walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

property, accounting and transaction costs

So I was off reading Smart Bitches, normally a very distracting activity that leads to a lot of research. This time, excessively so. Please bear with me while I supply a little back story.

Google is copying and indexing physical books. These books sometimes will turn up when searching the web. I've found this extremely helpful on several occasions, and have bought copies of books that I found excerpts from this way.

Google's in court with some people over the copyright implications of this. (Duh.)

Here's a frighteningly involved discussion of two of those cases, one a class action and the other not.


Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath.

Possibly you've heard about securitization of mortgages and some of the unpleasant ramifications of that. Over the last decade or so, it's become quite common not only for mortgages to be sold (it was ever so, and a wily buyer with the ability to do so tried to minimize the likelihood of this happening), but to be dismantled, so that some people bought the income and some people bought the principal, not unlike what has been done for much longer with bonds. Not individual mortgages, of course, but "tranches" of mortages assessed at varying levels of risk of default/foreclosure/nonpayment/etc. There was some clever math that purported to show that if you bought the right combination of these things, and the right insurance as well, you were "risk free" and in fact could use this stuff as collateral against other stuff you did. Just imagine the swaying pyramid of craziness that resulted. Especially once people started lying about the people they were loaning the money to.


When I was a youth (like, 19 or so), I spent a few weeks in the basement of what was then the Rainier Bank Building (Rainier has, of course, since been bought and the result been bought and come on, you know how this works). I was going through mortgage files that had been sold, making sure that everything that should be in them was in them, that nothing that shouldn't be in them was in them, and generally prepping them to be transferred to the purchaser of the mortgages.

Let's just say that if they still did it that way, buying and selling securitized mortgages would have such massive transaction costs that it wouldn't be worth doing. So they didn't. And one of the results is that no one quite knows where the paperwork is. Once a borrower stops making payments and the mortgage holder starts foreclosure, the court may decide to stop the process because the paperwork -- the legally required paperwork -- is missing.

Let's return, for a moment, to google and those books.

Rosetta Books, careful readers may recall from a previous post, has actually done that basement of the Rainier bank style footwork of reading contracts, contacting rights holders, negotiating more contracts and then selling the resulting well-documented rights.

Google would like to shortcut this whole process, somehow (I don't know that they care a lot, as long as the transaction costs are low). Needless to say, there are a variety of people who do not want this process short-cutted. McGraw-Hill would just like to make sure their stuff is handled correctly, and they aren't looking to punish google, just get what is owing to them every step of the way. All of these desires strike me as quite reasonable.

Yet, at the same time, I really, really, really like google books.

It is at moments like this where I go, I really don't want to be an IP lawyer. Gack.

But it's amusing to me that we're looking at exactly the same issue for houses and books. Property, apparently, really is property. Transferring ownership and accounting properly for that transfer of ownership really is a nitpicky, expensive little process.

I suppose the good news is, judging by the records kept for the slave trade, historians of the future will find something of value in these painfully massive and expensive but necessary accounts. Right now, it just makes me feel pessimistic.

One final remark: I recognize the temptation to bring up the Coase theorem. But that theorem relies upon an assumption of no transaction costs. The point I'm making revolves around the difficulties which ensue when people ACT like there are no transaction costs (securitized mortgages without paperwork to go with them; the google library project) but the transaction costs are still there. And substantial.

If you are interested in following the Author's Guild case, this might amuse you:

Looks like discovery is currently due by January 2009.

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