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"Autoplagiarism": An Intellectual Property Dialogue

Date: 18-Sep-2013/21:50

Tags: , ,

Characters: William, Ricardo

While organizing some hard drives and going through old stuff, I found a little piece of writing I'd made in 1999. I never published or improved it, and as I probably never will... I thought I might share it here. It's another thing I can delete off my disk and yet perhaps be of interest to someone, somewhere.
Note I did actually upgrade it to exploit the "screenplay dialect" functionality in my Draem blog engine, and updated the names. The original had the discussion between "Bill" and "Linus"...when I now know that Richard Stallman is a better analogy to make than to Linus Torvalds. I also called them "William" and "Ricardo" to make the characters more abstract


All intellectual property rights are just licenses granted by society because it was thought, rightly or wrongly, that society as a whole would benefit by granting them. But in any particular situation, we have to ask: are we really better off granting such license? What kind of act are we licensing a person to do?
William's college friend Ricardo came to pick him up to go out to dinner. The two had been music majors who went into different areas of the industry. William was now doing audio mixing for a record producer, and Ricardo was working in sales at a music store.
William: (enthusiastically) "Wow, Ricardo...I see you upgraded your sound system!"
William settled down into the passenger seat of Ricardo's Mustang.
Ricardo: "Yes indeed, and I must say it set me back a pretty penny!"
Working on commission at the store could be hit-or-miss. And for Ricardo, the $300 spent was a serious amount of money.
Ricardo: "I bought this particular one because I thought it was the same kind you had--but I must have made a mistake. I'm thinking about taking it back."
William carefully examined the numbers on the sleek new dash-mounted unit in the Mustang.
William: "Oh yes, yes...it's the same model. What's the problem?"
Ricardo furrowed his brow a bit.
Ricardo: "You know, it just doesn't sound the same in my car as it does in yours. Yours has more...well, I guess more kick to it, and the sound isn't as tinny."
William: (smiling) "Ah, you see, that's because of the settings I use."
His fingers ran to the controls, and as he twisted them he explained the changes he was making.
William: "You want to turn up the bass knob a bit...that's what gives you the low frequencies. I find that turning the knob to the right about 60 degrees from center works best. Then, you need to turn the treble knob down, about 45 degrees from center...that cuts the high frequencies a bit so the music gets mellower."

With these adjustments in, a transformation occurred. When the drums kicked, the windows would shake just a little. The sharp whines of the vocals were muted a bit, so they were very easy on the ears.
Ricardo: (excitedly) "Fantastic! It sounded lame before, but this is great! I'll keep it like this!"
William: "Well, if you're going to do that, I'll have to ask you for $30."
Ricardo gave him a sideways look.
Ricardo: "Uh, very funny."
William's expression turned serious.
William: "I'm not joking. I spent valuable time figuring out those settings, and I can't just go around configuring stereos for free. I need to be compensated."
A smile crossed Ricardo's face.
Ricardo: "Oh, I get it! You're still mad about me charging you for stringing your guitar. Look, I told you that just covered the cost of the strings."
William: "Oh no, I'm not at all upset, that was completely justified. You charged for the parts themselves, not your labor in putting them on. That was very kind of you, and I'm giving you the same discount--I'm not charging you for the physical turning of the knobs. If I did, then I would be charging you $50! It's merely the settings THEMSELVES, which I spent time developing."
Ricardo began to show signs of irritation.
Ricardo: "The settings THEMSELVES? I'm terribly confused. How are the settings of these knobs valuable? What are you getting at?"
William: "Clearly they have value. They make the stereo sound better. You yourself admitted to considering taking it back, because without the settings it sounded terrible."
Ricardo was still not sure if this was serious. But he played along.
Ricardo: "The manufacturer anticipated that people would want to set those things, and so they put knobs and buttons on the unit. I was completely free to discover those settings too."
He leaned back into the seat, convinced that he had won.
William: "Let me ask you this: You say the radio manufacturer anticipated the choice of you wanting to change the way the stereo sounded. But what if they hadn't? What if I had manufactured a small device that could be inserted into the unit to give it the sound you desired? What then?"
Ricardo: "That would be different, then it would be, well...it would be a thing. You could charge money for that."
William: (disgustedly) "So only 'things' have value? Certainly you can't think that's the case!"
Ricardo: "Well, in a sense, although not entirely. Things have value, like car stereos...or books! Things intrinsically cost money for the resources it takes to make them and to duplicate them. You can charge money for things, and that's fine. But thoughts and ideas are meant to be free."
William shook his head.
William: "How are you controlling how much of the idea is being accounted for in the cost of things you buy? I assure you that the price of a book pays for more than the paper it is printed on. And when you bought this stereo, they charged you for more than just the electronic parts. I just want to sell you an idea. Do I have to bundle it with some ‘thing'--a coffee mug or umbrella, perhaps--in order to sell it?"
Ricardo: "Look William, I already paid for the stereo. In fact, I paid a LOT of money for the stereo. It is what makes all this possible. You just spent time twiddling knobs. Maybe it's worth a few pennies...but certainly not 1/10th of what I paid for the unit itself."
William breathed a sigh of relief.
William: "Well, now we're getting somewhere. We've established that my product has value. Now we're just haggling over the price. So how many knobs would I have to set until you think I have done $30 worth of work?"
Ricardo: "Pardon?"
William: "A book is really just like a series of knobs, each knob being a letter or punctuation character. When authors sit down to do work, then they are more or less coming up with settings on a machine. They didn't invent the printing press, they didn't invent the language, they are just ‘twiddling letter knobs'--you might say. So the question remains: how many knobs have to be set before I have done $30 worth of work?"
Ricardo: "That's absurd! You can't measure the worth of an author's words by counting the letters!"
William: "Precisely my point! So how can you decide that two knobs are any less valuable than two thousand? Clearly, the price is mine to decide, and your decision as a consumer is whether you want to pay what I ask, or do without."
Ricardo fumed.
Ricardo: "This is madness! You know the value is in the STEREO, William, not in some fleeting bit of state you manage to capture by spinning knobs. Brush up against the knob funny and it's gone. What kind of product is that?"
William settled back into the seat and looked morose. Calmly, he responded.
William: "This argument has happened before. It will happen again, with greater frequency. As technology marches on, it's getting progressively easier to unbundle ideas from the things they once traveled with. And in some sense, not having the thing is a great freedom--you can live in a tiny apartment and have all the music and all the books you could ever want stored on computer disks."
He looked wistfully at the radio, and then continued.
William: "But with your attitude, I'm afraid we'll never be able to get there. You're forcing peddlers of ideas to give you things--by refusing to see concrete value in that which you can't hold in your hand. So we'll have to keep polluting the world and expending resources to make more things; and restrict the flow of ideas to those places where physical transactions can occur. It saddens me."
With that, he reached out and spun the bass and treble knobs straight vertical--back to their factory default positions.
Ricardo jeered.
Ricardo: "How very adult of you. But you forgot one thing, Mr. Audio Tyrant. You showed me the settings. Since they're easy to copy, I can turn them back without you around--whenever I want!"
William rose from the seat, exited the car, slammed the door, and gave a final menacing look through the window.
William: (quietly) "If you do, I'll see you in court."
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