertained and exposed to a new part of the world culture that I had never had before. Or, if it’s bad music, it will help me appreciate the music I do like all the more.

Same with religious views. If I am exposed to more belief systems, I’m going to have more perspectives to weigh mine against. Take my personal view on the figure of Jesus… I was raised Southern Baptist (but I got better!) and was given the normal, biblical version of Jesus. Later in life, that view was greatly modified when I learned of how similar (almost exactly the same) that story was to many MANY other creation/messiah stories around at the time.

The value was that the more of the world culture I was exposed to, the more comfortable I am with my views on creation and religion. I am nowhere near as dogmatically ‘religious’ as I was before (mostly just spiritualist now). Now that I have seen more perspectives, and the more I learn about the collective Human Experience, the better I feel about what I do believe.

Does that help illustrate part of the value of the sharing of a diverse culture?

Butcherer79 (profile) says:


A constantly mathematical chicken….. careful, they may take over the world.
but just because I can:
“An egg is not necessarilly a chicken… it may become a chicken, or it may become breakfast. Variable.”

An egg is never a chicken (unless it’s scared of something and is forced to roll away from it through this fear) it is always an egg, until it gets broken, either by the chicken on the inside of the egg or the hungry person making the breakfast, then it’s still an egg, just a broken and empty one…

DannyB (profile) says:


It is a wave while in motion. It is a particle when it collides.

It collides at a specific point in time and space. A particle.

It travels as a wave.

A modern variation of the two slit experiment is quite a shocker. Set up the two slit experiment. (Google it.) But the light you pass through it is a single photon at a time. Behind the two slits is a photographic plate. Each photon exposes a dot on the plate, thus it is a particle when it hits the plate. Yet, over time, the dots form the famous wave pattern. If each photon had traveled through a single slit, then you would end up with two piles of exposed dots. But since you get the wave pattern, each photon is traveling through BOTH slits. In fact the wave is actually probability of where the photon is. What is waving is the probability of its location. In the “strong” part of the wave the probability of the “particle” being there is highest. In the weak part of the wave, probability is lowest. The two waves through the slits collide. Colliding probability waves from the two slits cause the plate to be exposed in one spot by the single photon. But the stream of single photons exposing the plate through the two slits form the famous wave pattern. Something like that. Hope I haven’t butchered it too badly. ๐Ÿ™‚

Butcherer79 (profile) says:


I think the egg contains the chicken, not that the egg IS the chicken, quoted from wikipedia below:
“Bird and reptile eggs consist of a protective eggshell, albumen (egg white), and vitellus (egg yolk), contained within various thin membranes.”

The vitellus, or yolk, is the main food for the fetus, the albumen, or white, is mainly water with some added proteins.
The only part of the egg that could properly be considered the chicken would be the developing fetus, which consumes the afore mentioned food, water and protiens as it grows and eventually hatches from the egg.

And “egg rant 101” is over, I hope you’ve all learnt what you needed to, and that I’ve entertained whilst remaining informative. Be sure to tip your waiter/ess, I’m here all week!

A Lowly Microeconomist says:

That doesn't mean what you think it means.

So you are aware this is wrong, yes?

You switched the definition of rivalry when you started to talk about anti-rivalry (which does not exist). Value is irrelevant to the concept of rivalry. Quantity available is what matters. You can say that culture is worth more the more it is consumed, and that could be perfectly true, but it wouldn’t change the fact that the amount of culture able to be consumed does not increase by the act of an individual consuming it.

I stare at a painting, that does not allow more paintings to be stared upon. Maybe if I hum a song while walking down the street, a few people might have an increased desire to listen to that (or any) song, but that’s not quantity supplied, but quantity demanded. The fact that they are completely different concepts is one of the fundamental ideas of economics.

So no, culture is not an anti-rival good. It is a non-rival good.

John says:

Re: That doesn't mean what you think it means.

Art isn’t really consumed though is it? It is generally experienced.

To make it fit the definition of something consumed you would have to destroy it after it has been experienced.

Doing that though, takes you towards the realm of being arseholes when you think about it.

In microeconomics, what is important but isn’t consumed?

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