I'm just finishing reading Charles Stross' Accelerando. Fantastic book by the way, full of in-jokes for the accelerationista. And then I came across this. Copyright in a digital world by Nicholas Bentley.

I don't agree with all his conclusions but hidden in here is a *big* idea. The separation of rights from the ideas that those rights control. I think this is similar and related to the separation of options from shares and is related to the separation of money from the gold standard. This allows a market to develop in trading rights, independent of the trading of the ideas. So a particular idea, in the form of a 5 minute track of music wrapped up into an MP3 can be freely copied while the right to perform that track is traded separately. Stani Yassukovich while heading Merrill Lynch Europe and inventing the Eurobond famously said that you can commodify anything and turn it into paper. Once in the form of paper, you could trade the paper independent of the commodity. This led to the explosion of financial instruments currently being traded in the financial markets. What we are about to discover is that we can commodify ideas and turn them into paper representing those ideas and rights to those ideas. We can then trade this paper independent of the idea.

What I can't get my head round is whether there needs to be control and hence DRM for this to work, or whether it can work in the same way that money does. And money in the modern world works largely due to a social contract and belief system that says that it does.[1]

The economics 1.0 solution to this conundrum is that what we are buying is the physical expression of the idea in the form of a piano roll, a vinyl record or up to 1990 a CD. Continuing this line of thinking into the realm of Economics 2.0 we're attempting to maintain this by controlling the distribution of the idea by imposing some form of DRM.

The problem is that as Cory Doctorow has said repeatedly not only does DRM not work, it *cannot* work. The crucial argument is that you can treat the DRM system as a black box and apply cryptography to it. The box contains an encrypted copy of the idea. The rights owner gives you a secret key which unlocks the box and releases a plain text copy. The holder of the box now has a plain text version and can discard the box. It's irrelevant what algorithm the box uses. It's irrelevant how secret the key is. The holder now has a plain text copy and is free to distribute it.

So no matter how we kick against it, we have to discard the ability to have strong control over the movement of ideas when they are expressed in digital form, no matter whether they are software, words, books, music, video or CNC programs. The question is whether we can do this while still maintaining a market for the rights over those bits. Nicholas Bentley suggests that we can find ways of getting "contributions" from people who (temporarily) hold rights over the idea to the people who "own" the idea. I suspect that the tragedy of the commons means that providing there's a reasonable chance of getting away with it, the majority of people will freeload and avoid contributing.

At this point I'm out of my depth and wondering if all I've done is reframe the arguments slightly and we're back into trying tip-jars, centralised and legally backed performance rights processes or government controlled taxes for redistribution to monopoly rights holders. Whatever it is, the days of first sale of anything that can be digitised are now over. All we're doing now is thrashing around trying to keep it going for as long as possible while we wait for society as a whole to admit this and for some alternative to appear.

So now what I need is someone or groups of people who are prepared to hack economic theory around a rights trading market. And while we're at it, working out how to commodify and trade "trust", "reputation" and "whuffie".

[1]From Robert Anton Wilson. What's the difference between a dollar bill from the federal bank, a dollar bill counterfeited by the Mafia and a painting of a dollar bill by Andy Warhol and a photocopy of a dollar bill? The key is that the Federal Bank have a magic wand which they wave over *their* dollar bills which makes them real. And we all believe that the Federal Bank has one of these magic wands and they're the only people who have one.

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[ 25-Sep-05 7:40pm ] [ , ]