Hacking For Money
Many of the products we buy today are no more than large collections of zeroes
and ones. High-priced software, high-quality music, and valuable reference
material such as computerized databases or CD-Rom encyclopedias are commercial
products like any other, but the media of their transmission makes them
different in at least one aspect: it is possible to copy them freely, or at
least extremely cheaply. A compact disc of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is
different from, say, a ham and swiss sandwich in many ways, but beyond the
obvious is one reason that makes the nature of the two items and their
production and purchase very different indeed: I can only eat the ham and swiss
sandwich once, while I can listen to the Attractions CD repeatedly. This is a
result of the fact that the CD contains information, rather than an actual
substance such as the sandwich has. The consumable material in the sandwich is
actual food and is gone after its consumption, while the consumable material in
the compact disc is encoded binary data that will be around for the life of the
physical disc. Since the sandwich can only be consumed once, we pay out an
amount of money that signifies what one sandwich is worth to us. If I want
another sandwich, I pay another $4.95. If someone were to invent a ham and swiss
sandwich that could be eaten thousands of times (let\'s not go into the mechanics
of how this would work) then the producer might be justified in charging many
times the cost of an ordinary ham and swiss, on the grounds that I\'m getting
more than just one sandwich. "Buy our sandwich once, and you\'ll never go
hungry again!" However, one might protest this idea if we know that it
still costs the usual amount to make the sandwich. If a producer can make a
repeatedly-edible sandwich for a couple dollars, and sell it for $4,000, he
stands to profit hugely. The reason we might be able to justify charging four
grand for a ham sandwich is that in our usual structure of sales and ownership,
we agree with the vendor to pay a price reflective of what the product is worth
to us, the consumer. In this light, it\'s irrelevant that the producer only spent
$2.50 to make that repeatedly-edible sandwich, because to me as a consumer such
a sandwich is worth thousands. Or to return to the example of the compact disc;
it\'s irrelevant that the producer only paid a nickel to produce each disc,
because to me it\'s worth fifteen dollars to be able to listen to "Punch the

Clock" at my leisure. The problem with this scenario is that it allows the
producer to profit extremely at the expense of the consumer. I don\'t think I\'d
too willingly pay more than fifteen dollars for a CD, and the record companies
know this. Five million CDs sold at whatever wholesale price gets them to be $15
retail is a lot more profit than five million CDs sold at some lower price.

Labels could charge less, in the hopes that people would buy more CDs (and this
is the guiding principle behind distribution houses like BMG and Columbia

House), but in general the cost is going towards promotion and marketing, rather
than towards the minimal expense of getting the discs made and into stores. In a
capitalist organization, one concept inextricably linked to marketing and sales
is that of ownership, or of intellectual property. A car company might have
patent rights to manufacture and sell a particular model of car, or a record
label might have the rights to make and sell a particular recording. A ham
sandwich is a less specific item; anyone can make a sandwich and sell it, but
only McDonald\'s has the legal right to call it an Arch Deluxe. This structure
works well for assigning rights to the inventor or patent holder of a product -
if someone designs a new kind of carburetor, they should have the right to
exclusive manufacturing and marketing, without worrying about someone else
capitalizing on that invention. This structure has been extended to cover the
more abstract notion of intellectual property, thus giving an individual or
company the exclusive legal right to manufacture a certain musical recording, to
sell a piece of software, or to use the words "Enjoy Coke" in a
commercial context, since what is owned in these cases is intellectual property
- information, binary data, or an advertising slogan. But does it make sense to
extend the concept of ownership to