CopyBot Resistance

Over at Ed Felton’s blog, Freedom to Tinker, Ed Felten, observing the CopyBot phenomena in Second Life, asks the question Will It Copy? As interesting as that question is, is I am more interested in a special class of objects that, even if they would copy perfectly, will lose a good part of their value when they are copied.

For example, even if you could make a perfect copy of my suit, it wouldn’t be worth very much to you because it won’t fit you, or, even if it did fit you, it might not be appropriate for your line of work. This isn’t as trivial as it seems at first blink, because many items fall into this class. What’s interesting is that some of these items are already primarily digital in form, so they would be very easy to copy. Once you start to study why things are resistant to copying a whole new category of copybot resistant items can be seen, and those items all have some distinct commonalities.

As an Architect, I create every day digital files, either directly, or after doing a sketch scanning it into the digital world. these works are not especially protected or protect-able from someone copying, if they were determined enough. The plans and elevations are frequently part of planning and zoning submittals that are a matter of public record, and anyone can get a copy, if they really wanted to. The construction plans are widely disseminated to bidders, subcontractors, and contractors, who can and do sometimes end up showing these to our competitors. This is much less of a threat than it seems, because a building is very particularized. It is a special creation which is a unique result of:

  1. That client’s program, which is a reflection of their unique business plans, that’s its tailored, or crafted, to fit.
  2. That particular site for which it is designed: it’s dimensions, it’s urban context, the local climate, and the expectations of the community in which it is built. These are influenced by the fact that the building is public, of permanence, and expensive.
  3. Designers input, in terms of the creation of an object of cultural significance. A building is often an item of social and cultural differentiation, so the copy would not have that cachet, and would also serve to increase the value of the original, as in “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I have seen this at work in high end residential architecture (my area of practice in the mid 1980’s)

The group of things whose copies are less valuable than the originals is larger than you might think: A lawyers brief, for example, won’t help anyone except those in the case for which it was written. A Doctor’s diagnosis, for example, could be copied, but won’t be of any use for the copier (excluding the case of the hypochondriac, of course, in which case all diagnosis would seem to be fitting!) A piece of custom millwork or the installation of plumbing in my house would also lose a good part of their value, even if you could have an exact copy for free.

It seems that all these items have certain common features: they are particularized by the necessity of their purpose, and as a result, in their process of creation, they are crafted. Such objects are deeply resistant to copying, as copying reduces their value, and can be said to have the quality of being copybot-resistant.

CopyBot Resistance

5 thoughts on “CopyBot Resistance

  1. Jamie says:

    Good point. There are a great many areas where copying is easily done, but relatively pointless and useless. In all of the cases you mentioned above, the “item” to be copied is either tailored too specifically to a particular purpose, or is only useful for a particular time period (doctors diagnosis, investment planning)

  2. cm says:

    I’d argue the most of the examples you cite fall into the “services” category, although I acknowledge the particularization aspect. E.g. the lawyer’s and doctor’s documents, and perhaps to a lesser extent your architect work, are in a sense a physical representation of your services, and not “consumable” products.

    OTOH one could argue a music performance is a service, but then a recording of a performance is a product in its own right (without particularization). Music performances can be particularized/varied too, as happens in concerts, or performing at parties (e.g. Happy Birthday with a particular name included).

    Perhaps one can go as far as saying particularization is what defines a service. In that sense, custom software, which often is in substantial degree a particular custom configuration differing from the standard configuration, is in the service category as well (the custom/configuration part, not the “shared” product).

  3. cm says:

    As software engineers making products in a domain of considerable complexity, an increasing part of our daily activities is participating in rendering services to customers, assisting them with advice how to do certain things with our products, or diagnosing why something they did does not work as intended. That’s only in part because of documentation issues, and more because of the inherent complexities, and customers having other problems than figuring out the particulars of that stuff.

    Arguably this is what allows the business unit to maintain prices even though quite a few assert our products have been becoming commodity. The products, yes to an extent, but not the services without which they are increasingly harder to put to good use.

  4. The products, yes to an extent, but not the services without which they are increasingly harder to put to good use.

    Which is interesting because it is exactly those things that are resistant ot CopyBot that are:

    1. Result of services, and therefore:

    2. Are the result of the application of a higher order knowledge, or skill perhaps, than items that can be fixed in their usefulness, in their digital form.

  5. cm says:

    Yes, one can construct an analogy between behavioral parts (scripts) of virtual objects and services — the behaviors are (externally) “performed”, not just beheld. (Execution of fixed program code or rendering a 3D description or audio encoding essentially being a kind of “beholding”. Externally executed program code that is not copyable is like a haircut that you get from somebody else but cannot perform yourself.)

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