Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Public Good

I am not going to say too much at this time but rather make a statement and then list some questions. In the modern age media, both written and electric mediums, have begun to take on the characteristics of public goods. In the way that, thanks to computers, they are non-rival and non-excludable. Trying to prevent piracy and protect intellectual property rights is nearly impossible and expensive while setting up and sharing files is cheap and easy. In every way save its name intellectual property is a public good. So is it a crime to use a public good? How do you stop people from using a public good? Can the private sector provide a public good? Is there any way to turn back time and make electronic media a private good again?


  1. I will give you two examples of producers of intellectual property who have made a living "volunteering to mow the lawn at the city park". (Using your intellectual property as a public good analogy..)

    The first is a musician named Jonathon Coulton.

    The second would be webcomic creator Scott Kurtz.

    I've spoken with both of these intellectual property artists, and they have both given a lot of thought about the questions that you ask in your post. Check out their blogs, and check out their music and comics too.

  2. There is also the band which is kind of awesome, ok wait they are really awesome you might of heard of them Radiohead. Radiohead put their entire album Inrainbows online free and said (pay how much you feel this album is worth to you). Many people did (I think that they still gained good return on their album). Many people felt that the cost of guilt from getting the music for free was higher than paying for it.

    In the long run though I'm not sure if it worked out as one cannot download inrainbows anymore...so it was just for a limited period of time :-(

  3. Digital intellectual property rights are meaningless in the age of P2P technology. Attempts to enforce it thus far has only succeeded in alienating the very consumers musicians and artists rely on. Profits for the large RIAA backed labels will likely continue to decline until collapse and I expect to see a flourishing market for independent, self-produced, self-distributed artists. We need to rethink the role of for-profit record labels and musicians in the age of the internet.

    We might also need to rethink the the concept of public vs private goods as neither seems to fit with the phenomena in question.

  4. Oh and Camilla, in case you were still looking for that album...

    http://www.mediafire.com/file/zozmqwdnmtm/Radiohead - In Rainbows (2008)blossommusic.blogspot.com.rar

    Pirate 4 life.

  5. Thank you Richard for saying what I was thinking.

  6. Didymos,
    You raise an interesting question, are intellectual properties becoming public goods (if I understood your question)? Your argument is compelling--in a de facto sort of way. Properties such as software, music, etc. are quickly, easily and (to a large degree) anonymously copied; to the end that they could be viewed as though they were public goods. After all, when private files can be so easily and freely shared how do they differ from materials in the public domain? As you say, when these works are shared they are non-rival and clearly no one is being excluded from them. By that definition such easily copied works would be public goods—at least from an economic perspective. However, your later questions compel us to consider intellectual property in a legal light, as well as an economic one. In former light we cannot merely consider how a good is being used (or its availability). Instead, we must consider who has the right to use the work and how they are allowed to use it. When looking at the right to use a work our perspective is changed slightly. We change from looking at the movement of the good to the intangible right of its use. While a song may be treated as though it was a public good, few people would claim that the right for its use is also public. In fact, I would argue that most people think that the artist is the owner of the work and that they deserve some benefit for that work. Further, they know that when they share a song they are committing a crime because they know that they do not have the right to do so. The good at issue then, is not the music itself but the right to its use. Therefore, when you ask the question, is it a crime to use a public good? We can say no, but these are not public goods because the rights to their use is not public. Instead, it is exclusive and particular. The fact that people are willing to trample those rights when sitting anonymously behind a computer screen does not change that fact. I’ll wrap this up with a bad analogy. File theft, in this instance, is like sneaking into someone’s house (when they’re not home) and watching their TV. You haven’t taken something physical from him, but you have trampled on his right to be the exclusive user of his TV (to ignore the breaking and entering charge that would also apply in this example). The issue is the right to exclusive use, not so much the good that was used. That is why, if you are caught stealing songs online, you will be charged with a greater crime than had you simply stolen a CD from a store. You didn’t just take the music, you stole the right to reproduce the music as well. You raise a complex issue with this post. To fully consider the main question you ask moves us to consider what ownership of intangible property really means, and further what it means to violate that ownership? When does something become public and can it become public as a result of the actions of people who traditionally have no right to the thing itself? I’m tempted to say that this is one of many subjects that require deep consideration as technology progresses. However, as real standards are developed, and the Internet becomes the domain of corporations, instead of a hodgepodge of novel inventors, I suspect that most of these issues will be resolved in a manner that respects the property rights that have existed for centuries.