Kevin Kelly on Property Rights

Kevin Kelly, the provocative tech commentator and futurist, offers a great meditation on the shifting meaning of property rights as more and more life migrates online. If lots of your mental life is lodged on a server somewhere (say, your blog or professional papers), or consumed from a server (such as movies or music), or accessed on the fly from your favorite websites or from your friends, what does it mean to “own” something, and how important is it, anyway?

Kelly writes:

“If you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages….. There are fewer and fewer reasons to own, or even possess anything. Via omni-access the most ordinary citizen can get hold of a good or service as fast as possessing it. The quality of the good is equal to what you can own, and in some cases getting hold of it may be faster than finding it on your own in your own ‘basement.’”

Kelly goes so far as to predict that access is actually better than possession in many instances, enough so that a new economy based on accessing intangible goods will come to eclipse ownership:

“Very likely, in the near future, I won’t ‘own’ any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy — as in make a decision to own — any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to ‘own’ it.”

The new access or rental economy is stalled, Kelly opines, because traditional property rights are constraining its emergence. For example, shrink-wrap licenses for software or “click-through” licenses on the Web stipulate a strict set of conditions on how you may use the music or film or text. Usually, you can’t do anything with it.

But this is precisely what people living on the Internet want — the ability to customize and improve a work, open-source style. Private property rights are inhibiting a regime of “omni-access,” Kelly argues, which is precisely why open-source software and other open platforms are so popular. Open platforms let people create, modify and improve stuff — capabilities that property rights holders want to stifle so that they can “own” it and monetize as much as possible.

Kelly is definitely on to something when he points out that our feelings about property matter. The social meaning of “ownership” is in flux, and is likely to be more influential over the long run than anything that a court declares. But I guess I part company with Kelly when he implicitly sees prices as a proxy for how much we value something and therefore may wish to own it. He writes:

“Possession of a copy turns out to be less important in the feeling of ownership than does the price. Free things don’t generate strong feelings of ownership. Gifts do, which we think of as ‘free,’ but our sense of ownership is related to their ‘replacement costs’ — how much they would cost us to buy elsewhere, their market value. If an item has a marketplace cost of zero, we tend not to feel we own it. So as more economic activity gravitates toward the free, less will feel owned. As more is shared, less will act like property.”

I think Kelly is conflating the words price and value, when in fact, they may be very different things. I may value something with a high price, but I may also value something that has no price at all (the social community that revolves around this website; the submissions to my favorite wikis). Price may influence our feelings about ownership, but maybe the most important questions to ask do not involve price or ownership, but about value: What do we value, and how do we express it?

Kelly seems to assume that markets are the chief arena in which value expresses itself (via prices), and that the things that are “free” (i.e., available at no cost) are not worth owning and therefore have negligible value. For Kelly, the “sharing economy” consists of leasing, licensing, time-sharing and subscribing — types of “shared ownership.” (And he is correct that the rental economy, or shared ownership in this sense, constitutes an enormous fraction of the economy.)

But it’s worth pondering the other “sharing economy” that has nothing to do with market transactions. Precisely because the sharing that occurs in a commons cannot be assigned a price or quantified, its value-creation is conceptually invisible. It is off-the-books, at least by the terms of Kelly’s blog post.

Yet this sector is enormously large in its own right and growing. Moreover, as numerous commentators like Yochai Benkler have pointed out, commons-based innovations are performing some serious economic production — either as a substitute for markets or as raw or winnowed feedstock for the market. Think how viral videos and music are often snapped up by commercial film studios and record labels, saving them the enormous costs of identifying and developing new product and amassing a customer base.

Having that all this, what I like about Kelly’s piece is how it elevates the fact that property rights are not some natural, immutable artifact of the universe. They are social creations. And as our forms of sociality and production change, especially on the Internet, it should not be surprising that our reverence toward “property” might change as well. Let’s hope.

Indeed, perhaps it is time to inaugurate some new mental categories that go beyond “ownership” and “price,” and instead express the new forms of value that are arising. I like how political scientist Massimo De Angelis once said, “There is no commons without commoning.” On the Internet, a great deal of value exists as a verb. It exists only in the context of a lively social community. Now try telling your economics professor to plug that one into his spreadsheet!