Property Theft or Generation Gap?

David Pogue  is the personal technology columnist for the New York Times. His Wall Street Journal counterpart, Walt Mossberg, plays the practical, straight-shooter  to Pogue’s edgier and more expansive ruminations.

Case in point: Pogue’s article “The Generational Divide in Copyright Morality.”

 Pogue sometimes speaks to audiences who are outraged at copyright thievery, $2.00 DVDs of first run movies or $10 copies of Windows hawked in Hong Kong, knock-off designer bags in New York, scams, con men and property theft in general.

He asks them; “if you own a CD and it gets scratched, and you borrow one from the library to burn a copy—is that wrong? If you make CD copies of old vinyl LPs you own? What if you burn a copy of a movie you rented from Blockbuster?”

He leads listeners down a garden path of increasingly discomfiting examples, with more people at each point willing to call it “wrong.” His point: “wrong” is a nuanced view, not black and white. And it’s a powerful example.

Until—he spoke to a college audience of 500.


Pogue went all the way down his usual garden path, and got only two people—in an audience of 500—who characterized his endpoint as “wrong.”

…to see this vivid demonstration of the generational divide, in person, blew me away.
I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the file-sharing issue is. (Although I’m increasingly convinced that copy protection isn’t it.)
I do know, though, that the TV, movie and record companies’ problems have only just begun. Right now, the customers who can’t even *see* why file sharing might be wrong are still young. But 10, 20, 30 years from now, that crowd will be *everybody*. What will happen then?

Pogue is on to something—but it’s not generation gaps. Generations are the second-order indicator of something much bigger.

It’s the disconnect between old belief systems—forged in a different business and technology world—and the new reality.  We are inhabiting an inter-regnum, a period where old beliefs don’t fit the new reality—and the new belief systems as yet unformed.

Emile Durkheim wrote about the shift from one mode of civilization to another; the result, if I recall correctly, was what he called “normlessness.” And it created anomie—a sense of disconnectedness, a lack of cohesive social principles, manifested in individuals as a sense of not belonging.

This disconnect between old beliefs and new reality shows up in several places: the purchasing function is one (old belief—compete with suppliers to squeeze costs out of them; new reality—collaborate with suppliers to create cross-corporate supply chains).

But Pogue’s example is the most vivid. It’s about property rights—the intellectual rights of music, movies, books, software—but also “hard” property like art or design as they become “copied” or digitized.

Technology relentlessly drives toward communalization of property. “Information wants to be free,” was the anarchic claim of the early digerati, and I think they were right. And the more free it becomes, the more Pogue will get blank stares from new generations.

Property owners can partly blame themselves. When videocassettes were introduced, movie companies’ first impulse was to sell, not rent, thereby implicitly degrading their rights to the content.

Remember Microsoft howling about counterfeit Windows in China? But Bill Gates knew full well that every counterfeit Windows user meant one less Unix user; tolerating counterfeiting wasn’t a Faustian deal, it was a plain old one.

We live in a normless time regarding digitizable property. We continue to infinitessimally slice “rights” of music artists, writers and producers to allocate tiny revenue streams from other artists’ 2-second samples sold through DVDs, online streaming media and media yet to be dreamed up. Counting angels on the head of a pin? The Lawyers’ Full Employment Act.

Lawyers will howl.  Software producers, artists, record companies will howl. Moralists will howl. And data will continue to become freer.

The howling will stop when we develop a new set of norms, appropriate to the new conditions on the ground. Pogue’s generational comment is accurate, as far as it goes. And normlessness does rhyme a bit with adolescence and punk rock, for that matter.

But ultimately it’s not about age. It’s about the changing of the social contract.

Change on the ground precedes and drives business models.  Business models then drive ideologies, belief systems, norms, laws.  Ideologies get enforced by lawyers, and lawyers get hired by those who benefit from the status quo.  Until change on the ground starts the whole cycle all over again.

Pogue is correct that “wrong” is a nuanced word.  So is “rights.”  Property rights are not absolute.  We have made "property" of women and black people, air and water—and un-made them.  In the scheme of things, re-thinking the status of a Wu Tang Clan track or an Adam Sandler flick might be just a tad easier. 

12 replies
  1. Duncan
    Duncan says:

    Thanks Charlie for this interesting post.

    Sure – the debate should continue, and change should happen.  Until that change, you still have to obey the law – including other people’s property rights – because that’s what they are today.

    Along with trust is integrity.  You have to do what is right, even when you don’t like it – and, sure be  a force for change to fix it.

  2. Duncan
    Duncan says:

    Thanks Charlie

    You’re dead right that the old paradigm is not going to stay.  Entities such as the RIAA are fighting (on many fronts) a losing battle – and everyone knows it.   The Jammie Thomas debacle is only one example of this.

    Pragmatically though, intellectual endeavour and creativity have to be rewarded.  We need to find solutions that provide appropriate  incentives while allowing the information to be ‘free’.  

    Creative Commons, the open source movement and others are making inroads, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done.

    The story is not over by a long shot – note, for example recent moves to pin liability for copyright infringement on ISPs who merely convey the information without knowing that there’s an infringement at all.

    The challenge then, is to understand and make the most of the current intellectual property system while keeping an eye on (some would say actively working towards) how to make the most of the emerging ‘open’ systems.

  3. Shama Hyder
    Shama Hyder says:

    Charlie-you are definitely right on this one. It is a different belief system. The more intangible a property, the more the lines are blurred.

    As someone who belongs to generation X, I definitely define ownership differently than my parents or my grandparents did.

  4. Stuart Cross
    Stuart Cross says:


    A really engaging post. My wife – a lawyer – is horrifed!

     It’s interesting that some music groups are already trying to develop new norms. For example, the UK band, Radiohead, launched their latest album as a download where everyone was free to pay as much or as little  (ie nothing) as they wished. I think the average amount paid was about $5.

  5. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:


    I’m sorry your wife is horrified; I’m guessing she’s older than Shama (see her comment above)!  I’m not horrified–but I get why she would be.

    I agree, Radiohead’s on to something.  So is Prince–you know, being in the UK, that he promoted concerts recently by giving away CDs in the newspaper. 

    This  evolving new artists’ model looks like turning "records" into advertising, and making money on events.  Events, of course, can include merchandising, instant live recordings of the concert you just saw, unique event-based photos, etc.

    Hmmm…sounds a lot like what the Grateful Dead did in the 60s..and 70s…and 80s…

  6. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    See now,  just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right; and just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Mixing up what’s legal and what’s moral or ethical is a very dangerous thing to do.

    Copyright holders over-reached.  Intuitively when I buy something I think I have the right to use it as I wish.  I give friends books, I lend them to one person then to another.  I make copies for my own use.  I share them.

    And all this before we get into extensions of copyright that have taken most of the modern era out of the commons–for the profit not of the inventors, but of corporations.  Walt Disney is long dead, but we got a copyright extension so that Mickey Mouse wouldn’t go into the commons.

    Somehow protecting authors and inventors came to mean ‘giving corporations" rights for decades and taking away your ownership of things you throught you owned.

    There needs to be some sort of balance–between "you can copy anything" and "you can’t copy anything" and right now the "you can’t copy, or lend, anything" seems to be winning.  Apply current laws around digital media to libraries and they’d be illegal (and the companies would then reap the wrath of librarians, a thing to be greatly feared.)

    I don’t know what the exact answer is but I do know that every legal system which has laws that large numbers of people think are absurd  says "it’s the law, whether or its fair or make sense or not".

    And I do believe that suing large numbers of your customers isn’t a winning prospect.  The dirty secret of the record industry (for example) is that most bansd make almost no money from their record deals– theymake the majority of their money touring, not from cd sales.

    We’ll see how this plays out, but I suspect that Charlie’s right.   This is a rearguard action against a new morality.

    Information wants to be free.  And a new business model will have to be born.  That which is not supported economically will not be done for economic reasons.

    So be it.

  7. Duncan
    Duncan says:

    Hey Ian – great comments.

    Your agonist stuff is great – I  think people can just email you for permission to use your words – is that right?

    How do you react when people copy your writing without telling you or acknowledging you?  What if it affected your personal income from your writing work?

  8. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    If they quote me and acknowledge me (ie. fair use excerpts) I’m generally just flattered. If they copy the entire article I’m often somewhat irritated, but only as a matter of politeness. At this point it doesn’t effect my income at all since my income from writing is a cut of ad revenue or, well, nothing at a lot of sites. I suppose in some sense the copiers are already costing me a small amount of revenue, by cutting into traffic at sites that give me a cut of ads.

    How much would it bother me if it cut into my revenue? I suppose the answer is "somewhat, but it depends". How much is it costing me? What are they using it for? I’m willing to take some losses in exchange for the value of being able to use other people’s work. Especially older stuff, which in my opinion, should have fallen into the commons; orphaned works and the ton of corporate owned stuff which beyond a salary or fee never earned the creator a cent.

    As I’m sure you know, it’s all about residuals, really (as the writer’s strike is currently, and pathetically, demonstrating).

    I don’t believe in no copyright–the question is balance. And it seems to me, balance is currently way out of whack.

  9. Kurt Seifried
    Kurt Seifried says:

    I think quite simply one of the root causes is there is no longer a scarcity of media/content. I get 50 odd TV channels for $40 a month. I get full high speed Internet access for $25 a month (several exabytes (?) of interesting data. I can get a library card for $10 a year (couple hundred thousand books, CD’s, DVD’s, etc. I can rent videos for $5 a pop, or buy a subscription to Netflix, or purchase them on iTunes. I can rent a recording studio with a sound engineer for $65 an hour, I can print a book at for about 10-15$ a pop and I can burn and label my own CD’s and DVD’s trivially. I personally license the majority of my work under open source or creative commons licenses that allow others to use and in some cases profit from my work (which nets me additional exposure and adds to the pool). We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, this is true for individuals and for mega-corporations like Disney (who shamelessly strip mined the brothers Grimm and other fairy tales). Media is common, cheap and ridiculously abundant and I think this mindset is here to stay since it is based in reality. The old mentality of scarcity and expense associated with media is no longer real, so no wonder us younger folks have a hard time buying into it.

  10. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    I don’t think Kurt’s going back into the bottle any time soon (nice writing, Kurt).

    A very timely example of the impact Kurt’s thinking is having on the world is in the January 14 2008 issue of the Economist:

    IN 2006 EMI, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. “That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,” says a person who was there.

    Changing laws are at the tail end of changing societies. As pressure mounts for legal change, there is inevitably some tension around "ethics" and "right and wrong." And there should be. Anytime laws change without some squabbling, we will have lost respect for the rule of law.

    At the same time, it’s possible to step back and just observe the evolution.

    I’m affected by Duncan’s questions too: like Ian, I consider getting quoted to be good PR, and I’m happy to have people cite me–as long as they spell my name right and give a weblink. Would I like to lose royalties on my books? No. But things do have a way of changing, whether I like them or not.

    Like the Bravo TV Network slogan says: Watch what happens.

    And–for a very clever take on the same issue, check out Hugh McGuire’s piece in the Huffington Post, Porn Knows What It’s Good For–Do You?  He argues this is an IP business that focuses more on function than form, and as such is a model for dealing with change.  You’ll get a chuckle out of it, but he’s serious, and makes a good point.


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