This activity only exists, of course, because people have come to value bits. So they are willing to spend resources on creating, acquiring, storing, transforming, and transferring bits. They find that they are interested in trading bits, and in many cases they want to protect their bits.
Lawyers like to look at valuable bits as a form of intellectual property, like texts printed on paper or movies distributed on videotape. They reason that incentives for the creation of digital works are needed, so creators should have limited monopolies that allow them to make money from their intellectual contributions while society as a whole benefits from the production and distribution of knowledge. It follows, then, that cyberspace economic activity should be regulated by copyright and patent law, though perhaps modified and extended to take account of the novel characteristics of digital media and distribution systems.
But the "property" metaphor can be misleading, since digital artifacts (such as application software files, text files, and digital movies and audio files) differ from tangible property like land, buildings, automobiles, and printed books in several crucial ways. 2 They can be reproduced indefinitely at trivial cost, and through telecommunications networks they can be distributed almost instantaneously throughout the world. They take up very little storage space, and they can often be moved around undetectably. In many contexts, it is quick and easy to transform and combine existing digital information to produce new works that may seem very different.
Most importantly perhaps, one person's use of a file or some application software need not interfere with or prevent another's use of the same resource. Land is different: if I build on a lot, then you cannot. So are automobiles: if I have the family car, then you do not. So, even, are books and videotapes: if I check out a copy of some work from the library, then other users cannot. By contrast, the digital resources that are available in cyberspace do not have to be scarce resources. And it is a queer kind of property that can be valuable without being intrinsically scarce.
Because of these differences, the growing cyberspace business community is finding that it cannot rely on either the traditional legal mechanisms for protecting the bits that it sells and barters or on familiar ways of assuring payment. Infobahn-oriented strategies are emerging. For example, providers of news archives and other large, frequently updated databases may charge users not for the information that they download but for the time spent logged in to the provider's server to conduct searches; since the retrieved information is most valuable when it has been extracted from the latest version of the database, users have an incentive to perform (and pay for) new searches rather than to rely on bootleg copies of the results of old searches. Or, where users receive continuous streams of information-as in the case of the news feeds that are used to create personalized newspapers-payment can be by subscription; where subscriptions are not paid, the information stream can be cut off. In the case of online books and journals, and of movies on demand, providers can maintain comprehensive online catalogues that allow users to get quickly and conveniently to what they want, then the providers can charge fees for downloading the material to the user's printer or viewing device.
Invention of mechanisms like these is one part of the answer to the problem of constructing a workable framework for cyberspace business -one that adequately protects the originators and distributors of bits, while avoiding unnecessary impediments to the free flow of information. Another part is the development of intellectual property law to cover the new situations that arise in cyberspace. Yet another -perhaps most important of all-is the emergence of a broadly shared sense of morality in these matters. Whatever technical and legal controls are implemented will succeed only to the extent that they have community acceptance; unresolved moral disputes will create conflict among members of cyberspace communities just as surely as they do in other contexts.