I’ve been reading a lot about copyright for a while now. Intellectual property. Does something analogous to a property right make sense in a digital world?

It’s hard. As near as I can tell, we’re seeing two fundamental changes.

First, what are we to make of scarcity just vanishing? What’s a newspaper to do when I don’t have to buy their paper or watch their program because I can find the same information ten or twenty other places online? Or, just as importantly, when I can find other information that’s just as interesting to me hundred or thousand places online? This is important, for when I hit a paywall or am obnoxiously prompted to log in, I close the window or click a link and find something else that suits my tastes at least nearly as well in twenty seconds. Sure, your article about Barack Obama would haven been great, but I can find others elsewhere, and I like reading about Hillary Clinton too.

Second, what are we to make of the plummeting costs of duplication? What’s record label to do when I don’t have to buy their music because I can download it? What’s a newspaper to do when I can easily replicate their content in my feed reader by scraping their site? Or when a splogger does something actually harmful?

There are maybe some answers.

To the first, many propose inventing new business models around goods and services that are necessarily scarce. Bands, for instance, should let go of making money off CDs and embrace concert tours and t-shirts. Kevin Kelly writes about eight other ideas, which he calls generatives. Make your goods and services premium or easier to find or personalized, etc. Good ideas.

To the second, there’s something like Attributor, which could let us track our copyrighted material and force re-publishers to share the monetization. Copyright is still the basis here. Well, without copyright, there would be no basis for technologies like Attributor anyhow.

Are there more problems? I’m sure there are. But fighting ubiquity is a losing battle. Why not encourage it, track it, add up the duplications, and create something that tells us what’s most duplicated? Aggregate the publishing and the re-publishings. Then we’d know what to read or watch—that something is more duplicated indicates some kind of relevant popularity and interestingness (one hopes).

Re-publishers can each have some slice of the pie they helped grow. They keep a share of the ad revenue, and original authors get the rest. This should make everyone happy as long as the copyright owner’s slice of the new, larger pie is larger than the whole of the original, smaller pie. It’s win-win.

So, yeah, I suspect copyright’s still a useful legal construct. It can still promote economic efficiency. But it’s foolish to rely on copyright to enforce scarcity. Instead, embrace ubiquity and monetize it.


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