jordan_pollack's picture
Professor and Chairman of Computer Science, Brandeis University
Should the right to own property be preserved?

For all of history, humans traded objects, then traded currency for objects, with the idea that when you buy some thing, you own it. This most fundamental human right — the right to own — is under attack again. Only this time, the software industry, not the followers of Karl Marx, are responsible.

In the last 15 years of the information age, we discovered that every object really has three separable components: the informational content, delivered on a physical medium, governed by the license, a social or legal contract governing the rights to use the thing. It used to be that the tangible media token (the thing) both held the content, and (via possession) enforced the common understanding of the "ownership" license. Owners have rights to a thing — to trade it, sell it, loan it, rent it, destroy it, donate it, paint it, photograph it, or even chop it up to sell in pieces.

For a book, the content is the sequence of words themselves, which may be rendered as ink scratches on a medium of paper bound inside cardboard covers. For song it is a reproduction of the audio pattern pressed into vinyl or plastic to be released by a reading device. The license - to own all rights but copy rights — was enforced simply by possession of the media token, the physical copy of the book or disk itself. If you wanted to, you could buy a book, rip it into separate pages, and sell each page individually. You can slice a vinyl record into individual song rings for trade. 

For software, content is the evolving bits of program and data arranged to operate on some computer. Software can be delivered in paper, magnetic, optical, or silicon form, or can be downloaded from the internet, even wirelessly. Software publishers know the medium is completely irrelevant, except to give the consumer the feeling of a purchase.

Even though you had the feeling of trading money for something, your really don't own the software you paid for. The license clearly states that you don't. You are merely granted a right to use the information, and the real owner can terminate your license at will, if you criticize him in public. Moreover, you cannot resell the software, you cannot take a "suite" apart into working products to sell each one separately. You cannot rent it or loan it to a friend. You cannot look under the hood to try to fix it when it breaks. You don't actually own anything but exchanged your money for a "right to use", and those rights can be arbitrarily dictated, and then rendered worthless by the very monopoly you got it from, forcing you to pay again for something you felt you had acquired last year.

There is no fundamental difference between software, recordings, and books. E-books are not sold, but licensed, and Secure Music will be available in a pay-per-download format. Inexorably driven by more lucrative profits from rentals, I predict that within a couple of decades, you will no longer be able to "buy" a new book or record. You will not be able to "own" copies. This may not seem so nefarious, as long as you have easy access to the "celestial jukebox" and can temporarily download a "read-once" license to any entertainment from private satellites. Your children will have more room in their homes and offices without the weight of a lifetime collection of books and recordings.

What are humans when stripped of our libraries? And it won't stop with books.

For an automobile, the content is the blueprint, the organization of mechanisms into stylistic and functional patterns which move, built out of media such as metals, pipes, hoses, leather, plastic, rubber, and fluids. Because of the great expense of cloning a car, Ford doesn't have to spell out the licensing agreement: You own it until it is lost, sold, or stolen. You can rent it, loan it, sell it, take it apart, and sell the radio, tires, engine, carburetor, etc. individually.

But the license agreement can be changed! And when Ford discovers the power of UCITA, you will have to pay an annual fee for a car you don't own, which will blow up if you fail to bring it in or pay your renewal fee. And you will find that you cannot resell your car on an open secondary market, but can only trade it in to the automobile publisher for an upgrade.

Without an effort to protect the right to own, we may wake up to find that there is nothing left to buy.

JORDAN POLLACK, a computer science and complex systems professor at Brandeis, works on AI, Artificial Life, Neural Networks, Evolution, Dynamical Systems, Games, Robotics, Machine Learning, and Educational Technology. He is a prolific inventor, advises several startup companies and incubators, and in his spare time runs Thinmail, a service designed to enhance the usefulness of wireless email.