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Culture is unfair

At Jonathan Zittrain‘s awesome lecture upon the occasion of his ascending to the Bemis Chair at Harvard Law (although shouldn’t you really descend into a chair?), he made the point that through devices like Microsoft Kinect, our TVs are on the verge of knowing how many people are in the room watching. After all, your camera (= phone) already can identify the faces in a photo.

This will inevitably lead to the claim that if five people are watching a for-pay movie on a TV, we ought to be paying 5x what a single person does. After all, it’s delivering five times the value. What are you, a bunch of pirates?

There is some fairness to that claim. We’d pay for five tickets if we saw it in a theater.

But it also feels wrong. Very wrong. And not just because it costs us more.

For example, I’m told that if you buy a subscription to the NY Times it comes with one license for online access. So, if you’re having the old roll o’ stories thrown onto your porch every morning, your spouse is free to read it too, but you’re going to have to buy a separate online subscription if s/he wants to read it online. That doesn’t feel right.

The pay-per-use argument may be fair but it flies in the face of how we all know culture works. Culture only exists if we share what matters to us. There is no culture without this. That’s why it’s so important I can share a physical book with you, or can send you a copy of a magazine article that I think you’ll like. Culture is the sharing of creative works and the conversations we have about them.

That’s why the creators of the US Constitution put a time limit on copyright. Yes, it feels unfair if after fourteen years (the original length of copyright protection) someone publishes my book without my permission and doesn’t give me any of the profits. Sure. But fairness is not the only criterion.

Culture cannot flourish or perhaps even exist when everything has a fair price.

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