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.