Digital Goods as a Public Good

Digital Goods as a Public Good

The Pirate Parties have an obvious lineage from The Pirate Bay and other forms of digital piracy, but bootlegging and sharing of media has been going on for decades. What is it then that has changed with the advent of digital media? Why has the concern of piracy become a political one? The answer lies in media digitization, and thus transformation, into a public good.

A public good is commonly defined as one that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. The importance of digital goods is media becoming non-rivalrous—meaning one person’s use of the good does not diminish the ability of another from using it. Examples of this can be the air we breathe or the parks we visit. Prior to the Internet our media required some sort of medium, be it CDs or VHS tapes, in order to be transported. While they could be copied and shared they required the use of a physical product and could only extend so far among acquaintances.

Sharing online effectively makes the number of copies irrelevant; this is especially true for torrents where one copy is not so different from infinite copies. This new public good can be used without limit by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Where the political Pirate Parties come in is in the non-excludable side of our modern public good. This is the ability to stop a group of people (usually those who do not pay) from using a good. This can be a hamburger bought from a restaurant or a house lived in by a family. These are excludable by requiring payment before receiving the product and removing trespassers, respectively. As mentioned, media products previously had a physical medium, which made excludability simple—you get the product when we get the money.

While copyright laws (excludability) are sometimes used as evidence that digital goods are not public goods these laws are better understood as a very artificial barrier, just as a gate requiring a ticket can be put in front of a park or a fence can be put around a lake. Thus, excludability is best viewed as a political decision rather than an inherent quality of a product. DRM and other barriers are attempts at creating excludability of a product in order to maintain the status quo. However, as any pirate can tell you, this forced excludability is no match for the non-rivalrousness the internet has created for digital goods.

Historical Comparison

Before moving on to the problem of digital goods and the argument in favor of copyright laws, it will be beneficial to examine a historical parallel with our current situation. As children we were taught about the importance of Gutenberg’s press, but being so young it was difficult to conceptualize the revolutionary nature of his invention. The printing press made the collective knowledge of man more available to the average person. This drastically altered the knowledge structure that was in place in Europe.

Even Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame laments how the book destroys the building, as conveyance through architecture is no longer required. Knowledge became more dispersed and no longer required the scribes’ handwriting or relied so much on the priest to pontificate vocally. Though illiteracy was another barrier the outcome was access to the collective knowledge of man—a virtual conception of the world’s thought. Placed online this collective knowledge is further rectified and faces its own barriers.

What must be understood is that fear of the inevitable disruption and attempts at maintaining the status quo are inherently ludditical. The genie is out of the bottle and this is something we must accept. This should not be difficult due to the benefit that advancement brings, unless, of course, you are one who benefits from the status quo. With the printing press we lost oral tradition, centrality of the priest, and scribes. But we gained shared information that allowed scholars better communication of ideas that helped fuel our technological advancement. The internet is the printing press on steroids; it will inevitably cause disruptions, but it will lead to even greater gains.

The Problem of Free Riders

The disruption caused by internet piracy can be seen in the problem of any public good—“free riders”. Because of the nature of a public good, one cannot be excluded due to their lack of support of the good; in the case of piracy of media this would be not paying for the product. While we do not condone theft of goods we argue that the concept of piracy must be refashioned with the facts of our time. Copyright infringement cannot be seen as the same as theft of a physical good, and there is little way around this. Just as books can only be burned, piracy can only be stopped by destroying the internet as we know it—destroying our freedom and privacy. Consequently, China is in a much better position to stop piracy than most countries, but we slowly creep closer to this digitally totalitarian environment.

Our current relationship to digital media cannot be undone, nor should we want it to be. Forcing such a disruptive excludability on what should be accepted as a public good can only be maintained at very high costs. As a society we must find a new way to reimburse producers of digital goods and do away with the draconian measures. This will empower us as a community, democracy, and global society. What we all know for certain is that the internet has changed us drastically and should be embraced.

Those who fight for reactionary policies must learn the history of the Luddites, who fought against the industrial revolution for their own inefficient interest. If the media industries knew as much about genies as they should know about their own products, it is that they do not go back in their bottles.

Featured image: CC-BY, photosteve101