Re: Obsolesence of Intellectual Property

Date: Thu Aug 03 2000 - 22:47:49 MDT

There's an article by John Gilmore on the nanodot board at which looks at
the IP debate in the context of future nanotech.

Jason Joel Thompson has pointed out here that nanotech may eventually
make it possible to cheaply create material objects given information
about their designs, in which case most of the economy would involve
trading intellectual property. IP issues will therefore become ever
more important as we move to an era where the only thing that matters
is information.

Jason's perspective is that this will be a disaster if we don't have a
way to protect ownership of IP, and therefore we should come up with
institutions today that protect the forms of IP that we have now, so
that in the future we will be able to have a functioning economy.

The article by John Gilmore follows much the same reasoning, but comes to
exactly the opposite conclusion. John, like Jason, sees today's threats
to IP as portending a future society where all productive efforts will
face similar forms of piracy. Rather than fighting this trend, though,
he seeks ways to live with it.

John made one of his many fortunes through his company Cygnus Solutions,
one of the first businesses to make money off of "free software".
Cygnus sold versions of the Gnu development tools (compilers, debuggers,
etc.), packaged for various architectures, along with technical support.
This is the same basic business model used by RedHat and some other
companies today, but Gilmore started it almost 20 years ago.

His experience no doubt teaches him that you *can* make money off of
software which is given away for free; the millions of dollars in his
bank account attest to that.

John suggests that if we don't solve the IP problem, the advent of
nanotech will lead to exactly the kind of disaster Jason is predicting:

   Nanotech threatens to apply the same economics to physical goods --
   very cheap copying after relatively expensive creation. If our economy
   is not to crash immediately after assemblers arrive (resulting in
   many hungry people rioting or warring), society needs to learn how to
   structure an economy to support the expensive part while letting the
   cheap part provide its benefits of broad distribution of the results.

However, he believes that the efforts by the RIAA and other copyright
owners to preserve antiquated IP laws will only make matters worse:

   Intellectual property law, and expected business practice, is being
   driven by the entertainment middleman industry in exactly the wrong
   direction: Artificially restricting computers and citizens so that they
   will not make the copies that they are very good at making. Following
   this path will lead the economy to a massive dislocation (much
   bigger than the record companies' dismay about Napster and MP3 --
   record companies' sales today are greater than ever). Almost nobody
   understands this yet.

The solution he sees is to move society towards acceptance of the open
source philosophy in all areas of human endeavor. Only in that way can
we move into a nanotech economy without a crash, and allowing everyone to
share in the fruits of the new technology:

   If even a third or a half of the economy is running on open source
   principles before assemblers start assembling more assemblers, we
   can probably avoid war and worldwide civil unrest.

John says that much of his interest in the open source software movement
and IP issues in general is because of his concerns about the transition
to nanotech. I wonder how long ago he realized that his business model
could play such a significant role in the future economy.


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