Ownership Response: Renting Things That You Don't Own

Taking a page from George Lakoff’s book, it’s easy to see how the metaphor of media as property has shaped both the rhetoric and strategies of media companies in response to internet “piracy.”

Particularly given the rise of digital media, there are many clear differences between “intellectual property” and other entities that we might refer to as property. From an object-based perspective, digital media can not be entirely sold, given, stolen, rented, or borrowed, as after any song is “sold,” “given,” “stolen,” “rented,” or “borrowed,” the “owner” still possesses the song themselves.

The ease with which media can be copied and redistributed in this new digital environment undoubtedly contradicts the metaphor of media as property, which developed when there was always a physical quality to the media being distributed. I can’t imagine there would be as much stigma associated with borrowing your neighbor’s leaf blower and not returning it if that leaf blower were actually an identical copy that your neighbor created instantly, for pennies. I would argue that this is no longer borrowing at all (It’s not as if your neighbor will want the leaf blower back).

What’s interesting is that, in order to combat piracy, media companies are trying to promote a type of “renting” system for entities that I believe cannot really be borrowed or rented at all. DRM systems look to limit the ways that consumers can interact with content, as well as how long they may do so. While in some ways this restricted use is similar to renting property, they are not the same. Returning to my silly example, it’s as though my neighbor tells me that I can only use the leaf blower for 20 minutes, I can only use it to blow certain leaves, and I have to pay him. These rules would be more reasonable (though still pretty unreasonable) if it were really just the one leaf blower in question. Then the rules about property clearly apply, as he can obviously sell, lend, or rent out his one leaf blower. Even if he were the only one who could reproduce leaf blowers in this way, he might be able to effectively charge me and limit my use of the copied leaf blower.

Unfortunately for my neighbor, he isn’t the only one with this fantastic leaf blower reproducing technology (this is really getting silly). My neighbor on the other side is offering a leaf blower with no restrictions and at no cost (he does have to put advertisements on the roof of his house but he seems to be okay with that). Like my hypothetical neighbor, media companies are struggling to eliminate competition that is charging nothing at all for “their property.” It seems to me like this effort is doomed to fail. And perhaps it should. Media is clearly not property in the classic sense, so it makes sense for it not to be treated as such. Obviously there are a lot of very complicated issues regarding incentives and whatnot, but I feel comfortable saying at least that this metaphor is outdated and should be reevaluated.

2 responses to “Ownership Response: Renting Things That You Don't Own

  1. I’m a big fan of Lakoff too, so I appreciated your post. I do have to disagree, however, with you premise that property can still remain property even if its use becomes non-rival (to put it economic terms). I think the economic model that I would cite is the model of the Claremont bus system. The cost of someone riding a bus that is already moving is zero; the Claremont bus system has to pay drivers, buy buses, etc. whether the buses are full or not. While it is possible that the buses might EVENTUALLY be full, let’s assume that this is pretty unlikely. Wouldn’t you have an argument to make that it isn’t stealing to ride the bus, since the cost to the bus company is zero? You could argue that the right to allow people to board the bus isn’t really a right at all, since my decision to ride the bus wouldn’t affect anyone else as long as the bus wasn’t full. The reason we disagree with the reasoning above is that we realize that the bus cost money to produce and maintain and the USERS of that service should pay for the bus.

    The problem with your analogy is that your neighbor purchased the leaf blower for his own use. Thus, he should have no problem with your piracy because he wasn’t planning on selling that leaf blower to you in the first place. (The appropriate analogy would be the composer who writes songs just for the hell of it.)

    If he bought that leaf blower (and invented the replication machine) SPECIFICALLY to sell it to you and you used it without his permission, that would be theft. (Here, it would be like me recording a song JUST TO GET PAID and not being compensated for it due to copying). I just feel like the difference is intent — some artists don’t want money, and then copying is okay. If the artist creates art just to make money, however, I don’t think that there is a fair case that piracy is justified.

  2. My point that my neighbor could still sell/rent leaf blowers if he were the only one in possession of the replicating technology was not meant to imply that the leaf blowers were now property, but simply that leaf blowers being excludable would take them a step closer to being treated as property. For a good to be treated as property and therefore subject to a market structure it must be both excludable and rival in consumption. Though this is a simplistic way of looking at it, the music industry is failing to market music as property because a song in digital form is neither excludable nor rival in consumption. In the case of the leaf blower example, the neighbor who exclusively has the ability to reproduce leaf blowers could choose to limit his production to make the good rival in consumption and therefore effectively sell or rent it.

    I agree with your point that the intent to sell the copies of songs makes a difference to the “owners” of the songs who have come to expect in the current system that they are entitled to this revenue. That said, given the inability to treat songs as property economically, it still seems beneficial to stop treating songs and other media as property in conversation or in law. If treating the music industry similarly to my leaf blower example will, as you point out, reward those creating music for reasons other than money, that doesn’t seem like a huge problem to me. The problem is that the music industry has come to assume that they are entitled to a certain amount of money for their creations even when the nature of the system no longer supports that assumption