The Moral Dilemma of Intellectual Property

Let's imagine for a moment that we live in the (perhaps distant) future. You have just invented a machine that can duplicate matter. You throw any object into this machine and set the number copies and out they come. Image the good you could do with such a machine. If you put an apple in the machine, you could, with some effort, give everybody in the world an apple. But what would the apple growers have to say about this? Would they try to get laws passed that would outlaw your machine? Failing that, would they try to force you to change your machine so it could not copy apples, and further, would they try to outlaw the mere discussion of how to duplicate apples?

Seems silly, I know. The apple growers, like everyone else, might find a way to enjoy the benefits of a device that could free the world from physical want.

We don't have a machine that can copy matter, but we do have a machine that can copy information. It's the hundreds of millions of computers we use every day. Increasingly connected together into a vast global network, we stand on the edge of an era where the world's people can be free of informational want. That is, except for this little problem of "intellectual property."

If we could return to the distant future and the apples, what do you suppose the value of an apple is if you can make unlimited copies at no cost? You got it, zero. What is the value of a Metallica song after Napster gets done with it? You got it, zero. In the analog world, supply is limited. The law of supply and demand determines the price, but in the digital world supply is always unlimited, so the cost it always zero.

Naturally, the recording industry, the movie studios, and the proprietary software companies hate this. Someone has come along and killed their golden goose. I imagine that the buggy whip manufacturers felt the same way with the advent of the automobile. Actually, hate is an understatement. They want revenge.

Through a combination of legislation and industry pressure, the media companies are attempting to force people to give up their computers. It will still seem like you have a computer, except it won't do the thing most basic to its nature. It won't freely move and duplicate information. If you had a RAM chip in your computer that did not freely move and duplicate information, you would replace it as defective. Limiting computers this way destroys their wonderful gift.

The goal of the media companies is to realize a fantastic vision. A pay-per-view world of books, movies, music, and software where there is no physical trace of their product, where they get to duplicate their content at no cost to them and make everybody pay to look at it every time. Rather than losing their golden goose, they change it into a golden Godzilla.

So in exchange for this land grab by the media companies, we are expected to give up our fair use rights (granted to us under the Constitution) and say "oh, never mind" to the prospect of setting the world's knowledge free for all to share and benefit from.

Here we have the dilemma, should we allow information to become universally available to everyone or should we allow the intellectual property holders create an artificial shortage of their products? To me, the important word here is "artificial". Computers naturally want to make copies. To do otherwise requires a lot of unnatural acts, as you have seen if you have ever worked with any copy-protection scheme.

The concept of intellectual property may be obsolete. It may be another buggy whip.