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.