Paying the cost to be the boss?

2-3/2018 22.8.2018

It didn’t use to be this complicated. You bought something, and it was yours, easy as that. If you bought a book, you could do with it what you wished, and if what you wished to do was to use it in an art project or even trash it for the sheer hell of it, you could. If you bought a car, you could do a whole heap of things to it, without worrying which laws you might be breaking. Sometimes I miss those days.

It should, of course, come as no surprise that companies will always attempt to find an angle to protect their interests and extract a little more value in the process. So, we get things like genetic use restriction technology, digital rights management, and tractors where you in the words of John Deere buy not a tractor but “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle”. I no longer buy DVDs but subscribe to Netflix. As a result, my rights are what Netflix says they are – I cannot download Jessica Jones second season for offline viewing, and I have no recourse (Hello, friendly torrent!).

Ownership used to be one of the core tenets of general morality. It is even written into the Ten Commandments, if you’re into those kinds of rules. Today, however, companies do covet our property, and they’ve got the lawyers to make that property theirs – sometimes without even telling us. And yes, there are a few who fight back against this, with laws introduced regarding e.g. right to repair, and IPR bullying being at least circumscribed. Still, there is a more fundamental issue at play here, one having the potential to undermine ideas about law as well as morality.

What has happened – with digitalization, with business model innovation, with the rising importance of immaterial rights – is a disconnect between how laymen view their ownership rights and how companies capitalize upon the legal scholasticism surrounding e.g. underlying digital rights. And as it often is easier for the company if the farmer doesn’t know that he doesn’t really own his tractor but rather a right to use the same, such central issues of morality and fairness get cloaked behind complex verbiage regarding code rights and attempts to brand “tampering” and “hacking” as inherently immoral.

In this age, we may need something akin to an Owner’s Bill of Rights. A document, written in plain language, that establishes what it means to own something in an age of subscription models, freemium, and platform economies. A statement about what rights users shall have in order to use, modify, test, hack, and generally muck about with what they have parted with their money to get. Not consumer rights, as the idea of being a consumer is far narrower than the idea of being an owner. Instead, rights in an age where ownership is becoming challenged and companies more coveting.

If we don’t, we need to get ready for an age of increasing ownership inequality, one where the poor pay for access but never own, and only the rich can truly pay the cost to be the boss.