Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Singularity of Intellectual Property

Intellectual properties – copyrighted  or patented works or ideas – are unusual goods, because their supply is becoming virtually unlimited. With digital technology, you can distribute text, videos, music, pictures or other kinds of content to billions of screens around the world.

If supply were truly unlimited, then all of that content would be free. If one website tried to charge for streaming media, people would simply go to another site. Under these circumstances, authors of content would have a tough time making a profit.

People create for all kinds of reasons – because they enjoy being creative, because they want to share, because they want recognition, etc. But often, they hope to make money, too. IP (Intellectual Property) Law exists so that people can make money by being inventive.

This blog is chiefly concerned with copyrighted works. If a work is copyrighted, no one except the copyright holder can distribute it without permission. This means that the supply is no longer unlimited: it is limited exactly as much as the copyright holder chooses to limit it. 

The problem with giving someone exclusive rights to their work, as I see it, is that intellectual properties are unique. This is less true of goods like sunglasses or bread. If one brand of sunglasses is unavailable, I can buy another brand. If no one will sell me bread, I can make my own. There is no acceptable substitute for The Sopranos. Another series won't do just as well, and I can’t make something like it at home. 

So to my mind, IP Law gives copyright holders too much control. It gives them a monopoly. They can restrict access to a good that nobody else has – by raising the price, or by choosing not to distribute that good at all.

As I say, legally, copyright holders have too much control. But in practice, they may have too little. Copyright infringement is rampant on the Web. In order to keep their content exclusive, authors have to spend more and more time and money policing sites that host content.

I think it's a broken system. Which raises the question, what should be done about it? 

I'm not sure, but I know that I would like to see a) widely accessible, affordable content and b) authors making a profit.

Fortunately, The Sopranos is not especially difficult to obtain:

The Sopranos (1999) Highest Recommendation

Creative Commons License
Starring Ginger Rogers by Rosa Frank is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Here's one organization's attempt at a solution:

  2. Right! Creative Commons is great. The little CC button at the bottom of my posts is this blog's Creative Commons license. It says that people are free to reuse and re-edit my blogs as long as they cite the source.

    Thanks for reading!