Friday, January 06, 2012

Ownership and Access

The notion of intellectual property has never been made fully consistent.  It is an attempt to marry an Enlightenment era notion about possession of things and land to a changed notion of "the fruits of one's labor."  I remember as an undergraduate puzzling over what was the referent of the phrase "Beethoven's 9th symphony."  Was it the dots on the page?  Was it the movements of the members of the orchestra?  Was it the resulting sound waves in the air?  Was it the internal experience of the listener?  Was it the record (yes, we had records when I was in college)?  What is the symphony itself?  If it were someone's property, what was it they had rights to?  What was it he or she possessed?

The question has been made philosophically even more interesting now that the media that contained the thing is going away.  Now that we no longer need the record album, 8-track, or digital file on our computer to have unfettered access to a book, song, or graphic image, does the notion of ownership make sense anymore?  Or is ownership in the case of intellectual property simply the ability to have access at will?  If I pay a fee and can listen to Dark Side of the Moon anywhere, anytime, but do not have a CD to put in the cabinet, do I own it in the same way?  Does ownership talk make sense anymore now that access requires no physical media?