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?