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.
Whether the hostilities between consumer and corporations erupted into open conflict because someone inevitably realized they could set up shop on the internet and simplify the entire retail experience, or because music lovers rose up en-masse to share/steal music through a global medium, or most likely because copying and sharing copies of digital products is so practically simple that it forces the hands of those who make their living in the trade of those products, the understanding between the people who sell and the people who buy has changed across the entire board. When it became clear that the only thing that had stopped people from just taking what they want was inconvenience, the world of commerce decided we had broken their unseen contracts, and they would take the opportunity to finally rewrite the rules on their own.
Now, not even the ownership of a physical item is looked at in precisely the same way. When I buy a game at Gamestop, now with the explicit and legally defined understanding that I have virtually no right to copy, share or manipulate the intellectual property on the disc, which the corporation claims ownership over despite my buying the disc, the companies that create these games now seek to change my rights to resell the physical product, as well. In a continuing conflict with used-game retailers, publishers and designers are making arguments that they have the right to manage and be compensated for those transactions, as well. Don’t mistake that for laughable greed. It’s a meaningful attempt to redefine ownership. This is a road that leads to the diminution of consumer ownership, changing your purchases at a retail point of sale from a transaction of possession to an open-ended lease on the entire product. High-tech commerce has become the front line for defining consumer rights, and we’re faring poorly.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some anti-business, tie-die wearing, WTO protesting hippie. I am, myself, a small business owner, fully invested in the capitalist ideology that drives the global marketplace. I understand trying to maximize my profits and being reimbursed for not just the product I make but the work I put into it. And, as a writer, I also understand that when companies buy my writing they are not buying the words, but the ideas, and that I retain some rights to those ideas. It’s a delicate balance in commerce, but one that demands consumer as well as corporate protection.
“Ownership” is not a dirty word, and we shouldn’t be restricted from using our products in reasonable manners. The fact technology changes and opens up new opportunities for consumers should not, by default, mean every company threatened by that new technology has the right to confine and restrict their customers. It’s the corporations’ job to adapt to a changing marketplace.
What we need is simply better consumer protection. This is a war being waged in Congress, and as consumers, particularly of digital media, we have no real voice. Powerful lobbies with significant resources are free to walk into Congress and describe the rights that have been common in the past as the demands of thieves and villains. I have no real beef with that. Companies should be doing everything in their legal power to protect themselves, but the problem is when legislators turn to hear the other side and no one is there. Nobody has ever won a debate by not even showing up. We vent fitfully into this online ether where, forgive me for saying, very little meaningful progress can be made.
As long as we have no advocate in the place where the rules are being made, this conflict is not a conflict at all.