In Michael Pollan’s excellent “,” the author explores the complexity of modern food technology – where our food comes from, and why we eat what we do. It’s a thoroughly engrossing piece of work, and it includes a snippet that I thought was particularly relevant to our times.
In the late 19th to early 20th century, corn was beginning to gain a foothold as one of America’s most important crops. Its resilience and genetic flexibility made it the go-to plant for practically every aspect of the contemporary human food chain—from main course to seasoning to drinks to the feed that our livestock subsists on. Pollan opines that one of the reasons it became so ubiquitous was due to the fact that it exhibited the unusual trait of even having a built-in patenting system.
Back then, various types of corn could be “designed” by taking two seeds from two lines that both exhibited desirable traits. We all know the basic Mendelian plot here: combine the traits of two original seeds and you get an improved offspring, one that could be larger, sturdier or produce more yield than its parents. Corn-breeders made a living off of cross-breeding various seeds and then selling those über-seeds to farmers. However, they had a problem: they could sell their work to a given farmer only once, because the seeds could, by nature, reproduce themselves endlessly. In other words, the farmer never had to worry about getting new seeds because the crop produced by these super-seeds would guarantee that he’d always have lots available for future harvests. That farmer could even potentially “pirate” those generation-2 seeds and re-sell them to other farmers. This meant that the breeders’ business model was screwed from the moment they sold that first batch of super-seeds, which simply would not do. Much like the digital media of today – infinitely reproducible and redistributable – the intellectual property of corn seeds needed to be protected somehow.
The solution turned out to be simple: breeders discovered that when you crossed two corn plants that had come from their uber-seeds, the offspring exhibited some unusual characteristics. They found that although the first generation of corn raised from this child seed was genetically identical to the original uber-seed, the second generation was not. The harvest yields from the second-gen seeds were only about 70% of the originals, making them virtually worthless. Once they had established this fact, the breeders were pretty much set. Farmers had to buy new seeds from them every year, because the seeds that their harvests were producing would be no good to them. It was the biological equivalent of a copyright restriction.
Fast forward a century and we find ourselves in much the same situation, in a vastly different arena. Musicians need to protect their work so they can make a living off of it. Some of them charge a one-time fee to download their work (iTunes) and some of them have subscription-based offerings (Rhapsody). Their content is protected by various forms of DRM that prevent you from creating more than the ascribed number of copies of the music. It’s the corn breeders all over again, in other words.
The difference though is this: the whole point of having digital content is to allow for infinite copies and infinite distribution. The fundamental difference between digital and traditional media is that the former has no physical manifestation (and thus no limits to its reproducibility), and yet we continue to secure and sell them as if they did. Part of the reason why traditional media is so expensive is because the cost of shipping, warehousing, and distributing are prohibitive. Not so with digital content.
The notion of selling a person permission to create up to X copies of a digital file (ala iTunes) is silly. That’s like selling someone a camera and telling them that they can only take a set number of pictures with it, otherwise they’ll be violating your terms of service. DRM contradicts the very nature of the thing it attempts to protect.
What we’re witnessing with DRM, you see, is the capitalism of corn being transplanted into an arena that cannot possibly support it. Part of the reason why corn is the world’s biggest cereal crop today (bigger than rice – even in China!) is largely because of its business-friendly attributes, and I suppose record labels are looking for that same kind of dominant, all-consuming victory here as well.