The Internet and ownership

Much has been made of public domain attitude of the digital generation. That is, unlike those growing up with print, those growing up on the Internet seem to think that all is in the public domain, free for downloading and appropriating for one's own use. Remember the Napster controversy.

I believe that the "digital" attitude is more one of appearance than of substance. Based on my own observations of ten enlisted years in the military and more years elsewhere, the print generation felt and feels no compunction about copying audio and video cassettes from friends and others. The psychology of "downloaders" is the same as that of "copiers"; what has changed is the tremendous volume involved due to electronic ease, and thus an illusion that the digital generation's attitude toward public domain differs from the print generation. (Mia Zamora, my colleague, helped me clarify my thoughts on this "attitude.")

On my other blog ESL Writing & Technology ("Blog content theft," Aug 2), I wrote that Duncan Riley and others are dealing with the problem of websites re-publishing entire articles en masse, considering it to be theft. In another entry on my other blog ("Understanding links," July 26, 2005), I wrote that the concept of giving credit "comes to life naturally when ownership of writing is real as opposed to course requirements."

Putting time and effort into one's work, whether one is of the digital or print generation, creates a sense of ownership that removes one's work from the public domain. Back to the Napster controversy. Those who felt they had the right to download freely did so because they had not "worked," whether at composing music (or writing sufficiently from their own resources). Consequently, they had no sense of ownership and so did not grant ownership to others. Thus, rather than a difference of generations, the so-called "public domainness" of the digital generation is more likely a difference of ownership.

Of course, downloading music digitally and physically copying audio and video cassettes is not exactly the same with respect to the notion of ownership. That is, once people paid for a cassette, they had ownership and perhaps felt (usually?) that they had the right to copy for personal use and, by extrapolation, the right to give copies to others, although the latter was illegal. That's a point I'll need to consider some more.

If we consider this notion of "public domainness" from the framework of Alan Fiske's social relational models (community sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing), those that claim all of the Internet is public domain might be thought to be engaging in a community sharing model, all property belongs to the community without regard to creatorship, while the owners are engaged in a market pricing model in which people interact according to "values determined by a market system.". Consequently, the difference between owners and users in the relational model being used leads to conflict. (In the case of the cassette age, both owners and users may have used a market pricing model but disagree on the what was actually transferred in the transaction.) Probably, however, the conflict is between a market pricing model and an asocial model. In an asocial model, people disregard the social relational models, treating others as objects, as means to an end, not as human beings. Consequently, by treating the owners of web content as objects rather than human beings (which is made easier when the owners are often "impersonal" companies), web users take web content as if it belonged to no one.

From this perspective of social relational models, the print and digital generations are the same: Owners are insisting on a market pricing model of interaction, while consumers are operating asocially. The same psychological and social mechanisms are at work. Not enough time has gone by for a truly different culture to emerge with respect to attitude toward the "public domain."