Non-rival is non-relevant

I’m glad that Elisabeth Jones wrote to our tip page about her post–Fighting for non-rival pudding–because I’ve been wanting to spout off about non-rivalness for a while now.

Anytime you hear someone talk about intellectual property you are going to wind up hearing the phrase “non-rival.” The idea is that information or knowledge is a non-rival good. What this means is that when one person consumes information, it does not prevent another person from consuming it. So information or knowledge is not like land or pudding, which are “used up” when other people consume them. Ok, fine.

But from this idea many people quickly get to conclusions like: information just wants to be free; intellectual property is evil; DRM is the devil; and the Kindle is a giant threat to intellectual freedom. Maybe all those things are true, but I don’t think you can get there from the claim that information is non-rival.

First, I’m not even sure that information is non-rival. What about a juicy piece of gossip? The more people hear about it, the less juicy it becomes, the more it is “used up.” Or what about the secret to a magic trick? Or an insider stock tip? Or a trade secret? Or any information that gives someone a competitive advantage?

But even assuming that information is non-rival, nothing follows from this about intellectual property rights. Information and knowledge should be widely distributed because everyone in society will be better off (not because they are non-rival). But that doesn’t mean information has no value, or that the creators of information can’t charge for it, or put restrictions on who uses it and what they can do with it (within reason).

And even assuming that information is non-rival, that does not mean that books as containers of information are non-rival. In fact books are not non-rival in all respects, as anyone who goes to a library and finds the book they want “checked out” knows. If someone is using a book, someone else cannot simultaneously use it, hence it is not non-rival. Oh unless it’s an electronic book, with the right kind of DRM set up.

In her post, Jones jumps from the idea that information is non-rival to the idea that the Amazon Kindle will do “monumental and egregious harm…to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace” because a person cannot take their Kindle book content to a used bookstore or donate it to a library like one could with a physical book. Jones claims that books are like bottomless cups of pudding because others can consume their contents hundreds or thousands more times.

This is going too far. It’s an open question whether Kindle will lead to a more or less informed populace. Kindle books are less expensive (after you shell out for the device) than physical books. Kindle makes it easier to carry more books at one time on a train or a plane. Perhaps for these reasons, Kindle will lead to a more informed populace, not less. As for not being able to sell or give away Kindle books, that is a disadvantage, but if people could give away digital books there’s a good argument that that activity would undermine the whole market because sharing networks would be set up. We may like that, but I don’t think there’s an inherent right to it simply because information is non-rival or because information is a public good. Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.

The debate of ownership vs. access for libraries is not a simple one, and it’s quite a stretch to blame the current economic meltdown on access over ownership. Intellectual goods may be non-rival, but physical books are not. Something follows from the fact that information is non-rival, but I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s interesting. Whatever it is I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectual property rights, the debate between ownership versus access in libraries, or if the Kindle is a boon or threat to intellectual culture.

4 thoughts on “Non-rival is non-relevant

  1. Wow, harsh! Also, not especially fair to my argument. I always tell my students to give the authors they criticize the benefit of the doubt before tearing them apart – I wish you had done me the same kindness. A few points of clarification:

    1) Your post structurally conflates my arguments with those of the CS Monitor article on the same topic, which, though similar, are not, in fact, mine. Indeed, my non-rival point was made as a criticism of a point in that article.

    2) My points are not about the Kindle specifically, as you imply, but about its DRM system and others like it. I do not know whether the Kindle itself will help or harm intellectual freedom. As you say, it may well be a boon to readership, and thus, a gain for intellectual freedom in some cases – at least in the short term. However, over the long run, the kind of technological controls systems like this put in place are unsustainable. Think about it – how many technological systems have libraries seen come and go? What use are 8-track tapes today, or floppy disks? Of course books don’t last forever – but if well-curated, their obsolescence period is measured in decades or centuries, rather than single-digit numbers of years. And further, that point is not tied to the fate of an external entity like Amazon, necessary for sending updates, etc. to their e-book systems in a way that is not necessary for paper media. But this is not about the relative merits of the Kindle; it is about how we as a society (as societies?) hope to be able to use and re-use information, and what systems enable those goals – an issue that goes well beyond discussion of any one e-book reader.

    3) “Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.”

    I have to take issue with this passage, on three levels:

    a) The final sentence here is a non sequitur. Fine, perhaps libraries can lend out loaded Kindles – great! However, that does not in any way address the durability or sustainability of the Kindle technology.
    b) It is true that physical books wear out. However, the technology of the book allows for a host of preservation options that current e-books do not – in particular, books can be copied, and even digitized (ideally into an open, sustainable format), because there are no restrictions on the book technology that disallows such uses. This is not the case with most e-book systems, particularly after they pass into the early obsolescence of digital technologies.
    c) Relatedly, it is of course possible to “use up” a book. But the information inside it – generally not trade secrets, or the way magic tricks work – does not similarly deteriorate.

    4) Finally, I think your reaction to the term “non-rival” goes too far. Not all of us who cite the non-rival character of most information believe that “information wants to be free,” etc. Personally, I have no problem with a sensible system of IP (though not necessarily the current one). The non-rivalrousness of information – and the relative sustainability of some information transmission systems over others – is simply one, highly relevant factor to consider in analyzing what systems of rights should be applied to information goods. It may be carelessly tossed about by those who would reactionarily demand the end of all IP and call particular technological systems “the devil,” but the carelessness of some users does not diminish the utility of the concept itself.

    In general, I am a great fan of ACRLog; I find most of the posts here insightful and useful to the library and information science world. That is why I posted to its tip page. It saddens me that my tip was taken in the way that it was, and that my points were mis-taken in the way that they were.

  2. Elisabeth,

    Thanks for your detailed reply. I’m sorry if I mischaracterized your points. You do closely ally yourself with the CSM article, and you only criticize it to take the argument even further about access versus ownership.

    I still think you slip too quickly between information as non-rival to books as non-rival, and I’m still not sure myself why non-rival really matters. Also it’s interesting to note that information in many fields does in fact deteriorate or become outdated.

    However I do agree with your general point that DRM systems have to be looked at closely, and it is interesting to consider what impacts a DRM systems like Kindle’s will mean if it they completely replace our current print based book culture.

    Perhaps one hopeful sign is that our culture survived the demise of 8 track tapes.

    I hope you will continue to read and contribute to ACRLog.

  3. For what it’s worth, I share Elisabeth’s concerns, and I don’t entirely get Marc’s issues here. But I think I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the concept of “non-rival” and the pudding/spoon analogy.

    If you load up a Kindle and loan it, though I have heard of libraries doing just that, you are violating the terms of service. You are only allowed to loan a kindle that has no books on it which, of course, makes no sense. I’m not sure which is more confusing: Amazon’s refusal to take advantage of libraries’ early adopter position (I mean, sheesh, we’re great promoters of new technologies, even when they aren’t particularly consumer-friendly) or libraries eagerness to deliver us to a vertical monopoly that is designed to disable sharing.

    I do see a connection between the current economic climate and our renting access versus building collections we own and can share as we like, though this may be just my own take on it. We seem quite willing to spend a larger and larger share of our budgets on temporary access to a wide range of stuff that isn’t chosen for our local communities – but is limited to them in terms of access. It’s a bundle, and we figure the bigger the better, even if most of it isn’t ever used. Yay, we have a lot of stuff – though next year we have to pay all over again to keep it. And since we have to pay more each year, we have less money to buy things we can own – but that’s okay because some other library will buy the book we don’t buy and we’ll just ILL it.

    This, to me, is the same short-term thinking that got us into silly derivatives that were too good to last, sack-and-pillage management of industries for short-term profits, and a cavalier attitude promoted among consumers toward debt. We buy one book for a whole bunch of libraries to share, and the publisher can no longer afford to publish books. Whoops! Oh well. We rent access to databases and the contents change without our having any control over it. Oops! Darn. We turn to Kindle for cheaper books, our local bookseller folds, and pretty soon those low, low prices will trend up. Trust me on this: there’s no way publishers will go for the kind of discount Amazon is imposing for the long term, and Amazon won’t sustain it any longer than they have to in order to build a captive customer base. Here the idea that “it should be almost free, because they don’t have to print it” falls apart – printing is a relatively small part of the costs incurred, and Amazon takes 65% of the publisher’s cover price – and the publisher usually has to pay to convert the files to the non-standard mobi format.

    I don’t know whether information wants to be free – it hasn’t told me one way or another what it wants – but I do know that once I pay for something on behalf of my users I want their use of it to be free (as in speech, not as in beer, but dammit, I already paid for their drinks).

    The analogy I’ve used before – probably as confusing as pudding – is “building walled gardens.” Formerly, a library was free to whoever we determined were our community. Now we’re paying over and over for information and it has restrictions on who can use it that are set by vendors rather than by us. And, ironically, those limits are set precisely because many people can use it at once and vendors realize they can’t keep selling it if it’s too freely available. So they lock it down more firmly than ever (as with video – now only available in five incompatible and totally artificial regional flavors!)

  4. I just want to point out that you *can* have non-Amazon material on the Kinde. The device reads TXT, HTML, MOBI, PDF, etc. files.

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