There has been a lot in the news lately about “intellectual property”. Between Napster, the Open Source movement and various high-tech firms rumbling, I’ve had plenty to cogitate. What I’ve decided is that society and economics are going in different directions.
Society believes there is no such thing as intellectual property. Ideas are free. Computer source code and music, for example, are just ideas and should be in the public domain. There is no tangible “thing” that increases their value; they can be copied an infinite number of times with no loss in quality. Their value is essentially zero: a finite cost of the idea replicated an infinite number of times equates to free.
There is an economic factor involved here that society isn’t willing to come to grips with, and that is that software developers and musicians all need to fit within societies own parameters. One of these parameters is that it takes money to survive. Once society stops paying for art, how do artists live? I think that what is happening today is some evidence that society and technology have out-paced business economics.
Let’s take Napster, for instance. Trading music on a service like Napster gets more people interested in music. File-trading databases have the ability to recommend other music that I might like. And the music that reaches the top of these electronic “charts” has nothing to do with marketing muscle, playlists, or record contracts. It’s art in its pure form, unadulterated by record company moguls making business decisions. That’s great for music lovers, but not so great for the recording artists. Sales from albums fall because albums are available free online. Any recording artist worth his or her salt doesn’t make music to make money, but if artists can no longer make a living making music, they are going to be forced to choose another profession. Music suffers, and we’re all back to banging on sticks for entertainment.
Open Source has some of the same problems. Open Source software is an idyllic world where people create software because that’s what they love to do. Everyone shares, and everyone gets along. But no one ever lists “Open Source Software Developer” as his or her job title. Open Source is free. If you charged for it, someone else could make a copy of the source code and charge less. Eventually, everyone who writes software for the Open Source movement gets a day job to pay the bills. If they don't, then no one will choose software design as a profession, technology suffers, and we're all back to banging on sticks for entertainment.
The solutions to these problems are complex. The recording industry needs to figure out a way to allow Napster-like file sharing while maintaining their profits. Rather than charge by the album like they do today, the RIAA could setup its own Napster-like site and charge for bandwidth. Or freely allow people to hear portions of songs written by new bands that sound similar bands people currently like. Do this, and people do the advertising for the RIAA, and in the end, the RIAA’s profits will most likely rise.
The software industry needs to take a similar stance. Hiding source code in a vault doesn’t help the programming industry grow. People need to learn, and the best way to learn is by example. I think Open Source with its free-for-all attitude doesn’t work. It’s essentially Napster, where everything is free and there is no incentive to create. Instead, make software source available to the masses by indexing it on an index server. Provide a web site that can search the code base. This makes copying the code very difficult, but provides honest developers with the tools they need to make better software.
This adversarial big business vs. the people has to stop. Neither side is right, but if you put both pieces together, we can all move forward.