Smells And Properties

Paul Graham has posted a provocative essay on the copyright wars. He starts by recalling a childhood tale in which the owner of a food shop grows annoyed when a poor student enjoys the delicious smell of his cooking food. He brings the student to court asking the judge to make him pay for the smells. He accuses the student of stealing his smells.

I recall a version of this story from my own childhood and I distinctly remember thinking that it was silly to believe you could charge for incidental smells like those coming from a kitchen. Everyone thinks it's silly. But then Graham asks what if you lived on a moon base and had to buy the air you breathed. Would you still think it silly if the air provider offered to add a pleasing scent to the air for an extra charge?

All this is an introduction to a way of thinking about Intellectual Property in a way I hadn't considered before. Graham says that something can be treated as property only if it works to so treat it. We don't treat the cooking aromas as property because it wouldn't work here even though it might on a moon base. His argument, of course, is that we are now entering a time when it no longer works to treat content (or at least all content) as property because we can't do so without warping our society. Graham notes as evidence of this the mass random lawsuits against file downloaders as a sort of “exemplary punishment” and attempting to pass laws that would break the Internet.

Today, I read that the UK has caved to US pressure and agreed to extradite a 23 year old student for copyright infringement. His crime? He ran a link site with no infringing content of its own from the UK. If this doesn't speak of a broken definition of property, I can't think what would.

Graham has lots more to say than this quick summary so be sure to follow the link and read his essay. All his essays are good but this one is particularly interesting.

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