Thursday, September 13, 2007

Potatoes: Finite and Infinite

The emergence of the internet is the most significant sociological even of our lifetime, and it may continue to be so. Internet phenomena usually aren't completely unique, but serve as extreme examples of concepts we're already familiar with (ex: relationships and issolation). However, there's one area that, for me, an internet phenomenon was the last straw that made me think we really need to rethink a familiar concept.

We need to reexamine the notion of property and what should constitute ownership.

A friend and co-contributor, Josh, turned me onto one of his friend's blog entries that summarized the issue thusly: The concept of ownership exists in response to the fact that resources are limited. When trying to feed a community, everyone cannot have a certain potato. The potato exists in space and is finite. Therefore, establishing ownership is a good and fair way of dealing with the problem. However, this concept cannot be as easily applied to objects these days. There isn't a limit to the number of mp3's of a certain song, or copies of a certain image. Anybody can duplicate any digital object. As far as digital media goes, we effectively can have infinite potatoes. Information is no longer a finite comodity.

So, what does that do to the notion of ownership? What the hell is intellectual property?

For me, intuitive definitions of property begin to be less useful when they are dealing non-limited objects.

We generally think that if you pay money for something, it's yours. But I don't have the right to copy information that I paid for. (The hard drive on my iPod is mine, but direction that the metal fillaments on the hard drive are facing is not.)

We think that if you put effort into creating something, it belongs to you. But if my effort yeilds something that is similar enough in form to something that already exists, it's not mine.

We generally think that if you come up with an idea, an image, something, that is unique, it is inherently your property. But then what space does that leave for insipration, collaboration?

Is this MY blog? I created it. I'm the primary administrator. It was MY idea (right?). Is it MINE? Is it Googles? Is it OURS?

This is not an internet specific grey area. Hip hop has been plagued with questions of who owns sound collages. How many seconds can a sample be before it become stealing? Corporations belong to shareholders, but are often talked about as if they belong to the CEO.

We want to protect our effort. We fear being ripped off, or having someone else get the glory and the limited potatoes that we deserve. But this concept of property is treated as if it's concrete, innate, logical. It seems to me that it's anything but. It's abstract, ambiguous, artificial. Necessary.

I don't want to imply that I want to see everything be communal and the concept of private property be abolished. I think there's value in the notion of ownership. But it needs work.

The place where property gets really difficult to define, and where file sharing is most relevant, is artistic creation. You'd think it'd be easy to say "if I created it, it's mine". But what happens when you sell that? Is a copy of what you created still the thing that you created? Is it yours just because it looks like what you made? Is your creation the object or the idea?

Here's one example of how I see things, and how things get messed up in my mind. My photos are mine. I made them. However, I do not have the right to tell people how to use them. If I sell a picture, it's theirs. I gave it to them. The image is my creation, presentation of the image is not. To say "you can't display my picture on your body because I created it so I can tell you what to do with it" is to say that by taking a picture I claim ownership to behaviors relating to that picture. We wouldn't say that about a physical object. Nobody could sue us for Gravity Club because the don't want their hard engineering work ruined by us throwing it off stairs. I have the right to say how I want the prints I make displayed in my house, or in an art gallery where I'm displaying them. I do not have the right to tell someone who bought my prints not to burn them or where to put them in their house. It's theirs, not mine. The danger comes when I sell a picture to someon who pays 20 bucks for my image, then uses it in advertising and makes thousands using it. But, is that any different from them hanging it in their house? Are they selling my image, or using my image ot sell something else. Should I get money either way?

So, I ask you, what are the qualities of ownership? What connection do you have to have to an object or idea before you can claim it as part of you (can you ever claim an idea as your own). After all, isn't that what it means to own something?


Erin said...

OMG I am all over this. HEGEL baby.

nico said...

The digital age has needed legal ideation for a long time.

Fortunately for us, it now exists:

This site actually answers a lot of your questions, Evan.


"We generally think that if you come up with an idea, an image, something, that is unique, it is inherently your property. But then what space does that leave for insipration, collaboration?"

See link.

"How many seconds can a sample be before it become stealing?"

Well, not CC but
Wikipedia answers.

There exist entire departments, consulting firms, and government positions related to this subject that think about this for a living - so I believe it's actually less metaphysical than this thread is making it out to be (unless Erin goes and Hegels it up).

And just look what I've done here - I've included two links to explain the pre-existing ideas because I know who are the original sources of the answers. I didn't claim the answers for my own just because I composed them in a comment made up of my own words, I am giving credit to my sources cited, so there are neither legal nor ethical repercussions.

SnrIncognito said...

that's a very good summary of legality. however, i feel like law exists to support ideology, and it's that ideology that i find to be muddy.

for example, the wiki article on sampling sites examples where a sample was not considered infringing because it did not contain the "heart" of the song. what the hell is the song's heart?

what i want to try to get at is what the reason is that you should cite where your ideas come from. why would it be immoral for you not to? what is the reasoning behind our concepts of ownersip and license.

im aware of the institutions that exist to cope with these issues, but i think those institutions base their conclusions on very muddled reasoning.

the answer cannot stop with "you can't do that because it's licensed, and here's the legal definition of a license".

SnrIncognito said...

(nico has explained to me what a song's "heart" is.)

Tek Support said...

Recap of car conversation:
As a result of our en-route to noodleworld- I came to this conclusion:
The very concept of ownership is socially constructed. One doesn't have to travel too far (in distance or time) to realize that there are other ideas of "ownership" which dictate large portions of world-views. The concept of women as property, or the lack of ownership of any objects are both ideas that we are familiar with, whether we agree with them or not. Having said this, the very idea of ownership becomes akin to a religious belief system/ a piece of cultural specific phenomena.

Evan: "But there is a universal religion/truth, therefore there should be a universal concept of ownership."

There may be a theoretical "truth" in the way that there is a theoretical concept of a complete Unified Theory" of physics, but in terms of practical application, there will always be disagreement about concepts ownership in the same way that there will be conflicts between different religious belief groups.

Having said that, I would like to postulate that the concept of ownership is therefore an elusive and ever changing idea. As the complexity of distribution mediums and the availability of art/ideas propagate through them, the laws that protect art/ideas will have to evolve to accommodate.

Whats a songs "heart?"

SnrIncognito said...

ok, here goes...

while im happy to say that perspective matters, i think that each term we use has boundaries, or the term is meaningless. there are qualities if property and ownership that are fairly universal as far as what we mean when we talk about them.

ownership i think implies total dominion over something (partial dominion is referred as co- or partial ownership). the right to do with something as you please, including reliquishing dominion.

we assume that we have the right (totally other topic) to have dominion over things that are derivative of ourselves. things that originate from us. i think this is entirely appropriate. we need to have control over some things in order to live our lives, so we ought to have control over those things we created, and total control over things we have created in their entirety. and thats exactly the problem i have with ownership.

nothing we own originates exclusively from us. if you grow a potato, your efforts assisted in it's creation, but you didn't create it. things we build are constructed of parts we did not build. when you are sold something, the person selling it sells you their dominion. however, they don't really have total dominion over the object in the first place to sell to you. we assume, for practical purposes, that each time something is sold it carries with it the voluntary reliquishment of all dominions before it, when in fact it's only voluntary for the most recent dominator.

the most extreme example of something not having clear enough origines to be owned is an idea. i fimrly believe that an idea is abstract enough that it has no clear boundaries, no clear origines, and certainly no clear physical representaion. you can't own an idea. the only one who can even experience an idea is the person having it. everyone else experiences the behavior influenced by that idea.

moreover i don't think you should own an idea. anyone who has dominion over an idea can limit the exchange of information, which is one of, if not the only, way to uncover oppression.

that being said, there's a conflict at hand. the only thing we do create and do deserve to have dominion over are our thoughts and ideas. the things we do, the labor we perform and the originality we exhibit, are displays of our ideas, our motivations, initiatives, drives.
what i think we're really concerned about is the danger of working hard and not being rewarded for it. we feel we deserve the fruits of our labor. and i agree. our labor is the expression of our only originality.

"ownership" denotes physical boundaries, though. you don't own your ideas because they have no boundaries that are easily recognizable. what we can own are the results of us having an idea and acting on it. thats where the compramise comes in. you don't deserve to own any physical thing, but physical things are the only way we can own the things we do deserve to have dominion over.

so, infinite potatoes. here's where my ideas get sticky...
we want to safeguard our nonphysical property, our ideas, by limiting how their representations are consumed. often more importantly, we want any benefits that come from our labors and our ideas to come back to us.

these wants, however, i think may be overly selfish and unreasonable at some point.

the objects that come from your ideas are yours first and foremost. however, they are still objects. if you sell them, you sell the object. YOU CAN'T SELL YOUR IDEAS. they have no physical boundary.

i think we assume that when something is sold, something we created as art, we deserve a portion. i don't think this is true. we enter into a contract with distributors that makes this expectation reasonable. we have a system of licensing to make it easier for people to make a living who want to create media. however, i don't think it's a right to get benefits from objects that you created. it's a good system, but not an inherent characteristic of creation.

here's how i think it plays out. for the sake of arguement, you own an image, a recording, a sculpture, because it's a close interpretation of your idea. if you don't present it publically, and someone gets a hold of it, they stole it. if you put it online and have established that it's not for free, it can be stolen. if you put it online as public, and someone takes it, it's not stolen. you forfeited your dominion, sold it to the world for free. if they in turn sell it, it's their property. you sold it for free, and they again sold it for money.

it's not as clear cut as that.

the important aspect for me is not the legality, the justice, the economy of it. its the theory. it is not an inherent property of creation that you deserve to benefit from however it gets profited off of. it's a social and economic agreement, sepparate from the basic qualities of ownership.
if we want to make money, we should have strict and copious rules governing who can own what to what capacity. if we want to encourage the spread of information only, we should have no laws governing these thigns. if we want ideas to spread and people to be able to make a living off of creation, we should compramise.