Free as in Phreedom

Cultural value is related to monetary value, but they are not synonymous. Just as air has more value when it circulates freely, culture is more valuable when it is shared.

Consider the value of language (which is culture). The more people use any particular language, the more valuable it becomes. A scarce language is far less valuable than a common one like English. The more people speak English, the more desirable English becomes; the more songs, books, films, and other communications are produced in English. The value of a language comes from those who use it.

But suppose we commodify language. I’ll start. Let’s say I’m granted a monopoly on the letter “F”. I could have patented a big letter like “E” (12.702% frequency) or “T” (9.056%), but my aspirations are modest. At 2.228%, “F” is below average frequency, so it shouldn’t be any major hardship if I start collecting a royalty of, say, 20 cents per use. Even a pauper can afford $.20 to splurge on an “F” from time to time. And they will! Because you can’t spell “FUN” without “F.” Not to mention “FREEDOM”.

(Since my permission is required for any use of “F,” I won’t permit its degradation in uses I don’t approve of. That word that ends in “uck,” for example. That won’t be allowed under any circumstances, to protect the integrity, quality and reputation of my letter.)

Assigning monetary value to an intangible is the first step towards having its real value recognized. All those other, un-patented letters suddenly seem worthless in comparison. How valuable can “A” (8.167%) be, after all, when you can get it for free? “F” is clearly worth more, or I wouldn’t have invested in privatizing it.

Yet in spite of its clear monetary value, my letter seems to be showing up less and less phrequently. Gradually people adopt cheap phakes instead oph the real thing. They phind a way to spell “PHREEDOM” without paying me.

Soon, the letter “eph” is so scarce, no one recognizes it. Like Avestan, Elbasan, Old Uyghur, and the Dodo, “eph” goes extinct.

And that is the dipherence between cultural value and monetary value.


12 thoughts on “Free as in Phreedom”

  1. i think you are on to something with this F thing though. you could allow people to use F all they want, as long as they include an advertisement for something else that you get paid for, like maybe G. and then they can use G as long as they shill for F. you could be rich!

    i’ve also been thinking about starting a for-pay duplication service. send me a jpeg file and i will send you back 1000000 copies of it for only 1 cent each. what do you think of that business model?

  2. I like the pay-for duplication service idea. To collect their copies, the customer could access a password-protected URL. For 1000000 paid copies, they’d have permission to access the image 1000000 times. But no more than that – that would be stealing.

  3. of course, if you promise to take that image and display it to 1,000,000 different sets of eyeballs, then you can charge handily.

  4. you could allow people to use F all they want, as long as they include an advertisement for something else that you get paid for

    Introducing Pepsi(tm)F! No diPepsi(tm)fPepsi(tm)ferent from the old letter you know and love, but now with all the quality and goodness you associate with Pepsi(tm). Best of all – Pepsi(tm)F is Pepsi(tm)FREE!

  5. I don’t know if you just want agreement here or are open to discussion, but when I read the fundamental assertions of any essay I ask myself, “Is this a fact, or universally applicable?” In this case, with the assertions stated in your fist paragraph, I had to answer no. As I said on facebook, I understand that you are defining “value” for the purposes of your essay, not stating actual facts regarding the relative value of air in various states or degrees of motion. Value is a subjective assessment on the part of the perceiver of an object, not an objective universal quality. Your speculations on commodification are interesting, though.

  6. Discussion always welcome. Note that the essay isn’t about air; air is used as a metaphor. Feel free to suggest a better metaphor.

    The essay’s argument is that culture has more value the more it’s shared. I’m using this definition of value:

    3: relative worth, utility, or importance (a good value at the price) (the value of base stealing in baseball) (had nothing of value to say)

    and I’m discussing cultural value specifically: cultural works have more value (worth, utility, and importance) the more they are shared. This is true for any culture, regardless of which group is doing the sharing. It is not arbitrary, any more than evolution is arbitrary. A given cultural work may be of greater or lesser value to individuals within a particular cultural group (“I love Star Wars and watched it 50 times!” vs. “Star Wars sucks”) but its cultural value depends on how many people use it.

  7. Great Post!

    I got a big laugh from it as I am working in an article for a School Magazine. It’s a labor of love and I get no pay from it… However, since it’s an article I’m doing from contrasting sources, and this sources are under copyright, well, I’m spending far more time requesting permissions than doing the actual article (again, it’s a non-profit article and it’s for a school.).

    Authors usually say “Go ahead! I’m happy that you quote my book!”, the stateholder of a dead author may say “right, just tell me of the quotes you’re using so I know about that”, and grant his permission: in those cases they’ll just worry about the sentence being misquoted or having typos (which sounds perfectly reasonable).

    But then there will be the agent, owner of the rights with no connection whatsoever with the deceased aouthor of his relatives who will ask for 70 US dollars per sentence used… Of course, in this case the sentence won’t be used at all.

    I of course want to respect author’s rights, and I think creators deserve to earn benefits and get credit for their work… but there’s something perverse about having to pay 70 dollars for a long dead author’s three word sentence: it somehow dooms that author to oblivion, and I believe that no sensible author would like that to be the future of his work when he’s no longer around.

  8. Go Gloria!

    But you know, let’s stop letting the publishing industry tell us how to “respect authors rights”. The way to respect an authors rights is to quote the author accurately, and attribute the quote accurately. The right to pay a fee every time you make a copy of a work or part of work is just bizarre. I mean, you don’t pay an architect a fee every time you enter her building, or just look at it. Or photograph it. Or build another building using some ideas from her original.

    Authors may be slightly better stewards of a monopoly right than publishers are, but it’s still a monopoly, and it hurts all of us.

  9. Right Karl… The funny think, this article I’m doing for a school magazine, so in theory I could stop worrying as it falls within the limits of both “journalistic” and “educational”, so in this case it could be perfectly “Fair Use”?

    As I have mentioned, when you contact the authot himself/herself, there’s usually no trouble: he/she’s too glad that you know his/her work and, well, help it divulge through your derived/quoted. The trouble comes when you contact publishers, or agents: here obtaining permissions may not be possible in all cases.

    I only talked about text quotes, but the whole thing it’s even funnier when you are dealing with pictures: there’s people who’ll claim rights from a publicity photo of a film (that is, something meant to freely divulge the knowledge of the film) more than 70 years old.

    It is curious to own an old still which reads “permission granted to be reproduced in magazines” and not be able to do it because someone who didn’t make that photo somehow “owns” it and feels you ought to pay him/her for that.

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