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.