Ownership in the Digital Space

Drawing Different Boundaries Around Property

November 20, 2017

The definition of ownership has changed significantly as the digital space has enlarged over the past few decades because the internet has changed a property’s protection mechanisms--namely the market, norms, and nature--that Lessig pointed out in his book. These mechanisms differ significantly for a physical, valuable good versus a digital intellectual property like e-books and movies. The nature mechanism of intellectual property in the cyberspace refers to its physical non-existence that “conspires with thieves” and allows not just stealing but making multiple copies of the property. The market protection mechanism for physical goods makes more marketable and high-demand goods to be more prone to stealing. This principle applies directly to piracy of digital property as well, as exemplified by the large seeder number for popular files that makes torrenting much faster and easier.

Yet the expected norm, as a means to protect piracy, is still unclear. The relative infancy of ethics and regulations around digital commodity has not settled on a universally agreed upon values around piracy, despite its universal accessibility. While ethical norms are often culture specific, thus not always universally accepted, they are also confined to the physical space in which the culture largely draws a boundary around it. Yet the fundamental purpose of the World Wide Web to be accessible to any and all strikes contrast with the lack of governmental or cultural norm that all internet users recognize.

Similarly, the older definition of copyright laws depended on the “high costs of control,” which guaranteed some liberty and anonymity. Yet today’s significantly lowered costs of control also threatens the degree of liberty from regulation. Lessig goes on to discuss the possibility of architecting a system in which software can guarantee restricted but reasonable access to intellectual property. Whether any government can play the same role in determining the new norm of creation and consumption in the digital space, which is not bound by the same national borders it governs, especially when political agendas underlie reinforcement of property protection, is a question we must answer as a collective of distributed shapers of the internet.