Reflections on Ownership, Access and Control
Published November 16, 2015
I was recently listening to episode 12 of the Singularity Bros podcast. In that one, they used something we talked about in Ep 211 - #InternetFAIL as a starting point. In our episode, I’d mentioned listening to one of their early episodes (ep1, I think) about this idea that ownership as a concept is on the way out. I’d taken a bit of an exception to that idea, which is mainly rooted in the copyright debate. So, in their episode 12, the Bros had some interesting follow up thoughts that I wanted to think through a bit more, and maybe clarify the thing about this concept, of ownership going away, that really worries me.
What is Ownership? I think there are really two components to it. One is definitely what the Bros seemed to focus on, which is to say Access. If you have Access to something, isn’t that an effective replacement for the idea of ownership? It’s an intriguing idea… but I think it’s missing something which is really at the heart of my worry about this issue. That missing piece is Control. Control has been under assault for a long time now, via technology. I remember the very first VCRs, that didn’t have any copy protection on them, you could even chain them together to make copies of officially released movies. In other words, once you bought that movie, you could do whatever you wanted with it, and there really wasn’t anything that anyone could do about it. Of course, pretty quickly the copyright lobby went after that idea. At first, via the law, they limited you to “home viewing” rights. So, in other words you were allowed to purchase the movie, but it was for use in your home. You couldn’t take it to a public place and show it.
Due to the previous existence of movie theaters, this certainly seemed like a reasonable restriction. In return for having your own personal copy of a movie, you weren’t to show it in public, in competition with theaters. Fine. But they haven’t stopped there. If your kids were a bit destructive, and rather than risk your purchased copy, say you decided to make a backup copy for them to watch, while keeping the original safe. That method would require the aforementioned daisy-chaining (although there were always rumors of “double-decker” VCRs that did that automatically), but it was workable. Enter technology. Eventually trying to do this would result in a copy of essentially nothing, with the advent of copy protection. And thus really began the game of copyright “whack-a-mole” that continues today.
This was really the first removal/change of a function (i.e. record) to not do what the owner/user of the equipment told it to do. The above “public performance” restriction was really a legal decision within society… there was actually nothing physically preventing you from doing it, but there could (and one could argue, should) be consequences for that action. Blocking copying though meant if you pressed record, the machine wouldn’t.
This is an idea that was covered a little in The Interactivist article that we used as the starting point for our ads discussion in Episode 220 - InterrUpted. This idea that the technology does not do what the user tries to use it for, but instead answers to someone else, who has decreed that the device simply will not do that. This is an idea that I find extremely troubling, at root. And this is really what I’m talking about when I say Control.
If all you’re concerned with is Access, then the streaming services probably do look very attractive. Pay your monthly fee and then anything you could want is available for viewing. But without Control over that media, you really can’t ensure that it’s actually what you want. Take for example one of the very media items that the Bros talked about, Star Wars. George Lucas has changed all kinds of things about this movie since its release. The versions that are available by and large are the versions he decided. And the way that our laws are written, that’s always the case. The OWNER is the one who determines what is available, when you can watch it, under what conditions you can watch it, and what you can do with it. Without the concept of ownership, if all you’re concerned with is Access, you’re missing a big part of what it means to be able to participate in culture.
There are a ton of things that just aren’t possible without that control. What about remixing? Re-editing? In the general public, the media has cultivated an attitude for the last several generations, that we’re just viewers, that being able to access things is enough. I disagree. Media in fact make up the fabric of our culture. This has been true from time immemorial but as the media forms have become more concrete and as corporations have assumed ownership, we’ve been relegated to a passive role, that of viewer.
Is that enough? For a lot of people, the answer may be yes. But that doesn’t mean that we as a culture, as a whole, should be OK with that. After all, a lot of culture is remixed, and re-edited. There should be space for things like fan fiction, fan editors, remixers, and all of the various remix culture that already exists on the Internet. Without Control, I guarantee that that will be lost. Corporations are effectively immortal, and they’ve already started the ongoing extension of copyright. In fact, you can basically track when copyright will be extended by Mickey Mouse’s expiration date. Any time we get anywhere near that, it gets extended, yet again.
If ownership of media truly goes away, if we become all digital or all streaming, then corporations will for sure attempt to stop remix culture. After all, they’re dedicated to exploiting their copyright monopoly and remix culture is direct challenge to both that exploitation and the ownership that the monopoly right implies.
Really, I think our culture has already lost a lot in this assault on ownership and control by these corporations. In the US anyway, copyright only exists in order to “promote the useful arts and sciences”. It’s not any kind of moral right that authors have… and even if it was, despite their legal definition of personhood, corporations are not in fact people. I think we’ve become too willing to be passive viewers, to be the couch potatoes basically, and not enough of us have stood up for those that are not satisfied with just Access.
Back to Star Wars for a minute… the fan editor community has taken the basic films of George Lucas and done some really incredible work. Some of that is preservation, to try to recreate, with the best elements possible, the original films as they were when theatrically released. Some of that is enhancing, to take the newer versions of the films and improve where fans have disagreed with the official owner (in this case George Lucas) as to how they should be displayed. And if you look historically, that’s always how human culture has told stories. The generations that follow modify and improve upon the culture that came before them. From an open-source standpoint, it’s like having access to the source code. Being able to modify things to work better for you.
That’s been an ongoing conversation that society has had… and certainly sometimes it goes too far. But there should be room in that conversation for the audience as more than just an audience. Even if not everyone avails themselves of that right. Without Control, if all of you have is Access, that is lost. And that would be tragic.