Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A fresh analogy for file-sharing: the tomato

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes a tomato is a piece of music. Did that make any sense? After reading the article linked below, it just might. And even though I think the analogy doesn't work perfectly, it leads to some very interesting perspectives on digital downloads and content creation.

The instructive comparison in the article is this: people say that digital content is a totally new type of thing because it can be reproduced forever without depriving the original owner of the original item. (The technical name for this type of copying is "lossless".) But that's not true. There's another type of thing that can be copied forever in a lossless fashion.


Pretty much every plant you own has been created from a seed, and for many of them you could access the seed without killing the original plant. So a sunflower is able to create an infinite number of copies of itself, just like digital content.

The author then goes on to discuss genetically modified food and the terms of license that Monsanto (one of the largest sellers of GM seeds) puts on farmers, comparing those to the conditions that are in licenses like iTunes. She's a musician and a poet, not a lawyer, so the analogy kind of breaks down there. But there's a kernel of truth in one aspect of it: controlling what people do with lossless content is necessary in order to maximize profit from it, and so creators of that content will take steps to make sure that purchasers can't remove their systems of control. And she thinks that's a bad thing for consumers.

I saw Cory Doctorow speak at SIGGRAPH last year and he made a similar point in a catchy phrase: if someone puts a lock on something and doesn't give you a key, the lock isn't there for your benefit. And he's right. But this implies the question: what happens if the content is unlocked? Who benefits from unlocking it, and who doesn't? Whose business works and whose doesn't?

This isn't a straight question of legal interpretation, but it definitely reflects the policy behind copyright law. Copyright law exists to allow people who create things to sell those things. Content protection exists for the purpose of making the sale of those things possible. And when content is freely shared with no compensation to its creators, the creators have to find other ways to make their money.

Let's look at one of the classic examples: the idea that music downloads should be looked at as promotional for things like concerts and tours. Whether or not I agree is irrelevant, but it presupposes something very important: that there are concerts and tours that can make money for the creator of the music. Compare music to books or movies and you see why this argument isn't as good as its proponents would claim. A live concert is a different experience than the music and so the one isn't a substitute for the other. But the audience of people who would want to go watch authors read their books is pretty small. Probably about as small as the number of authors who want to do readings for a living. And once you know that Scarlett O'Hara doesn't end up with Rhett Butler, your desire to go to a reading is a bit lower than it was.

This starts to show where I think the analogy falls down. A farmer planting seeds is making copies of the plant, but at harvest time they're not selling the seeds. They're selling the fruits of their labor. Put another way, the exchange of value is: creator spends time (the time they've spent working the farm), consumer spends money. In the same way the exchange of value for a creative product is that the consumer is buying the result of the time that the creator spent making the product, not just the product itself. Music isn't the seed. It's the fruit.

There's a second issue baked in there. Farmers aren't really just selling the time they spent working the plants. Clearly the thing you take home from the store is the actual thing that is grown. And that's really important, because it's inventory that they can store and sell over time. Just like a creator can sell their book or their music or their other creation. But if you take away the creator's ability to sell the fruits of their labor then all they can sell is their labor. Take it from a lawyer: selling your time is less lucrative than selling your money. Because you can only sell it once. And that puts a cap on the amount a creator can earn: every second they're not touring or working or whatever, they aren't earning. Is that a bad business model? Maybe yes, maybe no. But if they can't stop consumers from accessing their content for free, they don't get a choice.

And that's why creators should be allowed to put locks on their creations if they want: because they spent the time to create the item they should have the right to commercialize it under the conditions they choose. If purchasers don't want to buy something with digital rights management, they don't have to. Just like a farmer can choose not to buy seeds from Monsanto. But creators shouldn't be forced to convert themselves into day laborers if they don't want to either.

Original post about tomatoes and music from Dessa:

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