01.28Welcome to the Culture of Ownership!
Frequent listeners to the Buzz Out Loud podcast will know that I often refer to something called a “culture of ownership” that I think is pervasive in our society (particularly U.S. society) at this particular point in history. People often ask me to expand on this concept, and I thought this blog might be a good way to both explain what I mean and track specific examples as they arise. (I’ll set up an email address soon so that you can send me tips, but I wanted to get this up, running, and out the door post-haste before daily life overwhelmed my more enterprising instincts.)
First, let me try to explain what I mean when I say we’re suffering (and yes, I think we’re suffering) under a culture of ownership. A BOL listener posted an excellent and succinct definition over at Urban Dictionary, and that’s a pretty good place to start:
“The general feel in today’s society that everything is somehow copyrighted or property of someone else to the point where it hinders creativity and makes it much more difficult to innovate. It is also the belief that just because you created/thought of something that you should have complete and total control over every aspect of that thing, object or idea.”
I think the concept also includes the increasing tendency of our society to value ideas as incremental revenue, and the way we claim “rights” to everything from a fairly obvious thought (the idea of creating a list of movies in the order you would like to view them, for example) to the fundamental workings of the human body. Here are some examples:
The Culture of Ownership is extending the U.S. copyright period for “the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship; the Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier,” almost exclusively in order to protect ongoing profits to the Disney Corporation for its use of the Mickey Mouse image.
The Culture of Ownership is using or attempting to use legislation as a tool for enforcing business models, rather than allowing competition and the free market to determine what shall and shall not be paid for content such as music and movies, and to determine in what form that content will be distributed.
The Culture of Ownership is the National Football League telling attendees of football games and sports reporters what they can report about a game, how much video they can and cannot post online, and censoring “accounts” of games because they own the rights to the television broadcasts of those games.
The Culture of Ownership is Major League Baseball deciding that it’s potentially illegal for you to use Slingbox to stream a broadcast of a baseball game anywhere you happen to be traveling, because they sell broadcast rights to TV stations based on specific geographic areas, and if you’re streaming the game from your home city instead of watching it on local TV, you’re stealing from that local television operator.
The Culture of Ownership is a Sony BMG lawyer testifying on the stand that her company hasn’t specifically granted you the right to rip songs from a CD onto your computer, and therefore it could potentially be considered stealing (and the RIAA saying that lawyer “misspoke” but still refusing to say whether it considers ripping a digital copy of your personal property to be fair use).
The Culture of Ownership is what allows the music industry to sue an auto mechanics’ shop for playing their music too loud. It’s also what allows that industry to ask for royalties on, say, open-mic night performances.
Interestingly, in the Culture of Ownership, you actually own less and less. The same industries who expect you to pay exorbitant prices for, say, music on a CD and claim to be ensuring that “artists get paid” also believe that you should not “own” music you purchase in digital form. When it comes to content, the content “owners” believe that you are a tenant, and they are the landlords. Landlords with the right to, as Sony has asserted in its EULA, require you to re-purchase any digital music that you might lose in a burglary, hurricane, or other technological catastrophe.
I think there are a variety of reasons for the increased tone of desperation our corporate culture has adopted when it comes to the idea of ownership. The idea of “products” has changed dramatically over the past few decades. “Products” are no longer limited to physical, manufactured objects–they’re inclusive of a lot more content and a lot more concepts than they ever used to be. Also, we’re an intensely shareholder-driven culture here in the U.S. You must not only make money, but continue to make money and even promise to continue to make money in order to garner shareholder confidence. There’s a desperation around revenue that means you cannot afford even the slightest chink in your intellectual property armor. And finally, copyright, trademark, and IP law has been so distorted and bought off that it’s a damned lucrative business to be in, this ownership trade.
We’ve been making a tiny bit of progress, even as the egregious violations add up. The Supreme Court has, since 2005, issued a series of rulings on patent law that have made it harder for companies to use patent-infringement claims to summarily shut down other companies or Web sites while the claims were investigated, tightened restrictions on “obvious” patents, and loosened restrictions on developing potentially life-saving drugs that involved patented compounds.
Currently, they’re hearing arguments in a case that determines whether LG can collect royalties twice on chipsets it manufatures: once for licensing the chipsets to Intel, and then again when other companies use the Intel-licensed chipsets in conjunction with other non-Intel parts in order to build computers … which is quite literally the only use the chipsets have. So, as a vastly oversimplified analogy, LG would like to charge royalties on frosting, then charge royalties again for frosting when it’s on a cake. In this case, I’m hoping the Supreme Court will give them a big old “bite me.”