The Trouble With Selling Tribbles

The Trouble With Selling Tribbles

In one of the most famous episodes of the original Star Trek series, The Trouble with Tribbles written by David Gerrold, much of the crew is convinced to buy these adorable little cooing furballs known as tribbles.  A crafty salesman manages to unload quite a few of these before the crew realizes that they reproduce faster than Mormon bunnies overdosing on Viagra.  Would he have managed to sell so many had the customers known they could make many more of their own by just over-feeding them a bit?

The trouble with selling tribbles is they just aren’t a scarce commodity.  It’s built into their nature.  The shifty Star Trek character wasn’t just selling tribbles.  Every tribble he sold was also a tribble factory!

I found myself thinking about modern digital media and how it’s nature is to be easily replicable, much like tribbles.  This does pose a challenge to anyone who wants to make money producing such content.  The default approach to this problem in a statist society has been with a justification for violence against innocent people known as intellectual property.

Intellectual property is a very misleading name because the concept is actually very anti-property.  When you sell something that is considered protected as I.P., the customer never really owns it.  If it were their property, they could do whatever they want with it, but there is a dark cloud hovering over most media in a statist society.  Intellectual property is really about controlling the legitimate property of other people with threats of violence.

You probably didn’t sign anything when you purchased a copyrighted work, but very much like the myth of a social contract, there is a contract that will be enforced with or without your explicit consent.  If you obtain a copy of something copyrighted, you could be liable for damages even if you are several degrees of separation removed from the original and may not even be aware it’s copyrighted.

Also contrary to valid notions of property, the myth of intellectual property is built upon a sense of entitlement.  If you copy someone’s property, you haven’t harmed them.  They have been deprived of nothing.  However, they may claim you have deprived them of income that they felt entitled to.  Such damages are incredibly ephemeral and nigh impossible to actually prove.  Just because you took a free copy of something doesn’t mean you would have paid for it had the copy not been readily available.  I might grab a handful of grapes from a stand with a “Free Grapes” sign but that doesn’t mean I would have bought them if the sign said “Grapes– $3 /lb”.  Whether you actually buy something is a decision based on a number of factors including but not limited to how bad did you want it at the time, how much it cost, and how well it was marketed.  If one person sells 100 copies of a DVD for $10 each, it doesn’t mean the original producer of the content would have.  Maybe they put a nice piece of art on the box or otherwise advertised more effectively than the other person would have.  Maybe he’s a smooth-talking salesman.  Makes me wonder if those who support I.P. also support price controls since they support violent monopolization.  The normal free market controls on price would not apply if not for people breaking the law and obtaining free or cheaper copies.

I’m a producer of media.  I have advanced degrees in software engineering and have done freelance programming work.  As you know, I produce an online comic that can be instantly reproduced and distributed by anyone.   I aspire to be a professional writer.  Given that, it might seem that I would naturally be inclined to promote the myth of intellectual property, but like all statist solutions, I.P. is a desperate convoluted approach to dealing with the reality of modern media.  Like other solutions that depend on a monopoly on violence, there are serious unintended consequences that always seem to support the big players at tremendous cost to the little guy, and I’m definitely (at the moment) a little guy.

The reality is I.P. is already falling apart and yet producers of media are finding ways to make money.  There are countless movies, shows, and music that can be easily obtained and yet the money still flows.  Independent films make money from contributions and sales of related products.  Small bands make money on live appearances and still manage to sell CDs.  Non-I.P. solutions are being discovered and innovative solutions will continue to be explored.  My anecdotal experience is that most people will gladly play for media if it’s reasonably priced.  What is reasonable?  Well, that’s for the market to decide, but the fact that most of it is easily and cheaply duplicated should be a significant factor.  I have a fairly large collection of authorized movie DVDs which I legitimately purchased and which likely became more reasonably priced due to the market impact of the free unauthorized copies in the gray market.

We’re all familiar with a world where producers of media tend to be either tremendously successful and wealthy or else hedged completely out of the market.  There’s been very little middle ground.   Smaller bands benefit from the easy distribution of digital media and the Internet.  They can grow a  fan base by reaching a niche market of listeners who would not have discovered them in the past.  $300 million blockbuster movies that make billions might lose market share as it becomes easier to obtain the media which is arguably overpriced.  And seriously, take a look at the multi-million dollar crap that’s been churned out and ask if it’s much of a loss.  Meanwhile, better and cheaper production technology is more accessible than ever allowing independent film-makers to produce content and distribute it themselves.  True talent can be discovered and vetted by a broad marketplace whereas in the past success was about being discovered by a very small number of wealthy and powerful moguls.

Like most statism, those with the most wealth and power have the most to lose by the debunking of the myth of intellectual property.  I believe as the myth of I.P. gets shattered, the little guy will find a market for his work and be able to make a decent living.  At the same time, the big players will lose a fair portion of the market that they’ve managed to monopolize for so long.  I believe this new market will more accurately reflect the desires of consumers of media.  It will mean more and better choices, lower prices, and an opportunity for a grassroots movement of innovative artists to make a living without having to become a cog in a corporate beast.

Discussion (26)¬

  1. Ryan says:

    I used to “pirate” a lot more movies than I do now. I used to think it was purely a price motivation, that I just didn’t want to pay the $20 for a DVD that I could download for free.

    Price is a large component, but it wasn’t the whole picture, and it was Netflix that convinced me of that. I realized that Netflix instant streaming has a better product than the torrent sites and that I’m willing to pay the $8 or so for the movies they have because it’s easier, even though it costs more money.

    Now, it’s true that Netflix exists in part due to the continuance of IP laws, but I think it’s an example, where if left to innovate, a free market can effectively compete against the “pirates”.

  2. KBCraig says:

    Lester N. Smith needs to learn this lesson. I’d suggest sending it to him, or submitting it to TLE, but I suspect he would stick his fingers in his ears and scream that you’re a socialist parasitic thief.

  3. MaineShark says:

    Kudos. I was wondering when you would update, next, and it was worth the wait.

    As Kevin notes, I doubt you’ll sway the zealots, but this should have a substantial impact on the open-minded. Or even the less-than-completely-closed-minded.

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  6. H. Rearden says:

    KBCraig why do you assume that Smith neds to learn a lesson? I believe that it is very likely that Smith has heard the anti-IP arguments and he has reached the conclusion that IP rights are genuine rights.


  7. H. Rearden says:

    Maine Shark is your position that if someone disagrees with you they are a zealot and closed minded? If so why is it that you are not a zealot and closed minded for disagreeing with someone else?


  8. H. Rearden says:

    Ironicly there are authors who are anti-IP who have authored books that are copyrighted. There explaination is that the publisher requires it or something to that effect. Still it seems rather hypocritical.


  9. MaineShark says:

    Smith and his cohorts have made it clear that they have no interest in hearing or addressing any anti-IP arguments. They are zealots, and won’t even entertain the possibility of their faith being misplaced.

    Which is not to say that all believers in the mythos of IP are zealots. Many have never considered any other option. Many others have been swayed by emotional arguments, pseudo-logical arguments, and such. But folks like Smith, who have retreated to Marxist nonsense in order to support their claims, rather than face facts, are quite obviously zealots.

    Neither of the Smiths, nor any of the compatriots they have involved in this thing, have ever presented a logical argument in support of their claims. They have not responded logically to the logical arguments which have been presented to refute their claims; they just respond with emotional nonsense (generally hate-filled, with obvious spittle on the corners of the mouth), like most zealots whose beliefs are challenged.

    Disagreement is one thing. I disagree with many people, and they disagree with me, and we discuss our disagreements in a logical, adult fashion. Close-minded zealotry is something entirely different, and Smith has shown that it is all he is capable of, on this subject.

  10. Dale says:

    @MaineShark, your comment is very out of context here and many people will not know what you’re referring to.

  11. MaineShark says:

    My original one wasn’t, but H. Rearden wanted to bring up other details…

    But to anyone that’s confused, Readen was referring to the complaint Smith had about the Shire Society declaration being somehow a “theft” of his “intellectual property” from The Covenant of Unanimous Consent.

  12. Alex Libman says:

    He did precisely the right thing - popularize his product among the people who are ignorant of its non-scarcity, which is still a win-win situation. They only learned of tribbles thanks to him, he has no obligation to reveal their real value, which they would learn soon enough anyway.

    On that note, I have some OpenBSD CDR’s I wanna sell real cheap! ;)

  13. Alex Libman says:

    PS: only one new comic since June?? I ought to pirate some of Dale’s DNA so I could clone him!

  14. James says:

    :( How disapointing, the completely unexplored realm of Copyright passed over by a non-sequitor attack and pretending contracts don’t exist. Contracts are irrelevant if they refer to property? I think not.

  15. Dale says:

    Contracts can certainly refer to property but they are only relevant between people who have explicitly agreed to them.

  16. James says:

    Then your arguments are akin to the same ones used by anti-private property leftists, who use non-sequitor arguments against private property because of state capitalism. Copyright, as the right to contract is entirely valid and attacked here because of arbitary issues you have with the state. Contracts are only relevant to those that agree, however, as one cannot steal the right to contract, third parties are bound in the same way that if someone sold your home while you were on holiday, you wouldn’t consider the new owners legitimate, even if they haven’t had any interaction with you.

  17. Dale says:

    I’m harmed if someone moves into my home. I’m not harmed if someone makes a duplicate of my home. There’s no rights violation in duplicating my home.

  18. James says:

    Ok, but duplicating your home is non-sequitor, it has nothing todo with what I am talking about. I understand that the term IP covers alot of irrational things (like Patents, Trademarks), but you’re brushing off things that I think I have made quite clear with unrelated criticisms. You also haven”t actually answered my original criticism. You claim that contractual restrictions on physical property are invalid because “If it were their property, they could do whatever they want with it,” Therefore making agreements to limitations, like for example a contract that you won’t play your Stereo at 11 invalid because then it wouldn’t be your property. Clearly this is absurd, but it iis necessary to ignore contracts when attacking Copyright, because contracts and copyright are compatible.

    Harm obviously isn’t a good standard to judge crime, because someone stealing your unused eighth car doesn’t harm you, but it is still theft. So instead we will apply actual moral standards, that no one has the right to contract something without the right to contract. Is a third bound by this? Yes, they are bound so far as they have illegitimate claims to use anything, whether it be physical or information which they acquired from someone who breached contract (the person looking after your home/the individual who original purchased some copyrighted music with an agreement to not share it).

    I agree 100% that any restrictions that have never been contracted are completely invalid. But reasoning from there is completely undeveloped, and it is simply wrong to brush Genuine Copyright (or the Right to Contract) with the same brush as absurd ideas like Patents, actual copying, etc.

  19. Sima Qian says:

    James, I agree with you that the right to contract whatever parties decide is an important feature of the common law. I think this is what you are referring to when you say copyright? Dale, I agree that no one may prevent anyone else from using their own physical property in any way they please, and that concepts like “Intellectual property” are extremely misleading.

    “Harm obviously isn’t a good standard to judge crime, because someone stealing your unused eighth car doesn’t harm you”

    Not sure what you mean here. If you (actually) owned the car you traded something for it, in order to make yourself better off. We can conclude that by your own valuation you are better off with the car than without it or else you wouldn’t have bought it. If you are better off with the car it follows that you are worse off by a car. If follows that the person who stole the car harmed you. (Made you worse off in terms of physical property.)

    On the other hand, if a guy copies your eighth car you still have your eight car. You might be sad about that fact, but you still have everything you did before his car was made.

    This is to stark contrast with the right to write whatever you’d like into a contract and do whatever you’d like with your property. Like, putting conditions on how your property may be used by others when you trade it to them. For instance, there was a case in which a man had an extremely large art collection. He’d seen another man’s art collection be seized by the state so he included in his will a stipulation for his art to be held in a private trust and displayed in a private museum. Eventually, however, the trustees were replaced with statists who voted to move the art into a state-run museum.

    Seeing this, another man could specify in his will that if his art ever had anything whatsoever to do with the state in any way it should be destroyed. A classical Kaldor-Hicks analysis would say this was a terrible, terrible thing, but it’s important within contract law to allow people do things that a lot of people disagree with a lot. James, is this generally what you mean, where I’m willing to sell you some good but only under certain stipulations, like you may not do so-and-so with it?

  20. Dale says:

    “Harm obviously isn’t a good standard to judge crime” -James

    It’s not obvious to me.

    It seems irrational to me to have a contract with an object. Having a contract with a person with regards to an object seems rational but I wouldn’t use a word like “valid” without starting from an agreement between all parties involved about what constitutes validity.

  21. MaineShark says:

    James, you can make any contract you want with anyone, but you cannot bind third parties.

    If someone fraudulently sells your house, the new “owners” don’t actually own it, and are, themselves, victims of the same fraud. They must return your property to you.

    Copyright, on the other hand, does not deal with property. It’s a proscription on action. If the new “owners” of your fraudulently-sold house had used it to take in a sick vagrant, whom they nursed back to health, you can, as before, demand the return of your house, but you cannot demand that the vagrant become sick again. The harm that was done to you was done by the fraudster, and you cannot demand that innocent third parties suffer harm to appease your distress.

    If someone actually signs (or otherwise agrees to) an explicit contract upon purchasing some piece of music, saying he will not share it, and he does, the seller would have a claim against him for his fraud. The seller does not have a claim against anyone else who obtained a copy from that purchaser; he cannot harm innocent third parties.

    Contracts apply only to those who explicitly agreed to them. No one else. When property is involved in some fraud, it must be returned to whomever rightfully owns it. But ideas are not property, so that does not apply in the case of copyright, any more than it can apply in any other case where the contract deals purely with action.

    If someone had a monogamous marriage, and his wife cheats on him, can he demand that she “un-fuck” her lover? He certainly has a claim against her for contract violation, but he cannot demand that actions reverse themselves. He can merely attempt to obtain restitution for the amount of harm he suffered.

  22. James says:

    @Dale: Apologies for the bad wording on my part then, I never meant to imply having a contract with an object. You have a contract with people in reference to objects. You can only reference those objects if you have the right to contract them, just as you can only contract/provide a piece of music if you have the right to pass it on (which you don’t have if the license for the album you bought explicity binds you to not doing so)

    @MaineShark: This covers your objection too. If someone provides music on a file sharing website, that they do not have the right to contract (because they were bound to not share it) then the third party is bound, just as they must return the house, they have no right to the music. This is obvious, and reference to the objects is unnecessary because as you say, it is fraud that is the issue.

    @Sima Qian: I never said the unused car was traded. I said that it was stolen. And it is so unused you don’t even notice/no harm comes to you. This doesn’t stop it being theft, which is why harm is an arbitary axiom from which to derive the morality of theft.

  23. MaineShark says:

    Music is not an object.

    If you retain control of my house, as a result of the fraudulent actions of another, I am deprived of the use of my house.

    If you retain a copy of my music, as a result of the fraudulent actions of another, I am not deprived of the use of my music.

    Two completely different scenarios. The reason you have to return stolen property, even if you did not realize it was stolen when you bought it, is because retaining it would deprive the rightful owner of its use. Ideas are not property, and copying is not stealing, precisely because the originator of the idea retains the use of that idea, despite the copy existing.

  24. Dale says:

    “(which you don’t have if the license for the album you bought explicity binds you to not doing so)” -James

    Ignorance of the law contract is no excuse!”

    I’d get a signature on that contract if you want that to hold up in the eyes of any reasonable third party arbiter, but even if you do, good luck figuring out which contracted purchaser released the first copy to a bunch of people online who signed no contract so you can try to enforce that contract. You apparently believe in mystical contracts that are attached to bits of electricity and bind themselves automatically to people who come into contact with them absent any explicit agreement.

    “And it is so unused you don’t even notice/no harm comes to you.” -James

    If that’s really the case, though it seems like quite a reach, a lot of reasonable people would say that constitutes abandonment. Generally speaking, theft equates directly to harm. If you labored to obtain property, then theft of that property is retroactive enslavement. If someone has absolutely no concern whatsoever for a piece of their property, then they’ve effectively abandoned it. It’s like someone picking items out of your garbage on the side of the road.

    Nothing you’ve said has provided any logical reason to support this special notion of property (i.e. IP) that makes copying it theft when it’s not theft to copy any other kind of property.

  25. Surhotchaperchlorome says:

    “Harm obviously isn’t a good standard to judge crime, because someone stealing your unused eighth car doesn’t harm you”

    Really? He didn’t spend money to get that car? He doesn’t have equity due to his ownership of that car? He has no opportunity to make money in the future from that car, by selling or renting it?

    Major unbelievable fail.

  26. IJ says:

    I too did a lot of downloading because of priceing of items that were too heavily over-priced.
    But I found that the more people downloaded, the lower the prices fell on the items I was truely wanting to own.
    So now I actually OWN the stuff I have downloaded, due to $$$ concerns.
    When will producers realize, high $$ value on an item wont link to recouperated investment losses. Wakey wakey dumb dumbs!!