July 24, 2003

Socializing Intellectual Property

Robert Cringley's latest brainstorm is, as he modestly says, something which would only occur to a "diabolical loon". Start with the fact that, under fair use laws, if you own a CD, you can make copies of it to shift it to different media, including your computer, your MP3 player, etc.; all perfectly legal so long as you own the CD in question. Now, says Cringley, imagine a corporation which buys, say, 100,000 CDs. It should be possible to structure the corporation in such a way that everyone who owns a share (at, say, \$20 each) counts as a joint owner of those CDs, and so has the right to copy their contents for personal use. If the shareholders want to impose a small service fee on themselves for downloading their common property, what outside party would interfere with this voluntary arrangement? Result: absolutely legal music file sharing, with a reasonable business model for the file-sharing organization.

Whether it would be technically, organizationally and, most of all, legally feasible to pull this off for music, I have no idea. What I love about this idea, though, is the way it takes the thoroughly capitalist organizational form of the mutual fund and twists it around to produce what is, in effect, socialized property. This could be a very important way of undermining the increasingly insupportable demands of intellectual-property owners, without having to perform a frontal attack on intellectual property law itself. Thus, comrades, does the new system incubate within the old...

Actually, come to think of it, one role of universities is already to provide this kind of access to intellectual property. I don't know what I'd have to pay Elsevier, Kluwer, and similar gangs of parasites for electronic access to all the journals in my field, but it'd almost certainly be several thousand dollars a year. Fortunately, I don't have to; the university pays for access for everyone affiliated with it, and while I'm sure it pays more than a single individual would, there are also tremendous economies of scale. Now, if we could only keep what we buy centrally, rather than having to pay the parasites for continued access, we'd all be much better off. But I should go back to working on code before this turns into a full-fledged rant about the future of academic publishing, which anyway would just be me channeling Paul Ginsparg.

Update, 28 July 2003: Greg Claxton writes to let me know about a non-profit outfit called eatmorewords.org which tried to pull a similar stunt with the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, but ultimately failed. Also, John Burke writes to point out, quite properly, that with respect to its employees, the music-sharing collective is just another capitalist corporation, so this isn't quite the new mode of production being born within the confines of the old.

The Dismal Science

Posted at July 24, 2003 19:16 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth