The Earthling

Dead Head

John Perry Barlow says intellectual property will soon be worthless. His own already comes close.

Back when I was a journalist–before I became a provider of digital content–I thought life would always be simple: I would write articles, and people would pay to read them. But then I heard about the impending death of intellectual property, a scenario painted by cyberfuturists John Perry Barlow and Esther Dyson. As all media move online, they say, content will be so freely available that getting paid to produce it will be hard, if not impossible. At first, I dismissed this as garden-variety, breathless overextrapolation from digerati social theorists. But even as I scoffed, the Barlow-Dyson scenario climbed steadily toward the rank of conventional wisdom.

Barlow and Dyson do have a solution. In the future people like me, having cultivated a following by providing free content on the Web, will charge our devotees for services that are hard to replicate en masse. We will answer individual questions online, say, or go around giving speeches, or spew out insights at private seminars, or (this one is actually my idea) have sex with young readers. The key, writes Barlow, will be not content but “performance.” Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, offers this analogy: The Dead let people tape concerts, and the tapes then led more people to pay for the concerts.

The seminal version of the Barlow-Dyson thesis is Barlow’s 10,000-word 1994 essay in Wired. It is with some trepidation that I challenge the logic of this argument. Barlow is a noted visionary, and he is famously derisive of people less insightful than himself (a group which, in his opinion, includes roughly everyone). He says, for example, that the ability of courts to deal correctly with cyberissues depends on the “depth of the presiding judge’s clue-impairment.” Well, at the risk of joining Barlow’s long roster of the clue-impaired, here goes.

Barlow’s argument begins with a cosmic premise: “Digital technology is detaching information from the physical plane, where property law of all sorts has always found definition.” This is wrong on two counts. First, all information does take physical form. Whether digital or analog, whether in ink or sound waves or synaptic firings or electrons, information always resides in patterns of matter or energy (which, as Einstein noted, are interchangeable manifestations of the physical world).

To be sure, the significance of information is independent of its particular physical incarnation. So is its value. You download this article from Slate’s servers and copy it onto your own hard disk, and it’s still worth–well, nothing, but that’s a. Suppose it were a Madonna video: You’d get just as much enjoyment out of it regardless of which particular bunch of electrons embodied it.

B ut this independence of meaning and value from physical incarnation is nothing new. It is as old as Sumerian tablets, to say nothing of the Gutenberg press. Indeed, the whole reason intellectual-property law exists is that people can acquire your information without acquiring the particular physical version of it that you created. Thus Barlow’s belief that “property law of all sorts” has always “found definition” on the “physical plane” signals a distressing confusion on his part. The one sense in which it’s true that information is “detached” from the “physical plane”–the fact that information’s value transcends its physical incarnation–not only fails to qualify as an original insight, and not only fails to make intellectual-property rights obsolete; it’s the very insight that led to intellectual-property rights in the first place! Barlow announces from the mountaintop: “It’s fairly paradigm warping to look at information through fresh eyes–to see how very little it is like pig iron or pork bellies.” Maybe so, but it’s hard to say for sure, since the people who really did take that fresh look have been dead for centuries.

If you somehow forced Barlow to articulate his thesis without the wacky metaphysics, he’d probably say something like this: The cost of copying and distributing information is plummeting–for many purposes, even approaching zero. Millions of people can now do it right at their desks. So in principle, content can multiply like fruit flies. Why should anyone buy an article when a copy can be had for nothing?

Answer: Because it can’t. The total cost of acquiring a “free” copy includes more than just the copying-and-transmitting costs. There’s 1) the cost–in time and/or money–of finding someone who already has a copy, and will give it to you for free or for cheap; 2) the risk of getting caught stealing intellectual property; 3) any premiums you pay to others for incurring such risks (as when you get copies from bootleggers); and 4) informal punishments such as being labeled a cheat or a cheapskate. The size of this last cost will depend on how norms in this area evolve.

Even in the distant future, the total cost of cheating on the system, thus figured, will almost never be zero. Yes, it will be way, way closer to zero than it used to be. But the Barlow-Dyson scenario still is wrong. Why? Because whether people cheat doesn’t depend on the absolute cost of cheating. It depends on the cost of cheating compared with the cost of not cheating. And the cost of getting data legally will plummet roughly as fast as the cost of getting it illegally–maybe faster.

In their writings, Barlow and Dyson make clear they’re aware of this fact. But they seems unaware of its fatal impact on their larger thesis. How could cybersages have such a blind spot? One theory: Because they’re cybersages. You have to be a career paleohack like me, getting paid for putting ink on paper, to appreciate how much of the cost of legally acquiring bits of information goes into the ink and paper and allied anachronisms, like shipping, warehousing, and displaying the inky paper. I wrote a book that costs $14 in paperback. For each copy sold, I get $1. The day may well come, as Barlow and Dyson seem to believe, when book publishers as we know them will disappear. People will download books from Web sites and either print them out on new, cool printers or read them on superlight wireless computers. But if so, it will then cost you only $1–oh hell, make it $1.25–to get a copy of my book legally from my Web site.

Now imagine being at my Web site, reading my promotional materials, and deciding you’d like to read the book. (Thank you.) A single keystroke will give you the book, drain your bank account of five shiny quarters, and leave you feeling like an honest, upstanding citizen. Do you think you’ll choose, instead, to call a few friends in hopes of scoring an illegal copy? And don’t imagine that you can just traipse on over to the “black-market book store” section of the Web and find a hot copy of my book. As in the regular world, the easier it is for Joe Consumer to track down an illegal distributor, the easier it is for cops to do the same. Black marketeers will have to charge enough to make up for this risk, making it hard to undersell my $1.25 by much. And there are, too, why the cost of cheating will be nontrivial.