Other people's property

Often people from outside a field bring an interesting perspective. It took a physicist (Richard Feynman) to decipher the Mayan Dresden codex (it described the movement of the planet Venus, not the actions of the gods). It’s taking a businessman (Bill Gates) to revolutionize global health. On a smaller scale, bringing an outsider with a different perspective (a designer, say) into a software team can change what they do. In this vein, this week’s guest post is by Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. Matt’s background is as a pirate radio DJ, music journalist and magazine founder. Here, Matt outlines how piracy has consistently changed our world for the better, and will continue to do so:

There was a time when many people didn’t think of software as property at all. Thirty years ago everyone from multinational corporations such as IBM to hobbyists programming in their garages for fun, treated software as information – a public good. But that all changed on February 3rd 1976, when a 21 year-old programmer wrote to an open letter to a gang of hobbyists who called themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, saying they could no longer use his software anymore, a program called BASIC, without paying for it. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?” the letter asked the club, who huddled together in a garage to do exactly that. “What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?” he asked. The young programmer had a point. Why shouldn’t he be paid for his time? Personal computing had reached a fork in the road.

The letter-writer, one William Henry Gates III, or Bill Gates to his friends, managed to turn the tide of opinion in the programming world, and ended up scratching a pretty good living from his software, too. As did some members of the Homebrew Computer Club, such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But when Microsoft unveiled Vista last year, a product 10,000 programmers had spent almost five years developing, many software people were already predicting it might be the last of its kind, because the way software is both produced and consumed has changed. Once again software has reached the same fork in the road, only this time it’s not just the software business facing this dilemma.

In every industry in the world, the line between information and property is blurring. In software this has clearly been underway on for some time – from open source alternatives such as Linux, to rampant software piracy, trying to define software strictly as property has been a constant problem for programmers. Now it’s also a problem for those in music, the movie business, the pharmaceutical industry, fashion and many other areas. We’re all at this fork in the road that I call the Pirate’s Dilemma. But instead of taking one route or the other, thinking of software as either information or property, maybe this time, the answer is to think of it as both.

Throughout history, there have been other groups like the Homebrew Computer Club who have gotten together to work out better ways to do things, in situations where copyright laws don’t always work. In 1960s Jamaica, an accident in a recording studio led a DJ to realize he could create amazing new forms of music by creating space for the audience and other DJs to collaborate with the artists on the original recording, a revelation which doubled the profitability of that record label, created several new types of music, and birthed what we now call the remix.

In 1970s New York, graffiti artists from diverse backgrounds and warring neighborhoods united and formed “crews” that were able to move across the gang-controlled boundaries, and develop one of the most explosive artistic movements the world has ever seen, using an informal, norms-based system that protected their work, but encouraged other artists to innovate and learn from them.

In the 1980s, three eleven-year-old kids realized video games were a lot more fun if you hacked into the code and re-wrote the story yourself. Their first hack showed every other fan that video games were as easy to manipulate as coloring books, and two decades later, “modding” as it’s now known, became a vital part of game development. Game developers encourage fans to hack their games, because it’s a great way for them to develop new ideas, find the most talented people, and extend the shelf life of the original game.

Thanks to the internet, in the late 1990s it became very obvious that information as we know it is now a two way street, whether we choose to define it as property or not. Sometimes we do need to think of this a problem, and try and stop others from using our property as information – that’s always going to hold in many cases. But not all the time. Often it can be incredibly beneficial to open up your information to others. Different perspectives bring new ideas, solutions and sometimes even entirely new business models that we couldn’t see before.

Finding innovative ways to let people to share information without risking our intellectual property will define the software success stories of the next few decades. The writing has been on the wall for some time; the game has quite clearly changed. There is no fork in the road, what lies ahead is actually a road with two lanes, which together add up to a more efficient way of getting where we need to be. 

Want to hear more about Matt’s ideas? Matt will be speaking at Business of Software 2007. Or check out his blog.

Enjoyed this post? Subscribe to our RSS feed.