What’s Mine is Yours and What’s Yours is Yours

Sean Sands | 30 Nov 2007 17:30
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

The term "ownership" is losing its practical meaning.

At the risk of being old-fashioned, I recall with some nostalgia a time when I felt like purchasing a new cassette from my local Musicland, both now extinct relics of simpler times, was an elevating act rather than a criminally suspicious one. And, from that moment on, what I did with that cassette was entirely of my choosing. I could copy it, loan it to a friend, play it in any car and at anyone's house, and even sell it to someone else without cause for concern.

There was no assumption that I was merely licensing the right to listen to the music. Whether that's what corporate record executives in tall buildings actually thought as they twirled their waxed moustaches while swimming in money pools, or so the popular online description of these men goes, was irrelevant to me. I had never signed an agreement at the point of sale stating that I would abide by some corporate mandate. I simply transacted money and walked out with a product. That word, product, is another one that's losing its meaning these days. In fact, the very concept of "owning" a "product" doesn't mean what it sounds like, particularly when it comes to items of a digital or electronic nature. At some point there was a quiet and hidden war waged on those definitions, and without even knowing it, we lost.

I think the first time I ever thought about the changing face of ownership was, surprisingly, when David Letterman left NBC. This was during the great Late Night Wars of the 1990s where famous people who interviewed other famous people assumed that the rest of America was particularly interested in what corporation they worked for. It was the first time I'd heard a surprisingly important phrase: intellectual property. At some point, someone had the bright idea that companies could not just own items, but they could own ideas. This wasn't just ownership of a patent or copyrighted material, like a song or a book, but something as intangible as, in this case, the concept of a joke. Mostly we all just laughed at the ordeal and assumed it was a bunch of self-important people arguing over things that weren't actually important to ordinary folks.

We were wrong.

This concept of what corporations could claim ownership over was, in fact, terribly important, because the number of things without physical properties that people would own was about to increase dramatically. This isn't just about music but things like software, movies and technology, where the customer buys a physical product, but its usefulness is not the product itself. A game, for example, is not actually the DVD on which it's printed, it's the invisible code that operates the game, and companies over the next few decades stopped selling things and began selling the right to access ideas.

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