The difficulty in determining value in technological things is that it isn’t simply the tangible ‘object’, even when there is a tangible object involved.
To return to the example of an e-book reader that I’ve used in previous posts, my e-reader is not all that much different from the Newton I had nearly 20 years ago. Both store e-books locally and can connect to my wifi to download new ones. My current e-reader has some advantages: the screen is slightly larger and the contrast is better, making it easier on the eyes; it is at the same time thinner and somewhat lighter, making it more comfortable to hold while reading. It also has some disadvantages: I can’t simply circle an important quote to annotate it with a pen; I can’t then copy said quote to a note for use in my thesis, or to an email that is part of a discussion on the topic. It was significantly cheaper than the Newton was in its day, however.
Yet the Newton is in a box somewhere in the garage while the e-reader is beside me on the table, even though were an e-reader like the one I have available in the form factor of the Newton and with the features I noted that are missing from it at the same price today it would be a difficult decision as to which to purchase. But what would make an e-reader sufficiently ‘like the one I have’ that I might consider purchasing it even if in all the tangible ways it was identical to the long-put-away Newton? The answer of course is that there is very little new content available that will display properly on the Newton. Most of the e-book formats available today simply weren’t supported on that device. Small changes in e-book formats could equally render my current reader completely worthless, whatever its features as a ‘real’ tangible thing might be.
That much of the value lies in the intangible ‘content’ is of course clear to most people. It’s precisely the reason the e-readers and tablets from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, like the tablets and phones from Amazon, Apple, Samsung, MS and others are sold mostly at or below cost. While as tangible things producing them has significant fixed costs associated with it, it’s not interminably duplicable nearly for nothing as the e-books I read on it are, its value is dependent precisely on the availability of those intangible, interminably reproducible works that form its content.
Trying to keep to the old notion of property by appending ‘intellectual’ to it, or calling it a ‘virtual’ thing just complicates an already difficult problem. What we call ‘real’ has for millennia equated to what can be owned, what is material in the derivative physical sense, rather than what is material in the primary sense of relevant, important, valuable.
When this aspect of technology became apparent it created the fantasy of ‘frictionless capitalism.’. Distributors of non-tangible things were temporarily in ecstasy, thinking they could continue to charge what they had for the tangible item but with no costs involved. Reality however is stubborn, and the ease of duplication simply led many to not bother with the purchase at all and just duplicate it themselves. Yes, it’s piracy, but in this case it’s piracy from pirates, since for the most part those distributors had already stopped giving more than a token amount of the value to the originators of the duplicable work, and are thus in essence themselves guilty of having pirated the work. Not that theft from thieves is ethical, it simply is not sufficiently unethical that it’s going to bother most people’s consciences.
The attempts by distributors of duplicable works, whether books or music or anything else, to restrict the duplication or restrict the distribution of duplicates has so far been an overwhelming failure and will continue to be, simply because non-replicable formats will never retain their popularity once a replicable version becomes available, since the latter can always offer conveniences to the non-pirate as well as to pirates that the former has to disallow in order to retain its non-duplicability.
Until we begin to think of value in something we purchase in terms of where and by whom the value originated, there’s no possible solution to the current problem, which while focused on so-called ‘intellectual property’ in fact affects all technological things, and as technologies such as 3D printing get out of their infancy, what is an easily and cheaply replicable ‘virtual’ thing is only going to encompass more and more of the real.