Posted tagged ‘technology’

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.