Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

Tag Archives: IP

Digital abundance, physical scarcity

This is my attempt to articulate what seems like a contradiction in our modern attitudes to the production and consumption of physical versus digital goods. It’s not new, but I often find it lurking the background of much of what I think and read about.

On the one hand, it is increasingly clear that we have begun to push the planet to its limits. We use more and more of the earth’s finite resources, plundering them faster than they can be replaced. Throughout the ages, we have been able to do this without facing negative consequences. Why replant the forest when you can go and chop down another tree? Why create new energy sources when we can continue drilling for oil? This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in our economic model. Growth relies on consumption, and the resulting environmental degradation is not easily factored in to calculation. But even as it becomes clear that the natural world can no longer be treated as abundant,, we continue to act as if it is.

On the other hand, intellectual goods – by which I mean knowledge, culture, art, music, literature – are now more abundant than ever. They have, for most of history, been bounded by the scarce physical matter which allowed their transmission from one mind to another. The production and dissemination of knowledge and literature was for a long while dependent on paper, printing presses and costly distribution chains. Music was limited first by proximity to musicians, and later, by the material format on which sound was stored. Now, with the advent of the web, the cost of a copy of a book, song or image approaches zero. Modern technology enables us to have more intellectual goods than we could ever consume in a lifetime.

And yet the prevailing economic model for the production of intellectual goods requires us to behave as if they are scarce. The ‘content’ industries – those whose products exist as particular strings of 1’s and 0’s – have to limit the supply of their product to maintain its value. If just anyone can access to the particular string of 1’s and 0’s which makes up an mp3 audio file, then the intellectual good loses its value in the marketplace. According to some, this ultimately leads to no new intellectual goods being produced in the first place, but that’s another story. In any case, this imposed scarcity is artificial in the sense that there is no technological reason why everybody cannot access those bits or run that piece of code.

In both cases, our beliefs about the value and availability of a given resource are grounded in the reality of the past. For centuries, the earth’s resources really were abundant, and the dominant attitude towards them was appropriate; it allowed human civilization to progress. Likewise, intellectual goods actually were scarce, so our consumption of them really did have to be limited. But now that the situation is reversed, our assumptions have failed to catch up. We treat our natural resources as if they are abundant, and intellectual goods as if they are scarce, when the environmental and technological realities suggest the exact opposite.


Android patent disputes and the digital divide


from flickr user: kamotegirl (CC)

Google’s current legal dispute over Android OS got me thinking, as I often do, about the sad state of the current patent system. It’s a perfect illustration of our warped approach to innovation, where tech giants succeed on the size of their patent portfolio rather than their ability to deliver faster, smarter, or cheaper gadgets; a sad tale of old corporate dinosaurs pursuing a regressive business strategy, thwarting the potential of new modes of technological innovation.

Android is the operating system powering nearly half the world’s smartphones. It is compatible with a wide range of handsets and tablets, which means low barriers to entry for new handset manufacturers and software developers, making it the perfect platform for innovation. Low-cost Android phones and tablets are bridging the digital divide in the developing world, connecting African farmers to grain prices and Indian schoolchildren to cutting edge scientific knowledge. Unlike Apple’s iPhone range which is aimed at a relatively rich cosmopolitan elite, anyone can manufacture an Android device – meaning it is more easily adapted to serve the needs of emerging markets.

To recap: Smartphone manufacturers pay Google nothing to use Android on their handsets. In theory this should mean that their customers pay less than they would for other handsets which run on proprietary software. But increasingly they are being forced to pay the likes of Microsoft, Apple or Oracle for alleged patent infringements in the Android code. Microsoft are demanding Samsung pay them $15 in royalties for every Android handset sold. As litigations mount up, manufacturers could be paying $50 per handset – over half the retail price of many low-end Android devices.

Google have initially been reluctant to enter into the patent wars, preferring to let manufacturers pick up the bill when the patent lawyers come knocking. But the recent acquisition of Motorola will give Google a much needed boost to its mobile intellectual property portfolio. This comes after an embarrassing failed attempt to buy up Nortel’s patents at an auction. Google decided to bid in increments of infamous mathematical and scientific numbers ($3.14… for example) for which they ate humble PI. Google’s solution seems to be to enter the patent war themselves, defending Android manufacturers against lawsuits with their newly beefed-up patent portfolio. Free software advocates say Google should instead make Android more open, and release it under GPL3 – a different license with (they argue) stronger protections. (The technical details of this suggestion are debated in the comments in this Slashdot post).

The irony is that even when a (relatively) open-source offering takes on the proprietary big boys, and apparently wins, it still loses. Even though Android has the largest market share, if Microsoft and the rest are taking $10 each per handset, they still win. They win not by making the most innovative technology, but by buying up bigger patent war chests. It will be interesting to see how far Android’s patent woes go. As previously mentioned, much of the developing world will come online via cheap Android-powered devices. While western consumers can afford to stump up the extra cash, patent royalties could choke the nascent market in developing countries.