Economics Media

Digital Goods Are Non-Rival; Why Is This Concept So Foreign To People?

I am beyond weary of arguments that compare digital goods with physical goods, those made of atoms instead of zeros-and-ones. Physical goods are what economists call “rival goods” and they are “rival” because they can’t be consumed by two people simultaneously. Thus, if I have an apple, you can’t eat it unless you persuade me to give it to you (via a threat or a bribe). If I have checked out the only copy of a book at the library, you have to wait for me to return it.

When I worked in the cooperative movement in the 1980s, I remember one of the David’s (Thomas or Simpson?) from the American Institute of Cooperation explaining cooperative philosophy to young farmers and high schoolers like this:

I have a dollar, and you have a dollar. We swap. Neither of us is richer.

I have an idea, and you have an idea. We swap. Both of us are richer.

This philosophy helps explain why limited copyright (and limited patent-life) are institutions of the public good. The American myth of the individual super-hero succeeding on his own with no help from anyone is in direct contrast to what we know of how ideas propagate (see the book Wikinomics — when businesses understand this, surely society isn’t fall behind) or even Isaac Newton:

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The latest entry in this false argument comes from Mark Helprin in his novel Digital Barbarism. NPR has an excerpt from Chapter 5, where Helprin compares his stealing an ear of corn at age 14 with intellectual property.

He doesn’t get it! If he steals an ear of corn, the farmer has been made poorer by the theft. Sharing an idea doesn’t work like this. However, if someone were to copy Helprin’s book and pass himself off as the author, then Helprin has been ripped off every bit as much as the farmer. Both are theft.

This argument, however, is a red herring. I don’t know of anyone who is arguing that there should be no copyright! There are lots of arguments about length of copyright and what constitutes fair use, but none that I am aware of are calling for digital anarchy.

Lawrence Lessig wrote a scathing review that is an indictment of Helprin’s intellectual shallowness on the topic of his screed: copyright.

HarperCollins is no lightweight. Yet this book is riddled with the most basic errors of fact. It would be an embarrassment were it an essay by a first year law student, let alone a major work by (at least what was thought to be) one of America’s greatest novelists. So what exactly does a publisher do anymore? Are there no editors? Is there no one with the power to say to a raving author, “Mr. Helprin, sir, what you’ve said is actually just not correct.”

Lessig also points out that copyrights are not taxed, unlike “real” property (land, for instance). If they were, we would all be taxed each time we wrote a blog post or a speech or took a photograph. After all, copyright exists upon creation, we don’t have to “file” for it!

The book seems to have grown out of an op-ed in the New York Times with the unfortunate (because it’s incorrect) headline: A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright? Someone should alert the headline writer that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the manifestation of the idea.

Based on Lessig’s review, I can’t recommend you buy the book. I’m not planning to purchase it, given its foundational flaws.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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