Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Open Source, Intellectual Properties and Economics

Up to now, the business of publishing has been to make creative content available through the dissemination of print, film, and other forms of recorded materials. The purchase price of the end product gives a cut to everyone involved in the production, manufacturing, distribution, and selling to the end reader (user?). Money is made because of the basic economics law of supply and demand. The greater the demand, the more copies sold and the more everyone makes. The producers of content are responsive to demand and make sure, as much as possible, to meet it successfully. Copyright laws protect the creators and producers of content against non-authorized folk stealing and selling (pirating) their products. (By the way, patents and copyrights have a limited life in protecting intellectual property. The idea is to give authors and creators a livelihood so that they can produce other works. Ultimately the protection expires and the property becomes part of the public domain, one of the principles of our free society.) It all worked quite well but I think that it will soon be the good old days.

Open source is a concept that has long been around in science. Scientists have the ethic that, since there is only one nature to be discovered, the work of individual scientists should to be published for the good of all so that everyone can share and build on each other’s work. Scientists are not supposed to profit from their discoveries. As I learned from writing the biography of Marie Curie, she and her husband had the opportunity to make money from the procedure she developed for extracting radium from uranium ore but they adhered to this principle. Others became wealthy from the process and Marie Curie, after much publicity, received a desperately needed gram of radium for her Institute through the charitable contributions of others.

In recent history, open source was behind the software that was installed on the first personal computers. This meant that the software was free. More importantly, the code it was written in was available for everyone to modify as they wished. The good news was that open source led to a proliferation of successful applications. The bad news: no one was making any money. “Hey… wait a minute,” a few developers cried and suddenly some software became proprietary.

As long as it was somewhat difficult and expensive to copy intellectual properties, copyright worked. But the digital revolution has changed the game. It costs nothing to produce writing, copy it and widely distribute it. Why use a publisher when you can publish yourself with the click of a mouse? It now seems as if EVERYONE out there is writing and publishing, blog, blog, blog… And we’re sharing and rewriting each others’ work. The idea behind a wiki is that everyone can put in their own two cents and remain anonymous if they wish. There are no identifiable authors, no gatekeepers; no arbiters of excellence. The zeitgeist is that all information is free. A kid’s idea of a research paper is to Google, cut, paste, and print, ta da! There’s a sense of entitlement out there. If it’s on the web, it’s ours for the taking.

“Hey…wait a minute,” we writers cry. What about all that time, effort and money we spent to get us to this point where we’re really good at what we do? If something is of value, shouldn’t the world pay for it? How can we make a living if we’re not being paid a salary by some institution? The answer, my friends, is in that law of economics. When the supply is limited, the demand forces up the price. Digital publishing puts no limit on the supply so the price goes down, sometimes to zero. The price goes up, however, on analog creations. Here are some examples: theater and concert tickets, professional sporting events, live lectures by notables, one-of-a-kind originals in art and fashion by famous creators. Fame increases the value of a celebrity’s time, which is limited. What people seem willing to pay for are the live, synchronous (in real time) personal experiences with the sources of the material that grabs them. That’s why author school visits pay. That’s why author videoconferencing will pay. And that’s why we’re writing this blog for free.


Peter Davis said...

I agree with your points, but I wouldn't be so quick to give up on copyrights. Just because content on the Internet can be easily copied doesn't mean it's legal or fair. Authors are still entitled to control and derive income from their work.

Also, the first personal computers did not run free software. Amiga, Commodore, Apple, IBM PC, etc. all ran proprietary operating systems and applications. Linux didn't come along until much much later.

Dorothy Patent said...

Some authors like me are hoping that eventually, after all the red tape has been sawed through, that the Authors' Guild/Google settlement will create a way for us to gain at least some income from what we have produced. The fact that the process keeps dragging on is discouraging, but ultimately it could provide a model for sharing the "wealth" from sharing the work.