Law professor Joshua A.T. Fairfield’s fascinating – and at times downright scary – study of how digital technology changes property rights touches on real-world court cases as well as on game-world magical swords. Fairfield cautions that society faces a crisis as technology reshapes the complicated arena of property rights. He sounds the alarm about dangerous developments eroding those rights, discusses implications and solutions, and explains why all this matters and what to do about it. getAbstract recommends his timely warning to anyone concerned about property, privacy, digital culture and personal freedom.
Property, Digital and Otherwise
You own all your physical possessions outright. But despite what you may think, you own few of your digital items and have less control over them than over your other belongings. Digital technology is reshaping property rights.
There are three types of property: “traditional,” “smart” and “digital.” Traditional property rights let owners sell, destroy or repurpose their possessions. Smart property refers to property that software enhances. Digital property relates to objects that could include, for instance, a copy of a movie or a magical sword in an online game. What do people actually possess when they own digital property? What can sellers of digital items still do with them after they’re sold?
Property rights allocate access to scarce resources. Private ownership enables people to build houses, develop businesses and lead autonomous lives. In the old feudal model, individuals didn’t own the land on which they lived and worked; rulers and kings held all the real estate. The digital transformation returns property to a feudal model.
Changes in technology alter the classic nature of tangible property. Digital...
Joshua A.T. Fairfield, JD, is a law professor at Washington and Lee University, where he specializes in technology and digital property.