2008-11-26

Free lunch and free software

The point at which the cost of copying information approaches zero is a milestone in the development of a civilization. After the advent of zero cost copying (ZCC), the economy divides into two, the money economy and the information economy.

For us I think ZCC occurred in the early 1990s. As I write, this is how the two economies are divided:

Information Economy
  • Software
  • Encyclopaedia
  • Dictionary
  • Scientific theories
Money Economy
  • Food
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Clothes
  • Land
  • Computers
Let's discuss some of things in those two categories, and then talk about things I haven't mentioned that are in transition. I'll then make a stab at saying what'll happen in the future.

Software. It used to be that you'd buy software as if it were property. You'd buy it in a box, and the vendor would be paid for each box she sold. If it came pre-installed on a new computer, then it was still as though the software was a physical appendage. You weren't allowed to give someone else a copy.

After ZCC everything changed for software. People started illegally copying software. Some of these were people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything physical and didn't think they were doing anything wrong, others were organized criminals. Into this chaos stepped copyleft software. Copyleft meant that copying wasn't illegal, in fact it was encouraged. This meant that the cost of copyleft software dropped to zero. Copyleft also allowed anyone to contribute and improve the software. Faced with this kind of competition, proprietory software went into a terminal decline. Thus software moved from Money to Information.

Encyclopaedia. It used to be that an encyclopaedia came as a book that you paid for, printed on dead trees. A proper book! Okay, you might go to the library, but somewhere along the line, someone had to pay for the book. There was no problem with copying because it would have probably cost more money to copy the book than to simply buy one.

After ZCC, yes, it all changed. Wikipedia was copyleft, instantly available and instantly up-to-date, and trounced the competition.

Money

Okay, what about all those good old-fashioned things that fall into the Money category. You can't copy food. If I've got an apple I can eat it or give it to you, but not both. You can copy a recipe, but not the food itself. That's why food is firmly in the Money category. There's no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to cars. If I've got a car, you can't drive it at the same time. I think I've made my point.

Oh, one more thing. It's popular to talk about 'intellectual property', but this is an oxymoron. It's either an idea, in which case it falls into the Information category, or it's property, in which case it falls into the Money category.

Transition

Things only move from Money to Information, never the other way round.

Something that's in transition at the moment is music. I remember going into a music shop and buying a tape in the eighties. These days most people illegally download music. People think it's prissy of me to abjure illegal downloading. We're in the midst of a transition to something like Jamendo, where music is made available under a copyleft licence.

Future

In the short term, we'll see books, newspapers, films, music etc. make the transition from Money to Information.

At the moment, when you buy a product like a bike or a car, the total cost is broken down into the design cost and the manufacturing cost. With the coming revolution of RepRap, design will move into Information, and the cost of a bike or car will be dramatically brought down to the cost of raw materials and energy.

In the future, money will only be useful for buying energy, land and raw materials and transport. Within the home, it'll be possible to fabricate all the needed material things, from computers to food.

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