What do you own?
What value to I add to work that I comment on? What value to I add to things that I own when I comment on them based on work that I don't? When is art a stand-alone proposition? When does it rely on the consensus of society? When does a conversation become content? When can I stop asking rhetorical questions and start this actual post?
A recent article in Wired addressed a situation that we all need to think about. Yes, even you, Stan. Put down your paintball videogame and think about copyright issues, software development, open source, art, creativity and the Web. Yes... you can eat a biscuit with honey on it while you think about these things [Stan is a ferocious multi-tasker, is Stan].
The basic gist of this article is that a fairly small outfit (basically a bright guy named Walter Ritter) invented software that helped people find songs they liked based on the lyrics of other songs they liked. Cool, hunh? It worked with iTunes, and Apple even linked to it from their official site.
But (cue Darth Vader's theme), it could be used as part of your illegal scheme to download and copy music illegally. And so Warner Chappell Music (who have more money than God), sent Ritter a cease-and-desist. They also sent one to Apple. Apple ceased and desisted. Guess what Ritter (basically a bright guy out on his own) did? Yup. He ceased and desisted, too. He didn't want to get sued into a small black chunk of smoking, bituminous coal for distributing software that furthered music piracy. So he stopped.
Which is bad. Because his software, which was cool and useful, has nothing whatsoever to do with piracy. Except inasmuch as pirates could use it to help them identify lyrics to songs they wanted to pirate. Much in the same way that murderers can use binoculars to identify victims and counterfeiters use paper to make fake money.
Now, normally... The story would stop there. But in a strange, almost "Bizzaro World" (links 1 2 3 ) reversal, Warner/Chappell has appologized to Ritter. They may let him post his software again. They may (dare I type the words)... "get it."
What do you want to own?
A great economic philosopher (it may have been me, back when I was still drinking) once said, "Wealth is a measurement of excess food." What I meant by that (if I said it; if I didn't, then what I understand it to mean), is that wealth is everything that's left over once you take care of necessities. So...
Stan owns his biscuit outright. Damn straight, Stan. That biscuit is so yours, I don't even want to talk about it. Especially after you eat it, it is really, really yours. 110% Stan's biscuit. All the way, buddy. Pride of place. You go.
One the other end of the spectrum -- I think -- are "nebulosities." Stuff that's so vague that we can't really say whether or not it's even ownable. For example, pride. Do I own my pride? Can you buy it from me? Can I give it away? Can I rent it to some dude from Pittsburgh for the weekend who needs to confront his girlfriend about her loud, overbearing friends? Nope. Other nebulous stuff that may not be "ownable" could include talent, love, honesty, time, attention, good taste, terror, rhythm, beauty and farfegnugen.
I'm going to get arguments on "time," I know. Since, ostensibly, we all "own" our time and sell it every day at work. But I don't think that's really true. Whether we go to work or not, time passes. If I work hard or not, time passes. If I "add value" or jerk my company around and steal office supplies, time passes. It's not mine to sell. Anyway...
On one end is stuff that we can be said to literally and truly own. My head. My hair. My biscuit and honey. I bought it, I inherited it, I grew it, I won it on "The Price is Right," I traded for it on eBay... whatever. Stuff. It's mine. If you take it, you're a thief and I can sue your ass and either get it back, and/or put you in jail. Nyah. So there.
But what about content? Said age of which we are purportedly in, says the blogger. What about our pesky thoughts? Since most content is, essentially, ephemera, it is much harder to pin down than real estate, bicycles, wigs or biscuits.
What content do you want own?
I'm repeating myself, I know. But marketing gurus are always telling us that you must repeat something three times before people actually see/hear it.
What do I own? From whence comes my wealth?
And an even better question: Why do I care?
I am forever bugging my students (and was forever bugging my marketing clients and former client/readers in my legal marketing days) to drill down to the "root why" of a situation. "We need to run an ad!" Somebody says. "Why?" you should ask. "To drive sales of the new product!" Ask yourself, "Why?" again. Keep asking "Why?" until you get to one of the root goals of your business, which is usually the provision of value to stockholders; i.e., profit. Most businesses are built on three fundamental "Why"s: owner profit, customer value and employee satifaction. Screw the pooch on any of those three, and you're dead. Fail to link any process to any one of those, and you're wasting time.
Meanwhile, back at my point...
Why should you care what you own? What's the point of aquiring wealth? Remember -- wealth is what Stan's got after he takes care of all his biscuits, bedclothes and bicycles. And why, especially, should you care if you own
For example, the thought: 1-4-5
Three numbers in a row. Big deal. But if you write them: I - IV - V
Many musicians will know that you're talking about a basic blues progression; twelve-bar blues, usually. Play that on a piano or guitar, and it will sound very familiar to you. The basis for hundreds, if not thousands, of blues, rock, jazz and other pop songs. Same thing with the "Bo Diddly" riff; a particular set of chords and a specific rhythm that's been used in bunches of songs over the years.
Again, patient reader, I assume you are asking me to get to the freakin' point.
It is simply this: what would have happened to music had somebody copyrighted I-IV-V or the peculiar, "bump-diddy-bump-diddy... bump-bump" of the Bo Diddly riff?
And here's the next thought in the chain. When you buy a piece of content -- a book, video, song, legal opinion, ticket to a sporting event, whatever -- what part of it do you own?
What do you own when you buy content?
Clearly you DO own the right to enjoy it yourself in the medium provided. Clearly you DO NOT own the right to profit from the retooling or redistribution of the exact medium you purchased in a way that robs the copyright owner of value.
So we've got two book-ends; the "nobody will argue with these two ends of the spectrum" goal posts. Listening to music I purchased on a CD on that CD is fine. Making a copy for my own specific use on a casette tape is also OK. Selling that tape to somebody else? Not OK. Giving it away is also not OK. We're clear on that, eh?
It's all the stuff in the middle that's weird. And it's because ideas are so fluid. Because creativity and content feed on freedom the way Stan feeds on biscuits. For example:
Let's say I write a song. I own the copyright of the lyrics and the music. If you want to perform that song for money, you need to pay me a royalty. That's fair. But what if you want to perform it for free? Well... then you don't. But to learn that song, you need to buy sheet music. Right? Which makes me some money. So... wait... you don't need sheet music? Because you just listen to the song at your friend's house (who paid for the CD) over and over and keep practicing on your guitar until you can do the song on your own.
And then you perform it for free. And I, as the copyright holder, get nothing. No remuneration. Nada. And you... by performing my wildly popular song, you gain credence (maybe even mojo) with those young hipsters who love my crafty tunes. You begin to get followers. Groupies. Hangers-on. A posse, perhaps. And, eventually, you begin to get offers to be paid for your own music. Which nobody was originally interested in.
All because you learned to play my song that you never paid me jack for.
Of course it is. Because, at the same time, you were spreading the meme of my song. If you believe -- even for a moment -- that the playing of my song helped you get famous, then the reverse must be true; that the playing of my song was good for me, too. Because as your fame grew, so would the value of people hearing you play my tune.
Content is not a fixed asset. When you sing a song, it doesn't get "un-sung" somewhere else. It's not like Stan's biscuit. Just because Stan sings "The Long and Winding Road," doesn't mean I don't want to anymore. In fact, the more people who sing it, the more people may want to sing it. Content is more like fire than like grain.
What scares so many of the people involved in the production of various content media is that the pace of change in the technologies surrounding distribution of those media is rendering the meaning of "value" porous.
For example -- books. I love books. L-L-L-Love 'em. All kinds of books. Hardcover, paperback, old, new, fiction, non-fiction, antique, glossy, paper and eBooks. But, in the past, very little of the payment that readers forked over for books went to the content creators; the authors. Because the process of finding, proofing, editing, printing, publishing, shipping, stocking, shelving and selling books is hugely expensive. And writing a book, frankly, isn't.
But now... after all the writing is done... I can push a book at you for roughly...
What do you own when you buy a book?
Do you own the paper? Do you own the words? Do you own the right to read it out loud to your kids? How many times? Can you read it out loud at the library? What about in school? Can you loan it to friends? Can you resell it? Can you sell tickets to folks for them to hear you read it?
Do you own the thoughts?
I've bought dozens of marketing and business books. Many of them have very similar thoughts. Could any of the authors sue the others? I don't know. I doubt it. Most of the "thoughts" are basic, old-school marketing fundamentals, often dressed up in new metaphors and funny anecdotes.
I've read dozens of fantasy novels. Many of them have very similar plots. Same question... Same answer.
Monks used to have to copy out books one at a time. It used to be that very few people could read. Now, just about everybody can read. And information flows from a couple hundred million Web sites in billions of page hits a day. And it keeps changing and growing and getting more interesting and funkier all the time, what with RSS and wikis and tagging and wireless and the semantic web and Web 2.0...
Marshall McLuhan said "The medium is the message." That means more than you think it does. We'll do a whole rant (or 12) on that one at some point. But we're going to be "post-McLuhan" pretty soon. We're going to be "post-medium." Content will be without borders. Those businesses and entities that make the mistake that Warner/Chappell did -- trying to get between people and ideas -- will lose. Because someone else will open the gate.
Content's not grain, people. It's not even water. It's fire. It doesn't need to be portioned out. And if you try to control it, you will get burned. Your best bet? Feed the flames, baby. The bigger the bonfire, the farther away they can see it, and the more hotdogs you can cook.
People will always pay for good content. And you shouldn't stop trying to bring down the real pirates. But we need to get beyond the idea of "owning" content the same way we "own" biscuits.