Summary of John Perry Barlow’s “The Economy of Ideas”

Writing in 1994, Barlow addresses the problem of digitized property. At the crux of the issue lie these questions: “If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can’t get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?” Barlow contends that the laws governing intellectual property are in no way adequate to meet the needs of the digital sphere. In fact, these laws are so far removed from the realities of the digital that they cannot even be adequately adapted. We must, instead, completely rethink our approach to intellectual property in the digital age.

The source of the problem with current law, he argues, is that it was designed for a society in which information was distributed primarily through physical objects, books or widgets. “One didn’t get paid for ideas,” Barlow contends, “but for the ability to deliver them into reality. For all practical purposes, the value was in the conveyance and not in the thought conveyed.” Now, by contrast, the “goods of the Information Age,” which Barlow terms, at one point, “unreal estate,” exist either “as pure thought or something very much like thought,” rendering old legal systems ineffectual. Attempting to enforce these ineffectual laws more aggressively ultimately threatens to limit free speech. New notions of property and ownership call for completely new ways of thinking about how we protect them, and new protections, he argues, must rely “far more on ethics and technology than on law.”

Barlow asserts that “the most productive thing to do now is to look into the true nature of what we’re trying to protect”: information. He makes three main points.

First, information is an activity. It is an action that occupies time rather than physical space and is thus experienced rather than possessed. Additionally, it must move, otherwise it “ceases to exist as anything but potential,” and is conveyed by propagation rather than distribution—that is, it “can be transferred without leaving the possession of the original owner.”

Second, information is a life form. Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme serves as a useful illustration: information reproduces itself, mutates, evolves, expands into new spaces, and adapts to its surroundings. It wants to change, Barlow suggests, but is also perishable, “degrad[ing] rapidly both over time and in distance from the source of production.”

Third, information is a relationship. It is valued for the ways in which it creates meaning, and its meaningfulness is highly dependent upon both source and receiver. It is the opposite of physical goods in that it operates not on the principle of scarcity but of familiarity: “Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common.” Information can also be valuable, however, for its exclusivity, though this is heavily dependent upon time. Additionally, point of view and authority have value in information exchange, time is more important than space, and information is itself inherently valuable, and thus can be bartered.

Barlow closes by suggesting that “information economics, in the absence of objects, will be based more on relationship than possession”—he uses performance and service exchanges as models for information exchange in the digital age. To information providers, he writes, “the future protection of your intellectual property will depend on your ability to control your relationship to the market…The value of that relationship will reside in the quality of performance, the uniqueness of your point of view, the validity of your expertise, its relevance to your market, and, underlying everything, the ability of that market to access your creative services swiftly, conveniently, and interactively.”

I can see many ways in which Barlow’s predictions have come true now, more than 20 years after his piece was written. For example, in the arenas of entertainment, we are clearly moving from a model based on the exchange of goods to the exchange of services. I no longer buy DVDs or even digital downloads, unless I really want them. Instead, I pay for services like Netflix and Hulu that provide access to movies and television shows. I don’t buy CDs or digital downloads, but music services like Spotify or Pandora that allow me to access the music I want.

I’m not sure exactly what’s been happening in the legal sphere since Barlow wrote this piece, but I think his characterization of the “waves of cyberspace” as “lawless” is still a fair one. I don’t know how law has adapted to suit the needs of the digital age, but I get the impression that it is still as ineffective as Barlow claims it was in 1994. He presciently writes that “Real-world conditions will continue to change at a blinding pace, and the law will lag further behind, more profoundly confused.” Whether or not this problem is “impossible to overcome,” as Barlow tentatively suggests, perhaps remains to be seen.