Graham: How Do You Define ‘Property?’

Paul Graham‘s newest essay on defining property has an analogy I like a lot:

As a child I read a book of stories about a famous judge in eighteenth century Japan called Ooka Tadasuke. One of the cases he decided was brought by the owner of a food shop. A poor student who could afford only rice was eating his rice while enjoying the delicious cooking smells coming from the food shop. The owner wanted the student to pay for the smells he was enjoying. The student was stealing his smells!

This story often comes to mind when I hear the RIAA and MPAA accusing people of stealing music and movies.

If that’s not enough to get you to read the whole thing, there’s also this, in the footnotes, about the interconnectedness of technological progress and cultural definitions of property:

Change in the definition of property is driven mostly by technological progress, however, and since technological progress is accelerating, so presumably will the rate of change in the definition of property. Which means it’s all the more important for societies to be able to respond gracefully to such changes, because they will come at an ever increasing rate.

Mark Cuban: “I Hate Patent Laws”

Mark Cuban’s got a post up about the impending Yahoo/Facebook patent litigation. Warning: sarcasm is employed. (Some commenters seemed not to get it.)  His basic point is that people will not realize what’s really at stake with patents until something big and absurd, like Yahoo getting Facebook for having personalized pages, goes through and hits a brand people care about.

I hope Yahoo is awarded 50 billion dollars. It is the only way that consumers will realize what is at stake with patent law as is.

Then maybe we can get it right and further innovation and competition in this country.

All Future Roads Lead to Problems With Intellectual Property

Technology is advancing on multiple fronts. Here’s a partial list of fields:

  1. biotechnology
  2. additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  3. nanotechnology
  4. virtual reality
  5. artificial intelligence

Once significantly advanced, any one of these technologies has the potential to fundamentally blur the line between ideas and physical objects. All of these technologies strive to take reality as we know it and “digitize” it into malleable information that we can then control.

Biotechnology seeks to make life itself programmable. Additive manufacturing and nanotechnology seek to treat physical goods like software. Virtual reality seeks to digitize full-fledged experiences. Artificial intelligence seeks to scan the measurable world and use all of this data to build reusable decision-making models.

So now let’s consider intellectual property. Fundamentally intellectual property is about assigning exclusive ownership over ideas. When we consider that increasingly we are using our technology to transform the whole world into “ideas”, one starts to see where the conflict arises. Few of us, I think, would want to live in a world where all of reality is subdivided, apportioned, and proprietarily owned (as if that sort of future would even be feasible).

Here is a short round up of links symptomatic of this underlying collision course between technology and intellectual property.

Great Podcast on 3D Printing and Intellectual Property

Michael Weinberg, author of the paper It Will Be Awesome If We Don’t Screw It Up, recently appeared on the Surprisingly Free podcast and gave a fascinating interview on the intellectual property implications of 3D Printing.

You can download or listen to the podcast here.

Most of the interview deals with IP issues following the debut of 3D Printing. However, at one point, Weinberg breezes past an important fact that caught my attention. Apparently, the current renaissance of desktop 3D Printing is only possible because of patents expiring. Which is depressing to hear, isn’t it? There’s our wonderful patent system for you. I wonder what other amazing innovations are sitting on the backburner right now, just waiting around for monopoly rights to get out of the way.

The Big Question: Which Physical Constraints Should We Keep?

On the subject of virtual offices, Robin Hanson writes:

“What features of office spaces today would we jettison if we could, since they mainly deal with physical constraints that need not apply in virtual reality?

Maybe each person would feel the temperature and humidity they like best. Maybe walls would glow, instead of all light coming from glaring overhead lights. Maybe you’d always feel like you were walking barefoot on soft grass. Maybe all surfaces could be of the most luxurious textures and styles. Your computer “screen” might fill up a wall, or be 3D in a vast warehouse-sized space. But what else?

People might just appear in each other’s offices, instead of having to walk there, but that might feel disruptive. Perhaps hallways could be lots shorter, with each person having a huge personal corner office looking out on a spectacular view. But would it be ok if the shapes and views of offices and halls made no sense relative to each other?”

This fun thought experiment highlights an important question: As we move into the future, what are the physical constraints we want to keep? And what are the constraints we’d just as soon get rid of?

Hanson asks this question about advanced virtual reality. But we might as well ask this question about less immersive virtual experiences. For example, the entire Internet.

In my mind, this is exactly the structure of the copyright wars. Scarcity is a physical constraint of the offline world. Whether we artificially recreate it online is completely up to us. Organizations like the MPAA have been clear from the beginning: They think property online should work the same as property offline. To them scarcity is an important physical contraint to keep, whereas the Pirate Bay clearly feels otherwise.

Obviously some constraints are useful. Just because the digital space allows endless options doesn’t mean you necessarily want access to all options all the time. Too much choice has been shown to negatively impact happiness. Moreover a lot of successful online businesses are built around artificial constraints re-imagined as features—Twitter being an obvious example.

As Sebastian Thrun demonstrated with his Stanford AI course, online classes can be incredibly large. This marks a triumph over a physical constraint that normally limits peoples’ access to learning. But I can imagine certain real world constraints you might want to build back into a teaching environment. Perhaps you’d want to divide the class into subgroups containing only forty people, and mandate that all students participate in live discussions via video chat. That way students could actually learn each others names and personalities and feel more like part of a community. Perhaps this would improve learning and engagement. Or perhaps it would have the opposite effect. These are fun issues to think about.

As our lives increasingly move online we have the option to reexamine first principles and decide as individuals and as a society what constraints are desirable and what constraints really aren’t. This will require a lot of experimentation, since just about anything is possible in a digital environment. But pretty much the worst thing we can do is just reflexively mirror the real world, particularly when it comes to legal and economic issues.

Pirate Bay Preparing to Pirate Physical Objects

Digitization marches forward and the Pirate Bay is planning accordingly. As a result of new technologies like desktop 3D printers, physical objects will soon be pirate-able.

“We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printersscanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.” (link)

Yet another reason why intellectual property (artificial scarcity) is only going to become a bigger and bigger issue with each passing year.

Two More Reasons Why Artificial Scarcity Can’t Work and Piracy is Probably Uncontainable

People act as if the problem with SOPA/PIPA is in the execution. They seem to think “yeah piracy is bad and should be stopped, but we shouldn’t break the Internet in the process.” This strongly implies that some magical third bill exists, some more civilized solution that could end piracy while not breaking the Internet.

I doubt such a solution exists. Piracy is just copying. Copying is just moving bits from one place to another. It’s such a fundamental activity of using computers and digital technology that to limit copying, you pretty much have to compromise the liberty of the system as we know it. Even then it’s likely people will still find a way around anti-piracy controls. We are rapidly approaching a world where everyone has a cheap computer in their pocket that can hold all the world’s music and movies many times over.

Along these lines, here are two recent and relevant links:

1. File Sharing Without the Internet: The Saharan Bluetooth Experience

“Digital filesharing doesn’t need the internet. This is the case at least in Western Africa and other parts of the developing world, where computers aren’t yet consumer goods for most and, even if they were, web access isn’t exactly New York City. Lovers of music still get it done, however, sharing files between knockoff cell phones via bluetooth connections and accumulating song collections in memory cards and bitrates that would probably make most in our lossless world laugh.”

2. Repurposing Bitcoin Software to Evade DNS Blocking

“Another system, Namecoin, could be used to circumvent internet censorship. Launched last year, it uses modified Bitcoin software to provide decentralised domain names for websites. This allows owners of “.bit” domains to get around DNS restrictions such as those proposed in the US Stop Online Piracy Act, which if passed into law would see copyright-infringing sites struck from the DNS record.”

Potential Intersection of Virtual Reality, Intellectual Property, and DRM

Over the last couple decades, many goods have become digitized. Up until now, the primary targets of digitization have been media goods like music, movies, books, and video games. Once a good is digitized it becomes extremely easy to copy. This ease of copying has big economic consequences, since a proliferation of copies creates a near infinite supply and pulls down the market price of the good towards zero.

In order to save the value of their products, industries attempt to introduce artificial scarcity. They use intellectual property and digital rights management (DRM) to prevent copying, thereby ensuring a limited supply and an above-zero market price.

Because of rapid progress in 3D printing, many people are speculating that soon more tangible goods like tools, toys, and even instruments will effectively become digitized. This means that many new industries will increasingly lobby for artificial scarcity. For example, if you are a toy manufacturer, suddenly you will need to defend your intellectual property not only against overseas counterfeiting operations, but also against domestic consumers armed with desktop 3D printers and some cheap raw materials.

But we can take this thought experiment even further. Experiences represent another good that may soon become digitized. You purchase an experience when you go to a golf course, when you visit a museum, and when you go to a concert.

All that’s needed to digitize experiences is really good virtual reality. This already happens to a degree. We have golfing video games and live concert videos. Both of these technologies attempt to take an experience and compress it into a smaller, cheaper, and more portable form. However, this compression is far from lossless. A golfing video game does not capture the feeling of a 9-iron or the smell of grass. And a concert video does not provide 360 degrees of visuals or opportunities to meet other concert goers.

Improved virtual reality could potentially solve these problems. Granted some senses are easier to digitize than others. Our ability to digitize sound and visuals is far ahead of that for the other three senses. But just immersive sound and visuals have the potential to duplicate much of what is fun about a lot of experiences. Moreover, if the virtual space were shared and populated by other virtual reality users, than you could reproduce an important social component to many experiences.

Again, we see this sort of thing happening already, with video games on the leading edge. But while there’s nothing new about this idea, there is not a lot of discussion of the fact that virtual reality might increasingly compete economically with real experiences. For example, the music industry realizes it can’t make much money off of selling records any more, so they have started focusing on other revenue streams like live shows. And this works because right now I don’t think there are many fans who watch a youtube video of a band playing live and think “Great, now I don’t need to spend $25 and go see them.” But one can imagine that if virtual reality technology made a few large (but very conceivable) leaps forward, this equation might start to shift.

Keep in mind there are two steps to any digitization process: the scan/record step and the print/playback step. Both are critical. So when I talk about better virtual reality I am not just talking about the print/playback step—things like 3D goggles, surround sound, tactile feedback, etc. I am also talking about big advances in the scan/record part of the process. Advances that might make it possible to say, stroll through a theme park and surreptitiously record the experience itself. And I don’t just mean record the experience in a linear manner. I mean record enough salient details about the geography that a sufficiently advanced algorithm could then use that data to create a digital model of the park’s layout. Now imagine that as other people walk through the park, some of them are also recording and uploading details to help improve the quality of your model. Pretty soon you have a digital file somewhere that in some senses is a copy of the whole theme park, ready for illegal file sharing. The virtual theme park might be missing some details, like the smell of churros, but such deficits would be only a few technology cycles and software updates away from being corrected.

People who make it their business to charge for experiences are not going to take such developments lying down. They too, like the media industry before them, will likely turn to policies of artificial scarcity in order to prevent such unlicensed copying. Increasingly places might ask you to check your cell phones or other portable computers at the door, because that’s the only way they’ll know for sure that patrons are not illegally scanning the premises. More likely they will attempt a DRM solution, and use some sort of localized jamming device to try and cripple your logging equipment. Or they may—and this is the most concerning—try to expand the definition of intellectual property to cover experiences themselves.