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06/11/2003 Archived Entry: "Voodoo Economics"
Posted by CKL @ 10:56 AM PST

Things are only worth as much as we say they're worth.

Repeat after me: there is no intrinsic value to anything. There is no absolute arbiter of price. What may be too expensive for you is a pittance to someone else, and I'm not only speaking in monetary terms. Ethnocentricity and parochialism are the bane of rational thinkers everywhere. Allow your own cultural, personal, or emotional bias to influence your observation of the universe, and you'll get no useful information. Not everyone shares your philosophy. Not everyone values freedom above security. Not everyone enjoys sitcoms.

I was out with some friends last week, and one of them mentioned that he'd downloaded The Matrix Reloaded from the Internet, where it had been available a full day before it opened in theatres. He had burned the movie to a VCD and played the "good parts" version for his fiance, so she got to skip all the less-than-thrilling exposition scenes.

Nobody blinked an eye at this casual mention of piracy. Movie studios are spending ghod-knows-how-much money trying to convince the world that video piracy is rampant and will bankrupt the entertainment industry, but consumers aren't listening. Most don't even believe the argument.

Why should only the studios get to reap the benefits of technology? They can save time and money by producing and distributing films digitally, but box office ticket prices are still rising. This is considered good business. When the average moviegoer saves time and money by downloading a movie to watch at home instead of paying $10 or more to see it at a theatre, she's considered a criminal.

Intellectual property is a fictitious construct. With physical property, we can at least fall back on the old adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law; when we're dealing with information that can be reproduced as many times as possible with no degradation of quality, things get more confusing.

A long string of ones and zeros has no intrinsic value. It could be a movie, or the complete works of Shakespeare, or a new single from Eminem. It might be in QuickTime format, or mp3, or Ogg Vorbis, or something you've never heard of. It might be encrypted. It might be truncated. It might have been corrupted in transit and now useless.

The seller and the buyer have to agree on the value of the merchandise. In this case, when the seller is unwilling to offer the merchandise the buyer wants, and the buyer simply extracts it for herself, what is the cost of that action? The seller, having already paid to produce the merchandise, doesn't actually lose anything except profit. Yes, it is a breach of the social contract, but is it a crime?

Things are only worth as much as we say they're worth.

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