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Monday, June 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Technology changing idea of ownership


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One of the most profound effects of digital technology will be how it changes our notion of content ownership.

Before paper and the printing press enabled physical reproduction of content, ownership held little relevancy. When stories were available only by spoken word or glyphs, would it have made sense to suggest, "I own this story. You can't retell it."

Print, and later film, complicated ownership rules. Now all kinds of laws govern use, reuse, permissions and other factors.

But guess what: Digital seems to be changing things again. Think about print. Now that the Web makes so much documentation available online, how much paper are you filing away in cabinets?

You may still buy books. But with Project Gutenberg putting thousands of books online, and with the continuing evolution of eBooks, will you care as much about owning them? Certainly, I notice fewer bookshelf-lined walls in homes and offices.

As Brewster Kahle illustrates dramatically with his Internet Archive project, you can print and bind a book in a couple of minutes using a PC, a broadband Internet connection and a laser printer. With on-demand, fully recyclable books an around-the-corner possibility, the notion of a physical personal library may not be long for the future. Why would we care about owning (archiving) books when we could have any book or portion thereof downloaded in a minute or two?

On-demand is affecting other content, too. Music is almost there — if you count services like Apple's iTunes and RealNetworks' RealOne subscriptions.

With on-demand music, you don't quite own a song in the sense you do with a CD. You can give away or resell the CD. If you try to do it with an online-purchased (or "rented") song, you often either can't because of format restrictions or you face legal problems.

But if we had true on-demand music capability, the ownership issue might not matter anyway. Imagine thinking of a song or an album — "I feel like some Elvis today" — and downloading it to a computer or player in a few seconds.

You might be restricted to a day's listening. Or to streaming, where it wouldn't need to be stored anywhere. If you wanted to hear it again, you would hit repeat and it would stream to you as many times as you want.

The same principle could apply to video, once bandwidth gets fatter (admittedly, a lot fatter). Feel like watching a classic such as "Dr. Strangelove"? If you could stream it to your PC or TV with the same quality as a DVD or broadcast signal, why would you want to own it on disc?
 
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The value proposition of ownership has always been unlimited personal usage. It's not really clear how a flat fee of $20 or so matches up with "unlimited." I might watch Michael Moore's new "Fahrenheit 9/11" on DVD 30 times and even show it to family and friends. Someone else might watch it once and never see it again. Hollywood presumably makes up on the latter instance the money it "loses" on me.

When ownership is excluded from the pricing equation, the fee typically drops. Renting costs less than owning, but while you rent you have temporary unlimited use. What should a streamed, one-use-only download cost?

It will probably vary depending on demand, newness and even usage purpose. Examples: You might pay more for the latest Black Eyed Peas release than a Beatles song, and extra if you wanted to use a tune for a home-video soundtrack. But it's possible to project the entertainment industry eventually making a lot more money from on-demand usage than the ownership model.

It will take huge advances in speed and reliability of online use to reach true on-demand capability for all kinds of content. Once they come, they will make valuation and pricing of content a whole new ballgame even as they dramatically alter the concept of content ownership.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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