Beginning at midnight on January 18th, 2012, Wikipedia blacked out its website in protest to two bills, SOPA and PIPA, while other websites undertook similar actions. The following day, the federal government shut down Megaupload.com, a popular file sharing website, claiming they constituted a criminal organization circulating copywritten material. In the battle of “free internet” versus “intellectual property,” the battle has become heated, with rival factions of the ruling class taking opposing sides for one singular motive — profit. Internet based companies like Google and Wikipedia have come out against SOPA due to the regulation and restriction of content, and opening of legal liability for user-posted content linked to their sites, while the film and television industry support SOPA and PIPA in order to maximize their profit margins by cracking down on distribution of their products without compensation.
There are two things that are interesting in this circumstance. The first is that the bourgeoisie are finding themselves divided on industry lines and no matter who wins, a section of the bourgeoisie stands to lose millions. The second is that we’re seeing a more open challenge to anti-piracy legislation and policy, a move that calls into question some basic principles advanced by the bourgeoisie about intellectual property. How much can one argue for the existence of “intellectual property?” What role does it play in power in our society? The answer to both sheds light on not only the faults within the concept of “intellectual property,” but it also reveals holes in the logic used to justify capitalism’s private ownership of the means of production.
“Owning Thought” & the Follies of Private Property
No doubt that somewhere within the reactionary psyche the circulation of content without compensation, the “stealing” of films, music, television and video games by people acquiring them without paying for a license, is comparable to some “communist assault” on their “private property.”
The movie industry has produced a number of scare ads (such as this one) designed to compare pirating films to stealing cars, purses and DVDs from a video store.
The U.S. government has gone after websites like Napster, and now Megaupload, filing criminal charges and demanding hefty sums on behalf of record companies and Hollywood studios, as if their peddled files were state secrets. Yet, even a child can see that somewhere along the line that stealing a car, and stealing a song file or video file, are fundamentally different.
Let’s examine the comparison made by the anti-piracy ad featured in this article. First, the car, which someone is attempting to break into and drive away. Who loses when a car is stolen? Is it, perhaps, the company who manufactured it? Perhaps they have, in a way, since the person who stole the car won’t have to spend money at a local dealership. However, the cost of that theft is miniscule compared to the immediate problems presented to the victim. When someone’s car is stolen, their means of transporting themselves to work or school goes with it, not to mention anything they may have left in the car — be it an old sweater or the entirety of their possessions, being that some workers have been forced to live in their cars thanks capitalism today.
In the case of the purse, an immediate array of hassles is thrust upon the shoulders of the victim — credit cards to cancel, identities compromised, cash vanishing — that can take months, years, or even a lifetime to repair. The TV costs a great deal of money, and will deprive whoever has theirs stolen of entertainment and information. The depiction of someone stealing from a video rental store makes one less sympathetic than the other examples, yet even this isn’t comparable. You could argue that all of the previous examples involve deprivation of some kind, where people who aren’t the bourgeoisie themselves are singled out for having their things taken, their lives made more difficult and their sense of security violated. Yet when you download a file for free, it doesn’t disappear for anyone else. It deprives no worker of their share, no company of their product. What it does is that it challenges the bourgeoisie’s ability to profit from the products they produce and sell, to benefit from the surplus value they reap from their workers.
The attempt to compare the private ownership of the means of production and the products of production to the personal property of larceny victims is an old tactic, yet with intellectual property, the difficulty is even higher to compare the material possessions of people with streams of electrons, with “intellectual property,” that ranges from the composition of a song file or movie file to the makeup of molecules used in drugs.
The idea that you can have ownership over a “thought,” a “concept” even less that someone can have ownership of a sound, a “beat,” a “story” seems like a stretch. After all, how are you supposed to control people coming up with the same ideas independently? Can any idea, any concept, any aspect of intellectual production, be effectively “owned?” After all, one can claim all they like that they own the sun, but if they have no power over it, what is such “ownership” worth?
The Social Origins of Intellectual Production
The fact that “intellectual property rights” are barely enforcible thanks to the existence of the internet raises questions about this supposed “intellectual property,” and raises questions about other kinds of property as well. Yet this goes deeper than enforceability. The bourgeoisie would have us think that someone can lay exclusive claim and ownership to something they have thought up or composed. This begs the question, however: is there any such thing as a purely original thought? Is any thought ever independent of other thoughts? Can one divorce thought and creativity from the material conditions that bore the minds which brought it forward?
The metaphysician would answer yes, because ideas are outside of our material beings, because they come from a “soul” or other aberration that we cannot test or quantify in a material sense. The Marxist, however, would answer no. The brain itself is matter that thinks. It gains experience through exposure to the world, to concepts and ideas generated by the world around it. The ideas of a mind are rooted in the material conditions of its time, and as such, cannot be produced without that context. New ideas are the products of existing conditions and are built upon older ideas that have shown themselves to be relevant. To say that ideas simply “appear” or are “created” purely by some abstract property of the individual who conceived of it is to say the same of human beings, as if they just “showed up one day,” and weren’t conceived by parents, had their perceptions of the world informed by society, don’t have set conditions which shape their experiences and values.
Let’s use the example of an esteemed writer, of which there are many examples. No one will argue that someone deserves credit for creating something meaningful, something that moves people and leaves an impact on the world. Kurt Vonnegut deserves credit for writing The Sirens of Titan, Walt Whitman deserves credit for Leaves of Grass. Yet there is more credit due here than simply to the authors themselves. For instance, Vonnegut and Whitman were great writers, but surely someone had to teach them to read and to write. Further, when it comes to content, one cannot say that their writings are informed purely by something they were born with in their brains — life experience, from their earliest childhood education to living as an adult in the times that they lived. Chopin was a great pianist and composer, but even he had to be taught to play, had to be taught the basic concept of what a “piano” is, had to hear other music, had to gain from some other source of knowledge and experience other than his own. The painter deserves credit for a painting, but would that painting be possible if it weren’t for those who taught them to paint in the first place? Would it be possible if it weren’t for the productive efforts of the people who made the canvas, the paints and other artistic supplies?
When we stop to reflect on the vast networks that must be in place for intellectual production, we see how no one person can take absolute credit over what they create. To do so is to ignore a universe of interconnected phenomena, one that is in a constant state of motion, evolution and forward motion. To isolate the intellectual production of any one person is to ignore everything else. It is to miss the forest for the trees, the molecule for the atoms. It is to make one of the gravest errors to one who wants to understand the world: to be willfully ignorant for the sake of convenience.
When someone creates art, they are contributing to the collected works of humankind. When someone generates ideas, those ideas find their origins, and their consequences, outside of the individual generating the idea. To say that it is merely the individual who “owns” the idea would be similar to saying that the individual owns every molecule of water, of carbon, or any other element or molecule that at one time made up their being. The fact of the matter is that, before they were born, those atoms and molecules existed elsewhere, and every day those atoms and molecules leave us and exist elsewhere. Intellectual production is ultimately a social good, and while we do not wish to alienate any one person from their contribution to this social good, the fact of the matter is that ideas belong to the whole of humanity, and not to any one person.
Internet and Propertyless Ideas
The state of our technological development, the rise of the internet as a primary means of accessing knowledge, entertainment, of facilitating global communication, has helped advance the social enjoyment of the ideas which society has generated. We have, as a species, gone from having the majority of people being without the ability to read to having a means for any person with access to a computer and an internet connection to access vast stores of knowledge, to participate in discussions that otherwise could never take place, to consume culture from all corners of the globe and to use this knowledge as a medium for production, for expression and, at times, as a vehicle of liberation. The internet has helped us make strides for taking the ideas which have been held under lock and key by those who own the means of production in our society, and have given all of us a chance to experience them.
You don’t have to pay out of a meager wage to buy the latest movie or that song you like — someone out there has made it available without cost. You don’t need to pay money to a university to have access to academic journals, encyclopedia articles and other storehouses of knowledge — there are ways to find the wisdom you seek, if you know where to look. We’ve all been given a glimpse of the possibilities, of the emancipation of thought, art and creativity from the clutches of bourgeois profiteering. That glimpse, that taste, is a colossal threat to those who own our society.
The Threat Internet Poses for Hegemony
Questioning one aspect of their “private property” threatens the rest of it being questioned. Just as all art and thought belongs to the whole of society that facilitated it being brought into being, so to does the rest of the things that our society creates. The masses of working people, who produce every product that any person uses any day, at any time, are the true creators of our world. The true “pirates” in our world aren’t those who endeavor to enjoy the benefits of that which we all have brought into being — it’s precisely the opposite.
Those who try to lock the products of humanity’s intellectual production behind patents, copy-writes and record labels are taking what we have all, ultimately, had our hand in producing, work to privatize the benefits of this production and extort the masses of working people for their own work. It is the same as what the capitalist system does each day — the labor which creates the products of our production is social, is the product of all workers, in one way or another, but the profits are locked up in the vaults of those who claim ownership over the means of production — means of production which rightly belong to us all, as they would not exist and could not be utilized without our labor.
Conclusion: Stand Up against SOPA, PIPA and the privatization of culture and knowledge
While some may try to show that this struggle against SOPA, PIPA and other “anti-piracy” measures is different than other struggles, it is actually one instance in a much broader struggle. Class is the central antagonism in this fight, and the battle is over which class is allowed to control the products of society’s intellectual production. While the bourgeoisie are split over whose profit motive is to take priority when two industries collide, the rest of us are more concerned about the offensive of the owners of our society against our access to the knowledge, culture and the products of intellectual production which are rightfully ours.
Without the masses of working people, there would be no society, no production and no art. It is because they are the products of our experiences, our labor and our creative genius that they belong to all of us. Intellectual property, like bourgeois private property, is a set of chains which only serves one group against the rest. We must see these chains for what they are and break them. This is about more than “free internet” versus censorship. This is about the enslavement of the ideas of all for the profit of a few.