Bad Ideas: Trying To Make Content More Like Physical Property

from the bangs-head-on-desk dept

Let's play a little hypothetical. Let's say that someone had discovered a way to automatically -- without any additional cost -- create all the food that the world's population needed, and automatically have it appear wherever and whenever needed. Think of it like the "replicator" device in Star Trek, where you can just walk up to it, and it'll create whatever food you want. The entire issue of hunger and worries about the "scarce resource" of food would go away. Who, in their right mind, would want to break such a machine, and force this newly abundant resource back to being scarce?

Yet, that seems to be exactly what's happening in the music world. A whole bunch of folks have sent in this positively ridiculous attempt by some guy named Paul Sweazey to get the IEEE to endorse a new standard to make content act more like physical property by allowing it to be "stolen." It's basically a weird DRM system that would allow the content to be fully "taken away" from the original holder. I've read the article a few times, and I have to be honest, that I don't quite get it. Those who get the content would still be able to share the actual content with whoever they wanted, however many times they wanted it -- but there's a separate "playkey" and someone can "take" that away, such that those who had it before can't use it after. But why would anyone "take" the playkey, other than to be a jackass?

But the bigger issue is why bother in the first place? Why purposely try to limit an abundant resource by making it scarce? Sweazey claims:
His answer is that such freely-copiable goods breaks the basic business model of human commerce by making goods nonrivalrous; it no longer has aspects of a private good, and this makes it difficult to sell.
But, this is wrong. It shows an out-of-date understanding of economics. While it may mean that you can't directly create a (paid) market in that private good, it opens up and enables many more markets. Going back to the food analogy: if you had many more people in the world who weren't hungry, and didn't have to spend all their money on food or food production, would that be good or bad for the economy? It seems rather obvious that it would be good, as money could be spent on higher level things that expand the economy.

Taking an abundant resource and actively working to make it act like a scarce resource makes no sense. It limits progress and the wider economy, and it's the last thing that a group like the IEEE should be supporting.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2009 @ 12:33am

    Poorer media culture

    OK, here goes.

    Yeah, there's more music, software, and other media being produced in the digital age than ever before. I agree it's great that everyone can now more easily create and distribute this stuff. It helps people become skilled, and you find some gems among the free stuff.

    But most of this free media is at a rather amateur level. Aspiring musicians and programmers of course love to create stuff for free, partially out of hope for a little fame or money. And, true, they wouldn't make money in the old economy either, so no loss here.

    But consider media that takes more than a few man-weeks or few hundred dollars to make, such as major movies, games, or software products. We're talking millions of dollars here, and dozens of man-years of effort. Do you seriously believe that such works can pay off, in any economic system, without the ability to sell them directly?

    Why are movies still making money? Because (a) people still go to cinemas, (b) movie pirating is still a little too inconvenient for the average consumer, and (c) many older people still have some sense of honesty regarding buying media. Perhaps (a) will still hold in the future, but I see nothing but a downward profit trend here.

    Similar situation with games. PC games almost never make money, due to piracy. Only those with some sort of subscription online component make money, plus a few blockbuster titles, and those only because, again, of the few people remaining with a sense of honesty to buy the game. And that's not going to last much longer. Console games can still make money, only because they're still too hard to pirate, i.e. because of the "artificial scarcity" of content protection that you so despise. Probably some day that will be cracked as well.

    Software? Most of it also pirated, or freeware. Only companies with an online component, amenable to advertising, can succeed. (And Microsoft, which is ... special.) Which really limits the kinds of software that can be profitably created.

    My main point is this: Yes, we will still get a lot of entertainment created, but it's going to be more, not better. Once the last barriers to replication are gone, I don't see major blockbuster works being created any more.

    And the culture will change to adapt. I already call this the "Youtube Age". People are just used to playing vast amounts of 5-minute long amateur crap content. It fills the day, and yields a lol here and there.

    Even personal communication has evolved from letters and phone calls, to email and blogs, and now to tweets (shudder). Soon it will descend to the next level, and we'll have just emoticons, broadcast every second :)

    This is why I think the future media culture will be poorer. Not in quantity, but quality. There's no time, or profit, anymore in making major long-term works. Everyone is adapting to a shallow instant information culture.

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