intellectual property, free software & the new revolution

by admin

This is the start of my thoughts on copyrigh/left, IP and free software.

My pal devlin who works on biotech/agriculture IP issues, sent me a Globe and Mail story about Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy. M$ of course is leading the charge, worried about pirate copies of Window XP funding terrorism (etc.).

My response was: “Rats scurrying on a sinking ship.”

To which Devlin, the consumate marxist, replied that one would have thought the same about corrupt capitalists in the 20th Century but look how well they’ve done. My answer to that, which is the seed to a longer (planned) article, was:

The difference is that in the beginning of the 20th C, capital was concerened mainly with producing objects (you can include food in there), and in the end the capitalist system is very rational (except that it is incompatible with physical limits of the world/environment): the objective is to make enough people rich enough to want to preserve the system. In that way, organized labour was a useful tool to keep the system going, because it ensured that enough people were content with the system. That’s why people didn’t rebel (draconian laws and police-state tactics were used in US & Canada in the teens and 20s, but it was New Deal policies that saved capitalism from itself). For the most part, for the majority of people the system seemed to give them a life comfortable enough not to rise up & overthrow the Man.

But back to the question, 20th C capitalism, and its laws, governed things which cost money for good reason: You need to produce raw materials, transport them, reshape them, and sell them again. At each stage there is work that needs to be done, and most agree that that work should be rewarded; furthere there is a built-in mechanism to keep it functioning that way — if someone fails to get paid somewhere in the line, then the system breaks down.

IP is a different kettle of fish. Music companies want to get paid for things they don’t have to do anymore (because of technology): distribution. And software companies want to protect monoplolies on their software, but what they can’t fight is BETTER, free software. Windows controls the market now because they cornered the distribion market early on, and they produced products that became the standard, and tho people complained, there was no real reason to fight it cause the other products weren’t necessarily much better (wordperfect was just as annoying as M$ word). But now it turns out that there are better opensource operating systems (GNU/Linux), and better opensource office software (openoffice.org) and better email clients and browsers (thunderbird and firefox), plus all sorts of amazing new technologies that are making the power of the internet open to all in ways it never was (wiki, blogging, collaborative bookmarking del.icio.us, php, etc.). As time goes on the tools will become more powerful and more and more accessible to the average joe.

So for the majority of work people do, there are better technologies available, free, and developed in a collaborative open format, easily available to anyone with an internet connection. How do you fight against that? Boo hoo that there are pirated versions of Wiindows XP everywhere. The product is shit, and soon there will be just as many computers with GNU/Linux instead. why priate a crappy product when a free version of a better product is available?

the beauty of the hacker culture is that it is: 1. egalitarian (quality of work is arbiter), 2. collaborative (the idea of sharing is wide-spread) 3. anti-establishment (coonstraints on 1 & 2 are viewed with hostility), and 4. superior in product to other modalities.

as for music & movies, I think as the “means of production” become cheaper and more accessible, and same with means of distribution (internet radio taking place of blogs) no one will cry if britney spears’ albums cost $50 while many new innovative bands take new approaches to making a living. again boo hoo if Sony and U2 sue everyone in sight, I think more and more people will turn to creative commons approaches to art & its distribution, and just cut out the cob-webby middle men, who do nothing but cut out a huge slice of pie, now doing an irrelevant thing: marketing stars. If the new system is separated and parallel to the Hollywood productions of Pearl Harbour and Master and Commander, well so much the better for the people who chose the other route. If people want to pay lots of money for crap that’s their perogative, but we are coming to a time when art and culture will be disseminated free by people who think that ideas should belong to the people, not the corporations that own the rights.

This means, in my view, that these companies (M$, Sony-Universal, MegaArtProduct Inc and Mega Software Giant Inc) are fighting irrelevancy, because the means of production are being put into the hands of the collective masses, and the means of free distribution already exists.

This is the kernel of the story I am planning to write on Free Software and the coming anarchist technolution.

COMMENTS FROM DEVLIN:

I don’t see IP as a different kettle of fish. I don’t think capitalism has survived because it is the most efficient system or because it has distributed the world’s resources in a fair way. Look at the world– would you say that there are enough people living comfortably from capitalism? Most people are surviving despite capitalism not because of it. It was a very small minority from the working class that was able to secure some comfort for itself and this is and will always be precarious for that minority– and for the world since the model is entirely unsustainable.

Capitalism began with a brutal enclosure of the commons and the brutal destruction of alternative economic systems and cultures. There is no reason to believe that these alternative systems could not have developed to be much more comfortable for a much larger number of people than what capitalism has offered. Just look at the industrialisation of agriculture, which is still progressing and which therefore gives us a clearer sense of how things could have evolved much differently.

Capitalism has never been about “free markets” or about rewarding work. Sure there are elements of both, but this is not its essence and there could easily be more of both in other systems. Capitalism is fundamentally about property rights (ever expanding privatisation) and accumulation (ever expanding commodification). Capitalists are always trying to make more profit while doing less. This is the whole point of owning or monopolising the means of productiuon– it allows you to exploit labour (and nature) as much as possible. IPRs are a means to expand commodification and privatisation– whether its seeds, software or music.

David Harvey, in his book New Imperialism (which you really must read), explains how capitalism has really always functioned by way of accumulation by dispossession. With the system now in a crisis (that got going in the 1970s) capital will look for more ways to accumulate (i.e. Make profit) by increasingly dispossessing people of any non-capitalist forms of wealth.

I think it is very dangerous for the potential movement to try and separate what’s happening today from the more general exploitation that capitalism has wrought and continues to wreak on people everywhere (but particularly in the South). Look at the struggles of indigenous peoples. Look at the struggles of peasants. These are long-standing struggles by people against the imposition of a capitalist model that is not defeating them because it offers something better. So, while I think it is very important to foster and encourage the hacker/free software movement, I think that it is very important to see how this struggle is intimately connected to other struggles.

MY RESPONSE TO DEVLIN COMMENTS

IP is a differenet kettle of fish in that it represents commodification, and privatization, of limitless and non-tangible “goods,” ideas. This compares with commodification of tangible “goods” such as land, sheep, oil and monkey wrenches. More on this distinction in a moment.

You are right on many points about capitalism, its approach to alternatives, and especially the North/South dichotomy, which I skirted on purpose… I am talking about mature capitalism in say North Amercia, but yes there is brutal (armed) maintenance of exploitative relationships between North and South, but this is acheived (more or less consciously) with the support of a relatively comfortable western population. while there is poverty here, most people think the system is “fair” in that the majority of people think they have access to affluence, at least enough to keep them from rising up. This does not discount the extereme poverty, and repression, of certain populations here (first nations, for example, and to a large degree the black population in the US). But generally people are happy with the system (as they imagine it). But things ARE changing (mostly for the worse not better).

Also I realize that the economist’s view of capitalism (free markets and managed employment stats) have nothing to do with the real tools used, but the concepts are not empty. Capitalism, or rather commerce, is generally a decent way to exchange goods and services; the problem is abuse of the system (which is inherent in the system itself). Yes it tends to monopoly and control and brutality, in order to maintain its unsustainable aims: constant increasing profits.

And YES the free software movement should see itself in the context of other struggles. Certainly. And, we need to put these different movements together (alternative software, alternative agriculture, alternative commerce, alternative art … need alternative energy and we’ll be all set).

The difference between IP and traditional goods is the cost of production and the means of distribution. A monopoly capitalist can control all the pineapples by buying all the orchards. But he can’t control all the ideas of the hungry pineappleless people. Writers do not need publishers to decide what to publish, musicians do not need Sony to package and sell their discs.

What I see is a ballooning movement, which is in fact held together by the success of the free-software movement, and the potential it provides for open inforamtion exchange, open exchange of goods and services OUTSIDE the mainstream. For instance: Knowledge is controlled to a certain extent by universities. why? because you had to go there to hear professors speak on a topic. were they the best speakers? the smartest people? prob not… but what if you had access to the smartest speakers on a topic, over the web? access to all thieir books free over the web? access to textbooks etc. (see wikibooks.org to imagine how it might be possible). Ditto with radio waves. Enter internet radio (yes they are getting hammered by royalty fees, but what if 5%, 10%, 50% of musicians start publishing their music on their own, outside of Sony?).

Anyway there is much work to do, and unifying these movements (say labour(?) free software, agriculture, culture, energy) is the grand anarchist project of the future, and one that to me, for the first time, seems possible due to advances, and the incredible SUCCESS of free software.