April 19, 2014

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Will It Copy?

In the spirit of the cult “Will It Blend?” videos, today’s question on Freedom to Tinker is “Will It Copy?” As we saw with the CopyBot in Second Life, when something becomes easily copyable, the economics of its production change: users benefit more from already-existing objects, but the incentive to make new objects decreases.

This is exactly what happened to the music industry when computers and the Internet suddenly made small files, including digitized music, easily copyable. In the case of music, we know that the business is changing, but we don’t know yet what will be the net effect on the availability of good music.

Like the music business, the software business is challenged by cheap copying. If you make software that runs on users’ computers, your software will be copied by at least some users. By contrast, if you provide an interactive service, delivered across the net but implemented on your own servers – a search engine, perhaps – then your product can’t be trivially copied. You have an inherent advantage over the sellers of packaged software.

A similar story holds for the Second Life CopyBot. Objects in Second Life can be described by shape, coloration, and behavior. Shape and coloration are duplicated perfectly by the CopyBot, but behavior (the script code describing what the object does) is not. So if your business makes beautiful but passive objects – clothing, perhaps– your objects can be copied perfectly and you have a problem. But if you make functional objects – a magic wand that does tricks in response to voice commands, perhaps – then the CopyBot won’t affect you much.

Second Life users are reportedly fighting back by building anti-CopyBot technologies, but this is ultimately futile. As long as shape and coloration are visible, it will be possible to observe and copy them. It will be easier to build a three-dimensional scanner-copier in Second Life than in real life. Copying of beautiful, nonfunctional objects will remain possible.

Eventually, this will happen in real life too. Tools for analyzing and replicating real objects will get better and better; knockoffs will get closer and closer to the real thing; and the time window when only the original is available will get shorter and shorter. Today, fashion flourishes despite relatively free copying. Indeed, some argue that the high-fashion world is so dynamic because of copying – always moving, to stay ahead of the masses. So it’s not a given that the fashion world will dry up, in real life or Second Life, if copying gets faster and more accurate.

Part of the fun of “Will It Blend?” is that the answer is almost always “yes”. Increasingly, the answer to “Will It Copy?” will be the same.

Comments

  1. enigma_foundry says:

    This is interesting for me as an Architect, because, although Architects generally spend much time crreating IP, which is almost solely coverd under copyright, there is rarely a concern that our work willbe copied by others.

    the reason is quite simple: a building is fixed, in space to it’s site, and a design from one site won’t really work at another site, or if someone tired to do this the building wouldn’t work very well in its new site.

    So, although someone may be able to copy a building I’ve designed, the utility of that copied design would be very small.

    (In the above discussion I am excluding certain building types, such as a spec built home, which aren’t really Architecture, but building.)

  2. Hal says:

    It’s something of an article of faith in certain subcultures online that copying is good – that the net effect of introduce cheap copying can only be improvement. However this is probably a premature judgement and we need to wait and see whether in reality the introduction of cheap copies makes things better or worse.

    From the economic perspective, objects which take time and effort to design but which can be freely copied by anyone who sees them are “public goods”. A public good is one which is non-excluable, meaning if it is made available to one it is made available to all; and non-rival, meaning that if one person consumes it it is still available to everyone else. Classic examples would be clean air or national defense. Copyable information goods are public goods by this definition – once you release it, it is essentially freely available to the whole community.

    It is a theorem of elementary economics that public goods are under-produced. That is, if everyone involved simply follows their own individual self-interest, the quantity of public goods produced is lower than that which would maximize net social welfare. This is why we don’t leave things like clean air and clean water up to individual self interest to produce, but we introduce government regulation in order to try to increase the quantities of these goods.

    In contrast, another theorem of elementary economics says that private goods (those whose ownership can be successfully managed and controlled) are produced to an optimal level. Private decisions and market mechanisms will optimize production levels of private goods to maximize net social value.

    When we introduce something like CopyBot, we are basically turning private goods into public goods. Our expectation therefore is that this should have detrimental economic effects. Where previously the level of production was optimal to satisfy social needs, under the new regime production levels will be too low, just as in a market system the production of clean air and water is too low. People will be harmed and society will be worse off.

    It remains to be seen whether this prediction based on rather elementary reasoning will hold true in the complexity of human society, but it is a reasonable starting point for our expectations. It is likely that introduction of free copying will make things worse. We can hope to be surprised and discover that there will be other factors to compensate for this, but our expectations should be realistic.

  3. Steve R. says:

    Based on the need to earn a living, in the abstract, the statement “the incentive to make new objects decreases” is conceptually accurate. The problem that I have, with those advocating so-called intellectual property, is that they claim that outrageous protections are necessary for content producers to create since they won’t create without an economic incentive.

    In reality many people do create without an economic incentive. Consequently we will have creativity, (maybe not as much) even in the absence of any economic motivation. In a free market system, if a person who creates with the expectation of making big bucks can’t make those big bucks, the solution is a new business plan, not onerous laws that limit the rights of society. Also there is the issue that if a content creator can monopolize his/her creation creativity may actually decline if the creator has run out of ideas and potential new creators are denied/discouraged from building on the creation.

    Second Life could make for an excellent economic study as this story unfolds.

  4. Crosbie Fitch says:

    All people are interested in clean air – they rely upon the government for the public good.

    Only an artist’s audience is interested in the artist’s work – they procure the publication of the work for themselves without fretting that people uninterested in the artist may be unexpectedly entertained without contribution.

  5. Tom Poe says:

    “. . . when something becomes easily copyable, the economics of its production change: users benefit more from already-existing objects, but the incentive to make new objects decreases. . . . This is exactly what happened to the music industry when computers and the Internet suddenly made small files, including digitized music, easily copyable.”

    I question whether this conclusion or premise (not sure what to call it) is so easily accepted. I think the problem arises with equating the term music with those that control some 85% of all music listened to around the world. A quick trip to http://www.archive.org will be encouraging for those wondering how music as a form of creativity and innovation is doing these days.

    The music industry is constrained by a business model based on providing services for distribution and marketing to creative artists and performers. The industry is but a middleman providing services. Disruption from technology that streamlines the services doesn’t decrease incentives for creators. In fact, what will happen, and is happening, is we see independent musicians and artists taking on more of the services they used to rely on others to perform, literally exploding the resources for music.

    The same logic could be applied to the pharmaceutical industry. Today, research and development (R&D) is carried out by private industry (oversimplified, but useful for discussion). Were the FDA to require that all R&D replace their proprietary tools for preparing drug applications with a standardized and nonproprietary system of tools, the governments could reduce the cost of R&D by 70% or more, making it feasible for doing their own R&D, without relying on private industry. There is no dispute about the result: that
    “In contrast, another theorem of elementary economics says that private goods (those whose ownership can be successfully managed and controlled) are produced to an optimal level. Private decisions and market mechanisms will optimize production levels of private goods to maximize net social value.” becomes completely debunked, and in its place we will see a far more efficient system realized, with both greater profits for drug manufacturers and at the same time, lower prices in the market place. Why? Technology advances make it possible to remove middlemen that provide little else than services to bring products to market.

    [Editor's note: This is the 10,000th (non-spam) comment on Freedom to Tinker.]

  6. Jamie says:

    @Hal
    “It’s something of an article of faith in certain subcultures online that copying is good – that the net effect of introduce cheap copying can only be improvement.”

    I think many people on both sides get confused about this. It isn’t “copying” that is good, it is abundance and improvement on existing works that is good. When people online advocate “copying”, the benefits they point to are always those of abundance and improvement, not copying. Copying may be the best way to increase abundance and encourage improvement, or it may not be. But it is important to remember that it is not “copying” that is good, but abundance and improvement. Copying is just a possible means towards that end.

  7. Crosbie Fitch says:

    What is also good is the liberation of the public to perform simple, innocuous copying operations they already have the facilities and inclination to perform, and already do perform.

  8. enigma_foundry says:

    Ed asks the question: will it copy? And as interesting as that question is, is I am more interested in a special class of objects that, even if they would copy perfectly, will lose a good part of their value when they are copied:

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/copybot-resistance/

  9. Neo says:

    Not germane to this specific post, but interesting to Ed Felten, I think:

    http://www.againstmonopoly.org/index.php?limit=10&chunk=0&perm=886089000000000640

  10. Neo says:

    Is there a technical problem with the site? There hasn’t been any change (except comments) for five whole days now, or any change at all for two…

  11. the_zapkitty says:

    I dislike rumor-spreading but there’s been indications (http://www.bradblog.com http://avi-rubin.blogspot.com ) that Ed might be called in to straighten out the Florida e-voting mess… er… called in to consult on the matter.

    If so… given that the State of Florida has proven downright hostile to anything resembling criticism of e-voting in the past… this could get interesting :)

    And, again if so, Ed might have been rather busy between holiday stuff and getting called into that mess.

    That’s assuming he didn’t take one look at the work conditions and e-voting corporation mandated “nondisclosure” crap… and tell FL to take a hike… that would be fun too :)

  12. Ed Felten says:

    Lack of activity on my part just reflects the holiday. Probably the same goes for commenters. I should have another post up today.

  13. the_zapkitty says:

    Rats! I’ll admit I was looking forward to the possibility… in an admittedly ghoulish way… ;)

  14. Neo says:

    Holiday — what holiday? A brief poppy-wearing fad lasting under a week, some maple leaf waving, and some boring assemblies in the various grade schools hardly constitutes a major occasion, and Christmas is a whole month away still. :)

    I see the new article, but it doesn’t seem to acknowledge my pointer to againstmonopoly. Or did you hear of it from elsewhere first?

  15. Ed Felten says:

    Neo,

    I did hear about the DMCA exemptions from elsewhere first.

  16. RonK says:

    “Today, fashion flourishes despite relatively free copying. Indeed, some argue that the high-fashion world is so dynamic because of copying — always moving, to stay ahead of the masses.”

    Yes, I found this interesting issue at URL

    http://technocrat.net/d/2006/11/24/11337

    which references an interesting paper to be published:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=878401

    (The technocrat.net post also has a link to an arstechnica.com article).