Intellectual Property in the Age of the Internet


In this transcript of an educational I gave to the 1st of May branch I attempt to briefly consider how the internet and technology have impacted on intellectual property and what our perspectives on this might be as class struggle anarchists

“Property Is Theft”
- Proudhon from “What is Property”

“All Information Should Be Free”
- from “The Hacker Ethic”

Bono shaking hands with Tony Blair. For me it was one of the most memorable images of last year, appearing on the cover of Phoenix magazine during the G8 protests of 2005. Watching MTV's Cribs today brought the idea home with even greater force than ever before. These days, Intellectual Property Capitalists like Bono, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Thom Yorke of Radiohead are among the wealthiest and most visible of todays ruling class.

The cult of celebrity has become inescapable with the explosion of mass media forms in the late 20th Century, to the extent that musicians like Bono and Bob Geldof can use their fame to get the ear of political figures like Tony Blair. The media image that is portrayed is usually that of the musician with a “social conscience” bravely confronting the “immoral” politician and challenging them on the inequitable and exploitable policies of their government.

Unfortunately, it is exactly that, an “image”. There is no class struggle between these two men and Bono, Chris and Thom are far from being the “voice of the people”. Good musicians and songwriters they may be, but the fact of the matter is that their vast wealth is made on the backs of working people through exploitative royalty payments charged whenever one of their albums are sold. They are in fact the wealthiest capitalists of our age, whose interests are the same as those of other members of the ruling class, like George Bush, Tony O'Reilly and Michael O'Leary.

However, the sharing possibilities opened up by the Internet have quickly revealed the iron fist behind the velvet glove. In the last couple of years, copyright enforcement organisations like the RIAA in the U.S. and the IMRO in Ireland have begun suing those who attempt to share music over the internet. These organisations are the “big stick” that ensure profits keep rolling in for record companies and artists like Bono while ensuring that the culture of openness and sharing that threatens it is crushed. Make no mistake, these organisations carry the might of state behind them when they file their lawsuits, and as usual in a capitalist society, defense of property comes before anything else.

The most ridiculous case that I can recall was when the RIAA sued a 9-year old girl and sent her a threatening “cease and desist” letter which quite rightly outraged her parents. In the face of the enormous negative publicity over this, the RIAA did eventually back down but this clearly shows how absolutely ruthless these people will be in punishing those who share.

Even bands that were once proud to say they were “underground” and “anti-establishment” have turned around on their fans and accused people of “stealing” their music. Metallica are the most disgusting example of this. Tape-Trading was a crucial element of the underground rock music scene from which Metallica rose in the early 80's. Without tape-trading, Metallica would likely never have gained the widespread recognition that eventually broke them on a worldwide scale.
Nowadays, Metallica have sold over 10 million copies of the Black Album and are millionares.
They would certainly claim that they have never lost touch with their roots, but the reality is that they are now rich Property Capitalists whose interests are those of the ruling class. Lars Ulrich's ridiculous outbursts only confirm that they have long since discarded their “rebel” image. His petulance at people “stealing” his royalties on the internet, despite his own enormous wealth shows how completely out of touch he is with the common workers daily struggle to make ends meet.

The anarcho-punks may be looking smug at this point as they shuffle along to buy their Crass albums from small independent retailers, believing themselves safe in the knowledge that they are not supporting such an inequitable and exploitative business.

Buying from independents is all well and good – certainly adding to the profits of enormous record companies like EMI or Colombia is not something any anarchist would advocate.

As revolutionary class-struggle anarchists however, we need to be much more ambitious. Even when you buy from a small independent retailer, you pay royalties to the artist and the record company skims a good portion off the top for its own profits. For anarchists, just as there is no “acceptable level” of wage-slavery, there is no “acceptable level” of profiteering from Intellectual Property. Royalties from the sale of books, music, software and other products are a rental charge that can only be imposed because the sharing and copying of such things is openly punished by the state. Renting a physical property is opposed by all anarchists for obvious reasons, and renting intellectual property should be opposed just as strongly.

Liberal critics of intellectual property like Lawrence Lessig have, in books like “Free Culture” criticised the way the current IP system works (or rather doesn't work) on the internet but have proposed a solution that would involve guaranteeing the right to share certain uncopyrighted works, but creating a new “tax” that, depending on estimates of how damaging sharing is to the industry, attempts to compensate record companies/publishers and other who sell copyrighted works for their losses.

Even if this idea was workable, there is vanishingly little to recommend it. Our goal should be to remove the ability of these companies, artists and organisations to make profits from consumers of their products. The end of this exploitation will result in a loss of profits :- this is the intended effect so why would we want to “compensate” for it? If someone was robbing your house every year for 20 years and finally was caught, would you propose to then pay him something every year to compensate for his losses? The idea is ridiculous of course. Thieves should not be compensated when they stop stealing.

Worse still, this “solution” proposes a new tax to “compensate” the industries affected! All this amounts to is saying “Well, if we cant steal the money from the workers as they buy the product in a store, we'll just steal it directly out of their wage packets”.

There is an alternative of course :- we could work at creating a system that rewards artists equitably for their efforts in creating a work, be it a book, a piece of software or a symphony. It is an oft-repeated aphorism that many great artists are not appreciated during their lifetime. Once radical and underground artists like Salvador Dali or Van Gogh, who were unpopular in their lifetimes have gained enormous celebrity in our time and the perceived value of their work has shot up. In a market economy this perceived value has real-world monetary effects :- many artists who could not even find a publisher for their work in their own lifetime and died penniless have had original editions of their works sold at auctions today for ridiculous prices (for Von Gogh, these can often reach into the millions).

This begs the question of how we can fairly compensate artists for their work in their own lifetimes. Obviously a market economy does a very poor job of judging the worth of an artists output - although later generations may rectify this, the artist might also languish in poverty and perpetual obscurity. The most honest response to this problem is that we simply cannot measure the value of an artists output. The best solution as I see it therefore is to reward the artist based purely on their effort and the sacrifices they make to produce their work.

The latest issue of Newsweek contains several interesting articles on how the open-source software movement is affecting the business strategies of corporations like IBM who currently file more than 3,000 patents a year! IBM CEO Palmisano comments “Open source is a method of tapping a community of experts to develop useful things. It began in software , but applies broadly, and is anything but anti-capitalist. It can raise quality at reduced costs, and vastly expands opportunities for profit.” IBM is the leading business investor in the open source movement and their investment of billions in Linux was instrumental in making that operating system a serious competitor to Windows. Companies like IBM and SUN have been much quicker to recognise the power of the open-source model and to immediately reshape their business model around it.

However, despite what Sam Palmisano says about open-source software not being anti-capitalist, he has has been forced to re-orient his business towards making profits from delivering customised services and support rather than software. What seems to be happening here is that open source software has been such a successful model that it has begun to close off some avenues of profit (through software copyrights and patents) that companies like Microsoft are almost entirely dependent on. Sam Palmisano has simply been more perceptive than Microsoft in seeing how strong open-source is as a model, and made a decision to give up on that profit avenue to pursue other, more lucrative directions like support and services. The success of open-source has made at least some property-based commodity's available to the commons and withdrawn them from the capitalist marketplace and the profit-making arena. If thats not anti-capitalist, I'm nor sure what is!
Open-Source may not be a revolutionary approach that has any likelihood of overthrowing the entire IT Industry but is a worthwhile endeavor that shows anarchist values are still alive and kicking even in an Industry that seems to revolve around copyrights and patents.

The issue of Intellectual Property on the internet is one that is not going to disappear anytime soon. The very nature of the internet, with its open architecture and environment that encourages the natural sharing of information represents a threat to the digital landlords who wish to rule this domain. It is my belief that we cannot ultimately win this battle in the digital domain unless we simultaneously fight to overthrow the legitimacy of real-world property.

Short Bibliography:
Brian Martin - “Information Liberation” Freedom Press
JD Lassica - “Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation” Wiley & Sons
Lawrence Lessig - “Freeculture”