Rethinking ownership

One of the aspects of social media and collaborative work environments that people have a lot of trouble with is this “sharing” aspect. Many people aren’t comfortable letting others into “their” space, to learn about “their” knowledge. They feel that “their” job might be threatened by someone else. This goes along with our traditional viewpoints on territory, ownership and individualism. But what happens as people shift their mindsets? What happens when people realize that by contributing to a pool of resources, they can do more with more? Socialism? I would argue “no,” not in the politically tarnished sense. As every generation adopts values and behaviors that befuddle and confound the generation that precedes it, I want us to take a look at our concepts of ownership and how we or our children will perhaps redefine what it means to have “stuff.”

Have you ever read copyright law? A lot of people have, actually, that’s why I ask. Usually it’s for some media law class in college or an ethics thing. I remember when I had to pour over books and try to decipher how we treat copyrighted works. It’s an odd thing.

Did you realize that when you “buy” a movie at whatever store, you aren’t buying the real movie? You’re actually buying the license to watch the content provided on the disc. It’s like buying a movie ticket, but the movie studios entrust a physical copy of the movie to your care. If you’ve ever taken the time to read the FBI warnings and such that flash near the beginning of things, it speaks about how the movie studios have the right to take back said movie if certain conditions of the law are violated, blah blah blah.

When I worked at Blockbuster, people would occasionally lose movies. Our systems would add charges to a customer’s account after so many weeks went by after a movie was due. It was like a bench warrant. We didn’t necessarily release the hounds to hunt them down, but if they ever tried to rent another movie, the charges would show up. Imagine the surprise of the average customer when they had a $120.00 charge on their account for the loss of one movie. Usually there would be cursing. The customer would say we were ripping them off and that they could replace it for $14.99 from Wal-Mart. They were wrong.

You see, it’s a matter of copyright. For $14.99 at Wal-Mart, when a DVD is “purchased,” an individual buys the license to watch a movie. This is an individual viewing license. By law, as it is written (though completely unenforceable), if anyone else is ever in the same room as the buyer, or within earshot of the TV as the movie is playing, the buyer of the DVD is breaking copyright law. You see, if more than one person is viewing the content of a DVD, it is considered, under law, as a “public showing.” And public viewing licenses per movie are far more expensive—about $120.00 more expensive. Hence the hefty penalty.

So, I want us to think about ownership. Do we “own” our stuff? Our cars (any car loans?)? Our houses (renter? mortgage?)? Even movies, books, or any copyrighted work that we simply have the licenses for?

Now, I want us to think about how ownership is changing. Look at companies like Netflix (and their video game sister company GameFly), Zipcar or the startup cloud computer gaming company Gaikai.

I had a friend who talked about how she and her husband were trying to cut back on the number of video games and movies they purchased. I asked her about Netflix and GameFly, which operates under the model that you pay a flat subscription fee per month and select DVDs or video games that come in the mail. Customers can hold on to them for as long as they want or go through as many titles as they want, with only the day or so wait as the mail comes and goes. She said that they had tried both of them, but it was actually more expensive. I asked why. She described how there would be a good choice of movies or games that her husband and she would know they wanted, and would buy at full price. Then they had this Netflix and GameFly thing that they only used for titles they maybe wanted, but weren’t sure. The subscriptions became wasted money.

I asked her to reconsider ownership. Why did she still buy movies and games, I asked? Why didn’t she just rent a title more than once? After all, a customer could keep a game for a solid three or four months and still have other titles coming and going, before reaching the same price as one game. The concept was foreign to her. She had never thought about NOT buying something to “own” it, but she would think about it.

“But what if I want to watch a certain movie now?” she asked.

“Other than wait a day?” I asked.

She conceded that her want of instant gratification might be standing in the way of the potential cost savings.

Now look at Zipcar. Have you ever explored that service? They market their company as “an alternative to car ownership.” Basically, you subscribe to the service (monthly fee and whatnot). You are issued an access card. You reserve a type of car from a place for a set amount of time (hours–whole day, etc.), then you return the car back to the same spot in the same place when you are done. You might not get the same car if you reserve another pickup, let’s say, the next day, but you’ll still have the type of car you want, pretty much when you want it.

Now, I’ve heard some people lament not “owning” a car. “Yeah, but what if you wanted to just go to Alaska? Can’t do that with a Zipcar.”

Well, yes, granted. How often does that happen? If, for you, that’s a normal thing, then I concede you probably need to “own” your own vehicle.

But what about the rest of us? Companies like Zipcar talk about how the average car, when owned, sits idle for 90% of its life. We don’t think much of it, but that’s a lot of metal, oil and gas, just sitting in parking spaces and driveways all throughout the country. On ships, the Navy often “hot racks,” that is, as one sailor is waking up to begin his or her shift, another sailor, who is just finishing, climbs into the “still warm” bunk and goes to sleep.

Most people scoff at that. They say “ewwww.” Apart from the potential sanitary problems, what’s so wrong about that? Is it that a person doesn’t have his or her “own” bed? Is that such an alien thought? But isn’t it a better use of limited resources?

It is the very American thing to have stuff we own—cars, houses, books, whatever we want. But what if we started to reconsider our concepts of ownership? What if, for the sake of the environment, the costs of insurance, gas—whatever, we gave up the potential privilege of driving to Alaska TONIGHT or watching “Short Circuit 2” NOW, and instead took on the more pragmatic and realistic attitude of using a service when we needed instead of having millions of redundant devices we hardly use?

Finally, let’s take a look at Gaikai. It’s still in its early stages. The concept, though, is fascinating. Computer gamers are always chasing after the latest and greatest hardware to run the latest and greatest games. Video cards, RAM, faster hard drives, processors—there are dozens of components that turn the average computer into a screaming hot rod. High-end computer systems from companies like Voodoo run upwards of $15-20,000. Insane. All for a machine that will be “outdated” within a year or two.

So, enter Gaikai. For a subscription, a gamer is promised remote access to the most state-of-the-art hardware. Gamers can use whole computer systems “on the cloud.” They can remotely load their computer games onto these machines churning away in Topeka or where ever, and never have to worry about dumping another $800 on this month’s newest video card.

Isn’t it interesting? People wouldn’t need to even “own” their computers. With a dumb terminal, maybe a decent monitor, and the ubiquitous Internet connection, people could have all the processing power they wanted.

Now, yes, security concerns, privacy concerns, infrastructure concerns…on and on, sure. But I’m just saying what if our ideas of ownership continued along these lines? Wouldn’t it be interesting if our children or grandchildren looked at us with near disgust and said, “You OWNED your own car? What for? Wasn’t that wasteful?”

Stranger things have happened.


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