What Are Words Worth?

I was listening to a podcast talk from Mises University 2009 the other night called “Intellectual Property and Libertarianism”, in which speaker Stephan Kinsella made the usual Slashdotty-type case against IP from a libertarian perspective. This was novel for me, perhaps because libertarians tend to be very defensive of property rights, such as Ayn Rand’s assertion of IP as a right to the products of a person’s own mind.

Kinsella rejects Rand explicitly, saying her case offers little more than deification of the creator. His counter-argument is interesting: IP is inconsistent with property rights because it violates the rights of others to use their property. To wit, if I own a typewriter and a stack of paper, or a CD burner and some blank discs, then those should be mine to do with as I see fit. But because of copyright, I can’t use the typewriter to transcribe a book, or to use the burner to copy a CD, even if I’ve bought original copies of the hypothetical book and CD. IP asserts a partial ownership — enough to say “you can’t do that” — over this other property I own. That, according to Kinsella’s argument, is inconsistent and therefore invalid.

Interesting, and tricky, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.

It’s important because, of course, my income is highly dependent on the idea of IP. If I couldn’t charge for copies of iPhone SDK Development, I probably wouldn’t have spent hundreds (possibly thousands?) of hours over the last year and a half co-writing it. If I couldn’t charge for apps on the App Store, would I write them?

The counter-argument comes from the open-source crowd, who say to give away your content (which, by the earlier argument, you couldn’t own anyways), and make your money some other way. This is really appealing when you’re working in some field where the value isn’t in the content, per se. It’s easy to open-source your stuff when you make your real money using it for consulting projects, or running a service. It’s a lot harder to see a model that supports development of, say, productivity applications, where the value in the software is in what it lets the user do with their own data. Give that away and where’s the ancillary revenue stream that would fund future development? Tip jar? Selling t-shirts? Maybe this is why Linux has so few productivity apps of any note (a few mediocre-to-bad knockoffs of Office and Quicken and such, but you’ll likely never see something like Final Cut Pro on Linux).

Bringing it back to writing, there are economic models that can keep a tech writer going. One is that the owners of a technology can commission writing about a topic to spur interest: I’ve made more writing three articles on Core Audio for [redacted] than I made on my entire QuickTime for Java book. I think this is going to be an even bigger deal going forward, as books and feature articles become one more thing that platform owners will have to pay for themselves in order to get mindshare (much the same way that platform owners already provide technical documentation and tools… note that there’s much less of a market for commercial IDEs now that the Windows, Mac, iPhone, and Java platforms all have a free-as-in-beer IDE provided by the platform owners).

Another possibility is that the real value of writing blogs, articles, and books gets your name out there for consulting work, although in my experience, it’s hard to shake the impression that you’re “just” a writer. I just finished a month-long consulting/programming engagement and am working on a new app for the App Store, yet I’m still clearly far better known for my writing than anything else.

As for the IP of books and being able to charge for them, the existence of .torrents of pretty much any available eBook may put that issue to rest quickly enough. On the one hand, I think it’s absurd that developers won’t pay what amounts to about 20 minutes of the developer salary they’ll be able to charge once they’ve mastered its techniques. But maybe some/most readers would kick in some kind of payment if it were completely on a tip jar system? Enough to keep a writer able to pay his or her bills? Probably only on the most popular topics.

And that’s why you shouldn’t expect me to ever propose, no less actually write, the big Mac/iPhone media APIs (QTKit, Core Audio, etc.) book that I’ve kicked around for a few years. Something that nichey, combined with the rapidly falling price that readers are willing to pay for content, makes it effectively unviable.

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Comment (1)

  1. Libertarians are very defensive of freedoms and of property. It does not follow that they are defensive of imaginary property (intellectual property) as well. In fact, quite a few aren’t, Ayn Rand being an exception.

    The reason we need property is scarcity: the finiteness of the resources. This finiteness is not applicable to thoughts, expressions, formulas, knowledge. Jefferson said it well: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

    The reason why copyright and patents were invented, was indeed to give an incentive to Authors and Inventors to produce intellectual works. Copyright inherently had limits from the start: the US Constitution even explicitely allows IP-rights to Authors and Inventors “for limited Times” only, and only in the interest of “promot[ing] the Progreſs of Science and useful Arts”.

    In the time when copyright originated, copyright was considered a good deal between the public and the authors: “the copyright bargain”. The public would “for limited Times” give up a freedom they theoretically had: copying works. In practice, printing presses were expensive and very few people (printers) had them. So, although in theory, the public gave up freedom, in practice they hardly didn’t. (Copying by hand was tolerated). In return, the public got more intellectual work from the Authors. And after a 14 or 28 years, all of these works would enter the public domain, like all intellectual works before copyright existed. In short, the public got a richer cultural life.

    These days, the public has access to copy machines, computers and all sorts of machinery that allows easy copying of works. You don’t need to be Kinsella to understand that IP laws take away freedoms (including property rights related to physical copies) — freedoms people would love to exercise.

    Since the public is giving up freedoms, the logic of the copyright bargain would dictate that copyright laws shifts to the side of the public: less far-reaching terms and conditions, more fair use, shorter copyrights periods.

    Instead we see the opposite: IP laws become stricter, fair use is restricted further, copyright periods are extended over and over again. Even retroactively, although dead authors won’t produce any more works because of these “increased incentives”.

    One might argue whether IP is always wrong, but the current excessive IP laws certainly are.

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