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What Do You Own?

Ownership used to be a pretty simple concept. You gave someone money (or something else of value), they gave you a product, end of transaction. The owner of that product could do pretty much whatever they wanted*, including modifying the item or giving it to someone else, without the original creator getting in the way.

As a writer for Wired explains, the issue of property rights has become very complicated, even for seemingly non-digital goods.

But we really don’t own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. Because modifying modern objects requires access to information: code, service manuals, error codes, and diagnostic tools. Modern cars are part horsepower, part high-powered computer. Microwave ovens are a combination of plastic and microcode. Silicon permeates and powers almost everything we own.

This is a property rights issue, and current copyright law gets it backwards, turning regular people – like students, researchers, and small business owners – into criminals. Fortune 500 telecom manufacturer Avaya, for example, is known for suing service companies, accusing them of violating copyright for simply using a password to log in to their phone systems. That’s right: typing in a password is considered “reproducing copyrighted material.”

That concept of copyright has been systematically warped in the past few decades, and it’s only getting worse.

It hasn’t always been that way. Copyright laws were originally designed to protect creativity and promote innovation. But now, they are doing exactly the opposite: They’re being used to keep independent shops from fixing new cars. They’re making it almost impossible for farmers to maintain their equipment. And, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, they’re preventing regular people from unlocking their own cellphones.

The author of this piece is the owner of a company that repairs electronic devices so he is obviously concerned that his business is being affected by these legal lockdowns.

However, the larger issue, the question of what does it mean to “own” something, is beginning to impact all kinds of DIY projects. Or even something as simple as gifting a book.

* Zoning restrictions for property and safety requirements for cars are, of course, two major exceptions.


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  1. Eston

    Tangentially related: I was pleasantly surprised by today’s Supreme Court decision regarding first-sale and geography. While rooted in textbooks, I think this is a win, too, for those looking to e.g. resell software, games, etc. http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-supreme-court-copyright-law-20130319,0,5654337.story

    • Tim

      I was also happy to see the court reinforcing the concept of first sale. I hope this ruling will help extend it to digital media (books, movies, music) but currently the DMCA and some very nervous big media companies are standing in the way.

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