Hacking For Money Many of the products we buy today are no more than large collections of zeroes and ones. High-priced software, high-quality music, and valuable reference material such as computerized databases or CD-Rom encyclopedias are commercial products like any other, but the media of their transmission makes them different in at least one aspect: it is possible to copy them freely, or at least extremely cheaply. A compact disc of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is different from, say, a ham and swiss sandwich in many ways, but beyond the obvious is one reason that makes the nature of the two items and their production and purchase very different indeed: I can only eat the ham and swiss sandwich once, while I can listen to the Attractions CD repeatedly. This is a result of the fact that the CD contains information, rather than an actual substance such as the sandwich has. The consumable material in the sandwich is actual food and is gone after its consumption, while the consumable material in the compact disc is encoded binary data that will be around for the life of the physical disc.
Since the sandwich can only be consumed once, we pay out an amount of money that signifies what one sandwich is worth to us. If I want another sandwich, I pay another $4.95. If someone were to invent a ham and swiss sandwich that could be eaten thousands of times (let’s not go into the mechanics of how this would work) then the producer might be justified in charging many times the cost of an ordinary ham and swiss, on the grounds that I’m getting more than just one sandwich. “Buy our sandwich once, and you’ll never go hungry again!” However, one might protest this idea if we know that it still costs the usual amount to make the sandwich. If a producer can make a repeatedly-edible sandwich for a couple dollars, and sell it for $4,000, he stands to profit hugely.
The reason we might be able to justify charging four grand for a ham sandwich is that in our usual structure of sales and ownership, we agree with the vendor to pay a price reflective of what the product is worth to us, the consumer. In this light, it’s irrelevant that the producer only spent $2.50 to make that repeatedly-edible sandwich, because to me as a consumer such a sandwich is worth thousands. Or to return to the example of the compact disc; it’s irrelevant that the producer only paid a nickel to produce each disc, because to me it’s worth fifteen dollars to be able to listen to “Punch the Clock” at my leisure. The problem with this scenario is that it allows the producer to profit extremely at the expense of the consumer. I don’t think I’d too willingly pay more than fifteen dollars for a CD, and the record companies know this.
Five million CDs sold at whatever wholesale price gets them to be $15 retail is a lot more profit than five million CDs sold at some lower price. Labels could charge less, in the hopes that people would buy more CDs (and this is the guiding principle behind distribution houses like BMG and Columbia House), but in general the cost is going towards promotion and marketing, rather than towards the minimal expense of getting the discs made and into stores. In a capitalist organization, one concept inextricably linked to marketing and sales is that of ownership, or of intellectual property. A car company might have patent rights to manufacture and sell a particular model of car, or a record label might have the rights to make and sell a particular recording. A ham sandwich is a less specific item; anyone can make a sandwich and sell it, but only McDonald’s has the legal right to call it an Arch Deluxe. This structure works well for assigning rights to the inventor or patent holder of a product – if someone designs a new kind of carburetor, they should have the right to exclusive manufacturing and marketing, without worrying about someone else capitalizing on that invention.
This structure has been extended to cover the more abstract notion of intellectual property, thus giving an individual or company the exclusive legal right to manufacture a certain musical recording, to sell a piece of software, or to use the words “Enjoy Coke” in a commercial context, since what is owned in these cases is intellectual property – information, binary data, or an advertising slogan. But does it make sense to extend the concept of ownership to these things? In all cases of ownership, or holding the patent to an invention, the real thing being owned is the right to make use of certain information for profit. I could make and sell South Park T-shirts, but since I haven’t gotten permission from its owners, I’m breaking copyright law. I could steal someone’s design for a carburetor and produce them myself, but we generally agree that the inventor’s rights are being infringed upon, since I haven’t arrived at that carburetor design by any effort of my own. Stealing, we say, is wrong. The question is, what is stealing? The most obvious kind of property theft is that of stealing tangible physical objects.
If I take someone’s ham and swiss without their permission, it’s theft. The difference between this and what we call intellectual property theft is the fact that if I take someone’s sandwich, they can no longer eat it, but if I take (say, make a copy of) their software or musical recording, they’re not at any real loss – they can still use the software or listen to the music. But, if they had intended to sell copies of said software or music, they are losing in that I’ve just acquired for free what they had intended to charge me money for. Often the two kinds of theft are considered as one, but I feel that a distinction needs to be made due to the two very different natures of what is being stolen. Let’s push this a little further with an example that is commonly debated in the music industry regarding its morality – sampling.
Now, a sampler is a tool like any other, and plenty of musicians use it to record original samples for musical composition purposes, but plenty of others also use sampling technology to outright plagiarize other musicians’ work. Legal and permissions issues aside, this can be a dubious artistic undertaking, and there are artistic differences between what Puff Daddy is doing with sampling, and what the Future Sound of London is doing with it. The fact is, sampling has become simply another musical tool – a logical extension of what composers have done throughout history by borrowing melodic and tonal ideas from one another – albeit one that can be quite easily abused. Music isn’t the only art form to involve dubious kinds of originality. Phraseology and style are borrowed, traded, and stolen in the literary world constantly – a creative writing professor once told me that “Bad writers borrow; good writers steal.” Visual arts are often built upon styles throughout history, and forms such as photomontage or collage may involve copyrighted pictures of other artists’ works.
Photography itself is a way of artistically capitalizing on images and scenes that anyone can see with their own eyes, the camera a kind of visual “sampler.” In these cases it comes down to a question of whether the writer or artist being stolen from is losing anything in terms of intellectual property and marketability. It’s certainly true that some artistic statements can only be made by outright theft of another’s creation, for the purposes of placing the original work in a new context. A good example is a sculpture on Bowling Green State University’s campus. This sculpture is simply a large recreation, in aluminum, of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” reclined back into the ground, chin propped in his hand as though watching television. Here, the famous statue is put into a new context to make the statement that we’re doing more TV-watching than thinking nowadays, especially those of us that are in university. The sculpture would not have nearly the same effect if the subject were not such an already famous statue; the artist is aware of this.
In this case, is Rodin’s original work being stolen? The reason the sculpture is effective is that we immediately recognize it as “The Thinker.” We also immediately recognize “Every Breath You Take” in a particular Puff Daddy hit, but what’s the difference here? What statements are being made? Depending on our tastes, we might argue that one kind of stealing should be permissible, another not so permissible. What’s at issue here is whether a certain amount of restriction in the arts should exist so that artists, writers, or musicians, can be assured a degree of protection from intellectual property theft. We may argue that those who wish to be protected by copyright law are free to be so, and few could reasonably deny an artist the right to have her work protected in this way, but I maintain that there’s something more at stake here – that our older notions of ownership and property fail to effectively apply to a modern, usually electronic method of storage and transmission – and that the nature of these modern storage media necessitates a reevaluating of what ownership entails. I recently received a web pointer to a commented, internal Microsoft memo discussing the effect that GNU/Linux will likely have on the immediate business future of commercial software companies, particularly Microsoft itself. It seems that Microsoft feels threatened by the presence of an efficient, well-supported, versatile, and most importantly, free operating system such as GNU/Linux, and is beginning to question whether they as part of the commercial software industry will be able to compete with this seemingly superior product. The memo details various possible strategies for counterattack, and its authors are certainly more knowledgable than I am about the pros and cons of each system.
One thing is clear, though – the possibility of such a free, user-created open-source operating system becoming the universal standard over Windows or MacOS is more present now than ever; the OS wars are an analogy for a phenomenon that is constantly occurring in the world of electronic media, the appearance of a revised concept of ownership. Ownership in the case of a piece of software rests with the company or individuals who design and program it. Since GNU/Linux has generally been treated as a community-owned product (which is the idea behind open-source software), there are different restrictions on its distribution and licensing than there are on commercial software products like Windows or Wordperfect. To use a specific example, the GNU public license (which you can read here) roughly states that you can legally distribute or sell GNU/Linux or a derivative of it, provided you give the recipients all the rights that you have. This is very different from a commercial product such as Windows 98, which can only be sold and licensed by Microsoft, and whose source code may not be modified by anyone other than Microsoft. The benefits of free software are many; the most obvious is that the software may be modified, for better or worse, by its users.
(“Free” in this context generally means open-source, shared-development software, rather than implying you can always get it for free). This means that free software is infinitely customizable to those knowledgeable enough to customize it. One may claim that anyone always has the right to program their own piece of software. The advantage to modifying existing software is the shoulders-of-giants principle: Why de …