Licenses: ROL's TOL's and PURL's

There are 3 components to a information property (infoprop): The License, the Content, and the Medium, which have been historically fused into a single “for sale” token. This token, called a book or record, both held the content and (weakly) enforced the license – a legal contract to prevent further dissemination. The computer program industry, which sells its infoprops in "little boxes" in stores along with books, records, game cartridges, and videotapes, has long recognized the separation of the three components.

For example, many years ago, there was a fancy piece of paper for sale at $75 in my university bookstore: 

"This certificate entitles the installation of 3 additional copies of MS-DOS 3.3 on university personal computers"
There was no diskette, no code, no manuals! The license was a financial and legal agreement about the infoprop.

While this separation of a infoprop in its 3 atomic components can be a positive thing, in that it allows the license to survive the medium, and allows the content to evolve, it can also be exploited, allowing companies to take advantage of a public long used to owning its books and records.

There are 3 broad classes of  licensing schemes:

Read Once Licenses (ROL's) - pay $8 to watch a movie, or $70 for a Broadway ticket. You were ROL'ed $300 to see the Stones. TV shows are advertiser sponsored ROL's. William Gibson issued a ROL'ed work.

Time Out Licenses (TOL's) – Rent a videotape for a few days; use this software until the end of the year. Rent a Car. You pay the TOL and understand the time limit. Divx is a format offered for video TOLs.

Permanent Use & Resell Licenses (PURL's)- Buy the book. Own the Video. Get the hot videogame cartridge.  Pick up a VanGogh at Sotheby's. Ahhh. You feel pride in ownership. But what do you own when you purchase an infoprop?

If you were ROL'ed, you certainly can't even keep a copy, but perhaps you can shift it in time. If you only rent a house, of course you can't sell it. But owning a PURL does entitle you to something! You cannot make and sell  further copies yourself. But you do own it forever, can pass it on to your children, loan it, or sell it, and even rent it (legally enabling rental libraries and videostores). You simply may not enable it to be used in two places at once. In a way, a PURL is like a bit of money: When you transfer it, you cannot keep a copy. In order for something to even be “property,” transfers of it must be neither duplicative nor lossy.

"Loaning" computer software or musical recording licenses to a friend for them to use and return is no different from loaning a book. However, loaning with the express purpose of circumventing the license by copying the information so it will be used in two places simultaneously is a Duplicative Transfer, as if you gave someone a dollar, but kept a copy. 

The immense wealth of the copyright industries comes from their being able to print as many licenses as the "market" will bear, in essence doing duplicative transfers of property. However if a diamond exchanged for $1000 in Alaska melts into water on the way to New York, then the exchange was lossy. Perhaps not as bad as a burnt hundred dollar bill, which tightens the money supply. 

Certain software publishers, for example, the Mathworks, explicitly market  their software only via TOLs. However, most others promote and sell their software as PURL's, but then in the shrink wrap license, and by their actions forcing obsolescence, convert these licenses to TOL's. They are essentially printing securities, declaring them worthless, and printing more – a very lossy transfer of property reminiscent of failed bank notes and junk bonds.

That piece of paper allowing someone to copy DOS three times is now worthless scrip. The license to infoprops distributed over the internet is often just a codeword which enables installable software to be run. What will it be worth?

 Copyright © 1999 J. B. Pollack