Are we making up our notions of property rights on the fly?
In recent decades, the Web has created a whole new class of possessions to wrangle over. Take, for example, the e-book. A person who buys a digital book may imagine she’s bought the electronic equivalent of a hardcover or a paperback. The e-book version of “Neuromancer” is, after all, pretty much word for word the same as the print version. Legally speaking, though, the two volumes are very different. Once you’ve bought a paperback, you can resell it, or give it to a friend, or cut it up and make a collage out of it and sell that. If you buy the e-book, you can’t resell it or lend it or rearrange it—at least not without violating the terms of service. Sometimes you can’t even read it yourself. In 2009, Amazon removed copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” from purchasers’ Kindles. (The company said that the books had been downloaded from an intermediary that did not own the rights.) Similarly, Apple has pulled movies from customers’ accounts as a result of disputes with the movies’ copyright holders.