Posted tagged ‘p2p’

The Disintegrating Logic of Possession and Value in the Digital Age

December 16, 2009

This cutesy animation ties in to the ontological question of copies that Pete addressed in his previous post and the simplicity of its argument it makes me want to start laying out some fundamental logic of ownership, theft, and value.

Again, we’re looking at the real problem that exists in determinig the nature of copying and theft when it comes to digital media technologies. In particular, we must consider that the narrative of production, sale, use, and theft will be quite different when you attempt to apply it to different types of things.

If we’re talking about a purely physical object such as a bicycle, it’s easy to understand that the object is built and then used or exchanged among individuals. If the bicycle is stolen from you, you’ve gotta take the bus. The object’s value is thus constrained by possession.

When you start talking about analog media, this narrative starts to break down, because while you still need a physical object to realize the value, it is possible to make copies and convert media to different formats (e.g. taping a record) so that the use value – and perhaps even the exchange value – can be multiplied among various users, though the quality of the media may decline as generations of copies proliferate. Here, traditional notions of theft can still apply in the sense that you can’t listen to a record if somebody has stolen it from you, but there is another sense of theft that emerges wherein the act of copying makes it unnecessary for the copier to purchase an original work, thus denying the seller the revenue from that additional sale. Here, the physical possession of the record takes a back seat to the “intellectual property” contained on that record. In this instance, ownership becomes disconnected from possession and associated instead with commercial “rights.” The “theft” here is not of actual currency or products, but rather of the potential for additional revenue associated with the content contained in the sold object. This activity is referred to as “piracy,” though of course the pirates of the high seas were stealing physical, not intellectual property.

Things get even more complicated when we begin to look at digital media. First of all, the exchange of digital content from computer to computer pushes concerns over physical property even further to the sidelines in that authorized exchange often does not necessitate a physical object at all. In fact, the very act of using a piece of digital media usually involves making a copy of sorts (e.g., installing software on your computer). As digital technology all but obliterates the scarcity of any given piece of media, intellectual property-holders are attempting to compensate – and thus retain profits – by tightening restrictions on the traditional notions of ownership that would have applied either to the bicycle or to the record. That is, the use of individual pieces of media cease to be transferrable between users. When you buy a song on the iTunes store, you can’t loan it out to a friend for a week.

When you buy a record, you could reasonably state that you have purchased a copy of that content. When it comes to the iTunes story, you don’t even purchase a copy (copies being totally ubiquitous). Rather, you have perhaps bought access to certain content on a certain device, in some cases for a particular period of time.

Thus, as we transition from the bicycle to the record to the song on the iTunes Store, very basic notions of sale, ownership, and theft have to be reconsidered on a very fundamental level.

The Party

July 28, 2009


Continuing in the spirit of further broadening the scope of our inquiries here, I wanted to bring up the topic of the Pirate Party, which is probably the most institutional (especially in Europe) force of opposition to notions of intellectual property. First, a very brief history:

The Pirate Party originated in Sweden in 2006, where it (the Piratpartiet) is currently the third largest political party in terms of membership, with just under 50,000 members (most of whom are in the youngest demographic ranges). The Ung Pirat is the single largest political youth organization the country. In 2009, the Piratpartiet received enough votes to seat Christian Engstrom as one of Sweden’s 18 European Parliament members and are likely to seat a candidate in Sweden’s own parliament after the next election cycle (they narrowly missed in 2006).

Pirate Parties have now spread across Europe and are active, if not registered, in several other countries, including the United States.

According to the their website, the Piratpartiet’s chief platform is as follows:

The Pirate Party wants to fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens’ rights to privacy are respected. With this agenda, and only this, we are making a bid for representation in the European and Swedish parliaments.

Here is a video of Rickard Falkvinge, founder of the Piratpartiet, explaining the Party’s agenda vis a vis civil liberties and the histories of copyright and media technology:

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For those of us more familiar with the American political context, here are some excerpts from the unregistered American Pirate Pary’s platform:

The idea that sharing anything online is piracy is absurd on its face. Actual piracy requires forceful and aggressive acts, committed against those who would keep a cargo safe from harm. The cargo in this case is the freedom to act. We would take it from those who jealously guard it for themselves and divide it amongst everyone in the country.

We are not willing to accept that file sharing should be banned (and will take steps, once we have party members in office, to ensure that any laws in this regard are adamantly opposed, since technology isn’t the problem, but rather education about what its proper use is). On the other hand, we do agree that there is a significant amount of wrong being done to our rights in the name of protecting those whose sole aim for over 50 years has been the control and manipulation of human minds.

All DRM and similar schemes do are to encourage people to find ways to prevent loss by circumvention. DRM is the key issue in the DMCA, and the chief reason that our population is now breaking the law en masse. DRM itself also inhibits the rights of artists to have their works experienced in as close to a live act as possible.

It’s worth noting both that this platform extends beyond explicit issues of file sharing and copyright to include government transparency, privacy rights, and a range of First Amendment issues. It’s also worth noting that the language on the website doesn’t attempt position the Party within mainstream American political dialogue (with a caveat that the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world make the boundaries of “mainstream dialogue” increasingly difficult to pinpoint). Even so, they are creating a space for public discourse around intellectual propery within the realm of electoral politics (as opposed, for instance, to academics).

Interestingly, Lawrence Lessig has expressed some criticism of the US Pirate Party, in that he believes that forwarding a discourse of “piracy” fuels the notion that p2p is synonymous with theft, which he believes will undermine the Free Culture movement.

While this may seem to be a semantic point, my expectation is that Lessig’s belief in a fundamental need for a copyright system in order to encourage the continued production of creative work creates some friction with the Pirate Party’s platform.

Overall, however, I think that it’s important for us to recogize the development of the Pirate Party (rather, Parties) as an important counter-narrative to the history of increasing enclosure that we so often cover. That is, we should be sure analyze movements of both restriction and resistance.

Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein

June 14, 2009

In the discussion around my previous post, P and Bob have been pushing me to consider what seems to be one of the most important problems with the principle of open source (or even “open resource”) culture – if content is shared for free (often on the internet), how can producers/sellers of content (large and small alike) continue to make a living? Won’t most users/consumers choose free copies of content over paid ones? – it’s only economically rational, after all. Will the production of culture become economically unsustainable?

It’s a fair line of questioning, and unavoidable. Most discussions of what’s happening to culture in the digital era will eventually unearth the same concern. P and I had already thought of the question, and discussed it a bit in person in January, but have never written about it directly on the blog, perhaps dodging it for its difficulty, before Bob reminded us of its importance.

As P put it, the large corporate distributors of culture – record companies, film companies, etc. – have recently been defending their turf against open source encroachment by arguing, loudly and publicly, that free sharing of cultural content will not only ruin their business as middle men, but also make it harder for the artists whose work they sell to make a living. As P argued, we know that this is true for large corporations, but is it true for smaller producers, even individual artists? To put it in Bob’s terms, does open source culture pose the same problem for “private ownership” in general as it does for “corporate ownership” in specific?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet. In order to find out, we could start by talking with (or researching) some independent producers and sellers of culture, like Ani DiFranco or Ian MacKaye, to see if their business is suffering in the digital era. As both indy stars operate record labels, it might also be interesting to seek out some unsigned artists who distribute their own content.

Behind all this, there’s a deeper issue. As Bob perceptively picked out, there’s some tension here at Enclosure between a general critique of all private ownership/property, and a specific critique of corporate ownership. Are we waging a critique of private property itself, or are we only concerned about large holders and monopolies? I see my views on this as a spectrum of value: small businesses are preferable to large ones, but an end to private property would be even better. While it is easy to readily critique corporate power and monopolies, it is a bit harder for me to critique smaller businesses (even though they are for-profit enterprises just the same). These are broad and difficult questions – we’ll have to keep working on them as our discussion continues.

Meanwhile, I wanted to catch up on a tidbit Bob mentioned: Einstein’s day job. Coincidentally, the subject is very relevant for Enclosure. In 1905 when Einstein published his first two groundbreaking articles in physics, he was working for the Swiss patent office, himself contributing to the private enclosure of science and technology.

For Bob: the free rider problem

June 9, 2009

Thanks to Bob for giving us some really nice food for thought! Bob brought up the free rider problem – who creates the content vs. who merely consumes content? How do systems of distribution or exchange guarantee that content producers are fairly compensated for their work?

The free rider is a problem only in economies such as capitalism, where property is privately held. In systems where there are significant common resources available (feudalism, communism), there are no free riders in the pejorative sense, because everyone uses the common resources freely and that is economically normative. Such systems also normally contain collectively understood work obligations – all can withdraw resources from the common account because all deposit value through their work.

In our own, admittedly somewhat utopian thinking, those of us on the young internet left (like the Swedish Pirate Party, which just took a seat in the EU Parliament!), want to use the internet if possible to transform the capitalist economy by growing a body of commonly available resources, a new non-commercial commons.

In general, the problem with free riders is that they eat up bodies of resources without contributing to those bodies. In the case of digital file sharing, the main distinction is between users who “share” content, by both uploading and downloading, and those who only donwload (the free riders). As a recent research paper in Business/Econ argued, those who take files without giving any in return use up one key resource: bandwidth. They slow down the network for everyone hooked into it, making it incrementally harder for each individual user to upload and download files, and they do so without offering any files in return.

But this same research paper also argues that internet free riders can have a quiet, often unnoticed benefit: they are likely to become uploaders or sharers by accident, because the programs they use to find content are designed to automatically share whatever content they have previously downloaded. The default setting in many P2P programs is to put downloads and uploads in the same folder, to handle all files in and out through that same location. Users can normally change these settings at will, but free riders are the type of users who don’t bother with more advanced settings, looking for a quick fix download – and thus, they end up sharing files anyway.

This trend is especially visible in recent episodes where the MPAA or RIAA tried to sue a group of kids for uploading who “didn’t know what they were doing” or “just wanted to download.” I think there is good reason to suspect that a large percentage of people who share files at all are not interested in these P2P systems and how they work, but just want to download the songs, movies, etc. that they like. Most downloaders are not proud pirates intending to upload, but they use software that uploads on their behalf.

From this perspective, the internet is unusual as a system of exchange because it is full of free riders, and still delivers unprecidented amounts of content, both free and paid. What do we make of this? Can we argue that P2P systems are a unique type of exchange system, one which tends to multiply free riders for their side effects, so to speak? Do free riders matter where transactions are non-commercial, I mean non-monetary? Interesting stuff, and I’m sure we could generate further important questions at will.

A Response: The Future of File Sharing

June 8, 2009

At the IP Watch blog, Bruce Gain has published a post entitled The Future of File Sharing, in which he explores three new models for digital content distribution that may have some potential to stem the tide of illegal file sharing where industry lawsuits and HADOPI are currently failing. He poses the question this way:

[W]hat alternatives exist that can appease those with royalty interests as well as meet the demand of consumers, especially those who actively engage in sharing copyright-protected media files?

What’s especially interesting about his list is that it offers at two starkly different visions of the future of intellectual property when it comes to digital media.

The first and third of these options – free media supported by ads and global licensing – work on the assumption that p2p is an open Pandora’s box. Rather than keeping at the Sisyphean task of constructing ever tighter systems of DRM in response to the ever more sophisticated, widespread, and user-friendly methods of breaking DRM, copyright holders refocus their efforts in finding alternative revenue streams to support free-range content. In the former case, it’s revenue from advertisements attached to the media distribution platform. In the latter, it’s a blanket point-of-entry fee that covers the entire universe of content that a given user might access for free, distributed by some means to the “owners” of that content.

Gain’s second option, on the other hand, seeks to radically raise the horizon of access to p2p by further privatizing the undergirding technology. Rather than continuing to produce personal computers as open systems that run any compatible applications regardless of origin and allow connectivity to any other computer (given the proper software, etc.), computers of the future could be closed systems – more like video game consoles – where only official applications, peripheral hardware, and networks will be compatible.

The article runs down a variety of logistical problems with each of these three options, which I won’t rehash here, but I do think it’s important to note that all of Gain’s considerations seem to address the first half of his goal (appeasing royalties-seekers) rather than the second (appeasing consumers). I don’t think this imbalance is necessarily a result of any pro-IP bias on the author’s part. Rather, I think it reveals a quality of the current digital distribution system that Gain leaves unspoken; namely, that for those consumers with a baseline of technological know-how, it already fullfils demand almost perfectly. Cultural resources are already available nearly immediately, and in most cases for free over the greynet.

If we are to be honest about what it means to seek out new content distribution systems that “appease everybody” (i.e., producers, sellers, and consumers), we must recognize that we are inherrently talking about finding ways to restore a measure of profitability to the privatized culture industry in the digital age.