Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Parable of the (Digital) Loaves

Over at his ‘jealousy-inducing-because-it-looks-nicer-than-mine’ blog, “On the Fence”, Kelly Nestruck has a post up on the ‘stale’ topic of music downloading. Seeing it inspired me to write my own take on the intellectual property issue and I figured if it is indeed a stale topic, then bread should make a good metaphor:


Once upon a time in the peaceful, harmonious country of Ipland, Mr. A was walking down the street with a loaf of bread in his hand. But before he could even take a single bite, Mr. C snuck up behind him, grabbed the loaf and ran off down the street.

Such a thing had never been seen before in Ipland, so once Mr. A got over his shock, he went to the police. The efficient police of Ipland soon found Mr. C and he was brought before the chief judge in the land, Queen B, who handed down her ruling on whether this new activity should be allowed or not:

“I have been charged to look after the welfare of the people of this land,” pronounced Queen B, “and I see no net benefit to them in allowing one person to take something from another. What is gained by one is lost by another, and who will make or buy bread if it can just be taken from them. If we are forced to divert our energies to protecting our possessions instead of enjoying them than we will all be poorer. Henceforth we will call this activity ‘theft’ and it will not be permitted in Ipland.”

Mr. C recognized the wisdom of Queen B’s ruling, but he was not easily dissuaded from getting Mr. A’s bread and he soon came up with a new plan. The next time Mr. A walked down the street, Mr. C approached him, from the front this time.
“Please sir,” he said to Mr. A, “may I just borrow your loaf for a moment?”
Mr. A was suspicious, but he knew that stealing had been outlawed so he warily handed over the loaf. Mr. C took the loaf in his left hand, waved his right hand and said the magic word, “Kazaam!” There was a soft clicking sound and then, there in his right hand, was another loaf of bread, exactly like the one Mr. A had been carrying in every detail! Mr. C smiled, handed the original loaf back to Mr. A and continued walking down the street with his new loaf.
He couldn’t put his finger on it, but Mr. A felt that there must be something wrong with what Mr. C had done, so he once more called in the police and once more Queen B delivered a verdict:

“So you had a loaf of bread before you met up with Mr. C?” she asked Mr. A, “and then you still had the same loaf of bread after you met up with Mr. C? It seems like you were not harmed at all. And this new magic Mr. C has developed means that even if we only have one loaf of bread in our land, we will be able to feed the whole country. We will call this great blessing copying and it shall be permitted everywhere in the land.”

Now most men would have been satisfied with this, but Mr. C was a restless fellow and it wasn’t long before he came up with yet another plan. This new plan was so bold that he was called upon to propose it to the Queen at the general assembly where all the people from the land would come together.
“Listen,” he said to Queen B and the assembled people. “Thanks to my new copying procedure, we all have as much bread as we want, but is it not true that our bread is a little tougher, a little less flavourful than it could be? I have developed a new bread, one that tastes much better than the old bread.”

There was a great rush of murmuring and whispering from the crowd. “Well then”, said the Queen, “what is the problem? Present us with this new bread and we shall make copies for everyone and we will all be better off.”

“But what about me”, replied Mr. C, “if everyone just makes copies of my new bread, how I will be compensated for all my hard work in developing it? Why should I even bother giving it to you and not just keep it for myself?”

“Shame!” cried Mr. A from near the back of the assembled crowd, “nobody forced you to develop this new bread, why should we have to pay you just to make copies of it – it’s not like we’re harming you or taking anything away from you by just making copies.

“Fine,” replied Mr. C, “I’ll just go then and leave you to your stale, dry bread.”

“Wait”, said the Queen, “truly you have presented me with your most difficult case yet, Mr. C. On the one hand, my people’s interest is to have the best bread available at the cheapest price. On the other hand, if there isn’t an incentive for people to develop new bread, we’ll always be stuck with the old stuff. Therefore, I propose that....


OK, what should the Queen propose?

a) The fame and glory of having his bread eaten by all should be enough for Mr. C. His new bread can be copied freely throughout the land, and if he chooses not to offer it, then we will live with our old bread.

b) For the next 5 years, anyone wishing to make a copy of Mr. C’s bread will have to send him a donation of 1 penny. After this time, he should have received adequate compensation for his bread and it can then be freely copied.

c) Nobody can make a copy of Mr. C’s bread unless they pay him whatever he asks for it. This rule will apply forever, with the right to charge for Mr. C’s bread passed down to his children and to their children and so on.

d) Something else? (Opinions welcome)


So what’s my point? Mainly that, when people (industry lobby groups primarily) try to convince you that downloading is piracy or that copying is theft, they are, quite simply, wrong. Furthermore, they are deliberately confusing different terms and ideas in an attempt to manipulate you into feeling guilty about something you have no reason to feel guilty about.

Theft is one thing, copying is another. The key distinction is that theft involves taking things while you make copies. The true justification for intellectual property rules is solely as an incentive for the development of new ideas/products and intellectual property rights should only be extended as far as is necessary to provide a genuine incentive – not further.

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  • nice parable!

    By Blogger Trish, at 12:36 PM  

  • Wow, you truly are delusional. Do you, honestly, believe that mess of words that came from your head? As I read your...tyrade? occured to me where it comes from - socialism. You have taken the strange idea of "copyleft" to a new level.

    You think that just because something cannot be touched that it cannot be stolen? You must also believe that Satan can't steal your soul...

    It's those like you that are going to make purchasing music and other entertainment titles more and more expensive...Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:54 AM  

  • "As I read your...tyrade?... it occured to me where it comes from - socialism"

    Copyright is a state enforced monpoly - I'm arguing that copyright should be weakened. If anything my argument is for a move in the libertarian direction. But it's not really about ideology, it's about what's in society's best interests.

    "You think that just because something cannot be touched that it cannot be stolen?"

    No, I think that in order for something to be stolen, the original owner has to be deprived of its possession. i.e. You can't steal something from me if I still have it afterwards.

    "You must also believe that Satan can't steal your soul..."
    It doesn't follow, but yes I do believe that.

    "It's those like you that are going to make purchasing music and other entertainment titles more and more expensive"

    Actually, it's the recording/movie/etc. industries which are (as you'd expect) trying to make things more expensive for you. I'm trying to defend you from their phony arguments.

    You're welcome.

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:15 PM  

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