Pwning Intellectual Property? Hints of New Political Horizons

A funny thing happened on the way to the market. Evidence points to millions of computer users (internalizers or “consumers” of electronic information) who have realized there are alternative markets for the particular information they seek.

Whether it’s a movie, a song or the process for deriving a cancer or AIDS-fighting drug, there are hopeful hints that for the first time in centuries there may arise a strong challenge to the notion of privatized intellectual property. An Economics 101 student might see in this new, consumer-generated market trend a sort “creative destruction” and assume that soon traditional media and perhaps the patent dictatorships that serve as a lifeline to obsolete companies will wither away as the inefficient distributors of information they indeed have shown themselves to be.

For example, we don’t have milkmen anymore, and this job we could say was lost to new distribution and consumption patterns enabled by the refrigerator through the process of creative destruction. Technology made it more efficient to deliver thousands of gallons of milk in a day to refrigerated supermarkets (and then refrigerated kitchens) instead of dozens of gallons.

This efficiency you might argue, did cost thousands of milkmen their jobs, but it made the process of buying milk easier for the consumer and perhaps in some instances cheaper. The efficiencies of new technologies also created many benefits for certain bigger milk companies who saved millions in transportation costs, loss-of-product costs and worker costs. Trapping these types of benefits into huge profits for a small number of individuals is how huge fortunes are made. (You might wonder why some people keep all the benefits when so many worked to develop and generate them, but then you might be labeled envious, or even socialist).

These types of benefits, on a scale closer to the oil racket (which also surveys for the shallowest discoveries), easily explain why the entertainment industry is so rabidly opposed to information “piracy.” These types of profits also explain why Big Pharma and their legal thugs defend patent laws with such corporate-funded furor. The problem here, the cause for alarmed intellectual dictatorships, isn’t milkmen losing their “must have” jobs. The cause of this legal and legislative aggression from these industries is the already-wealthy losing out on “really want” millions.

If we examine the worldwide fight against to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA,  Anonymous’ long-waged guerrilla campaign against intellectual property, as well as the worldwide struggle to liberate simple available chemical formulas for life-saving drugs, we find at the heart of these struggles a very interesting similarity: the demand that privatized information be released for public consumption. The three movements represent different points on a spectrum but they already represent a consumer based drive for information efficiency. The power players of these industries (from Big Pharma to Big Law to Hollywood and  ironically enough tax-enabled web-based firms) for all their profiteering bravado, are existentially mortified by this reality smackdown from the “invisible hand” of the market.

The big dogs of these industries now have a mastered chokehold on distributing the information people want or need. These companies know perfectly well this dictatorial (and legally enforced) grip is where their profits come from and they’re not likely to give up their sources of overabundant wealth. (You could imagine a system where people aren’t coerced into purchasing information by a consolidated and profiteered market but that might make you a believer in economic or information democracy, and again possibly a socialist.)

Like many long-time inheritors of economic advantage, the entertainment industry, much like Big Pharma, constantly portrays the delusional narrative of cutting edge innovation (as displayed in era-defining originals Die Hard 4 and Jason 10) constantly being undermined by near-terrorist “pirates” who ruin “what could be” by stealing billions of potential profit they pinky-swear they’ll invest into bringing you a better product. (You could point out that they could have done that in the first place and paid themselves a few less million while bringing the consumer a better product, but then you might be labeled logical.)

The fact that a narrative so “patently false” maintains onward is a testament to how much money and effort has been used to project and defend it. This narrative is a direct statement of the types of market control sought by Big Media and Big Pharma (to name a few) along with their well paid friends in the legal departments.

Over the last hundred years the music and movie industries have done exceedingly well (speaking strictly on a metric of personal financial advantage, not on quality). Having created many volumes of expensive, not-yet-electronic data (in the form of mostly materialistic, ego-centric media like pop movies and culture) in formats they could control (an expensive projection set-up or vynil pressing machine as opposed to the relatively cheap alternative of a folk song strummed in the city square or the process of uploading a home-made tune from GarageBand to share freely) the entertainment industry made trillions in profit over the course of a century.

Prohibitive production costs, limited consumption venues and ultimately very protective legislation have kept them in the profits from the post World War I era until our very day. As Americans slowly accrued more expendable income, the entertainment industry was quick to offer their products, for a fee, through very well controlled methods of distribution (from theaters to eventually VHS and DVD’s, both of which made the industry even richer).

For three or four generations this status quo was presumed to be unquestionable. Not anymore. As the data people want has become more fluid, in this case transportable electronically through the web, consumers and activists alike are seeing the possibility of information democracy.  Across North America and Europe activists online and in the streets have come out fighting against increasingly restrictive and punishing “piracy” laws. A very similar trend can be seen in developing countries who are kicking off the bridle of billionaire-protecting patents that make simple medicine mortally  expensive for millions of human beings.

Forced by present economic, distribution and consumption conditions, but enabled by present technology, consumers are increasingly toying with the idea of grabbing the information they either want or need. Whether it’s a movie or the formula for much needed medication, there is a growing feeling that much currently available information should be used to alleviate suffering or improve life, regardless of the obsolete considerations of profit.

In many ways, Anonymous’ lulzboat armada all-cannons world struggle against any and all intellectual property dictatorships defines the heart of the position that unites the “song-pirate” and the pharmaceutical-formula-pirate. At this heart is a premise that there should be a total democracy of information–all information. Human innovations are inherently based off the work of billions of previous humans. From fire to replaceable parts, from written language to complex physics, the heritage of human knowledge is something that we all feel compelled to contribute to for one simple reason: we have all benefited from it. This complex tapestry of innovative and productive contributions from billions of humans before us has long served all memers of humanity (though some more than others). All human innovation (even the use of such innovations like the very reading of the word “innovations” with a specific shared meaning) are at least in some way based off ideas developed, curated, crowd-sourced, circulated and maintained through shared heritage by billions and billions of other human beings.

Illegally downloading information that unpacks into a song may be motivated towards different ends then illegally using information to develop and distribute medication in a developing country but both actions are driven by the same moral and logical engine: the current information dictatorships are inefficient and illegitimate. Alternatives will be found or created. Not from above, but from below.

What we dismiss as piracy and patent-theft today we may soon be describing as information democracy. The future is the only thing murkier than the past but perhaps with the right effort, there may be one hopeful morning when information freed from profit-driven dictatorships is viewed and legally treated as a human right, and not a crime. As for those who say innovation is solely driven by avarice and an addiction to profit, we can only offer our condolences for their cynical and moribund worldview.

Image: Christopher Teh

6 Replies to “Pwning Intellectual Property? Hints of New Political Horizons”

  1. Free is not free beer; it’s freedom (as in speech), or the unencumbered fluidity of data. You do not understand the hacker code. As a novelist, how can I possibly feed my family if you wish to give away all my books for “free.” When we all have replicators, and no need for money, in some distant Star Trekian age, then certainly you can jetison the notion of copyright and property rights. Until then, forgive me if I would rather not see my daughter starve.

  2. I do not necessarily agree with illegal downloading of materials. However lets look at why some of it is done. Sony and its fellow corps have cheated people for years. Its like a pizza, it costs 2.50 to make a pizza and box it, and the thing can go for up to 20.00 out the door. Now the people wil pay the 20.00, but if the pizza maker put on the window this pizza cost me 2.50 his business would soon fail.

    The same with music CD’s. If Sony advertised what it cost them, they would eventually go out of business. You can only cheat the people so long. Put the price of cd’s too high, then some people are going to download them. make the price equitable and your sales will go up. The same goes for movies. If they were reasonably priced compared to cost they wouldnt have a pirate problem.

    But lets also face that these corps are feeling the economy. I havent bought a cd in 2 years. They miss me and over 1000 cd’s I purchased before. So they need to strike back with legislation that makes us all pay, proving they own us

  3. I agree at least somewhat with J. G. above. We need to be careful what we wish for or we just might get it. We had the Wal-Martization of Main Street America in past decades. We are now rapidly heading toward an era dominated by Amazon/Kindle/Google. Yes, there are many good things about this transition, but there is also a lurking dark underbelly.

  4. Hey JG,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    First off major kudos on the awesome paraphrasing of Richard Stahlman, who I much admire “Free is not free beer; it’s freedom (as in speech)”. He was great in Revolution OS but I also admire his lifetime of activism.

    My premise in the above piece isn’t that we should do away with all intellectual property rights, but that this IP question is coming and that some of the moral questions about what should and should not be protected by law are already being debated.

    No matter what I think of the successes or faceplants of our present systems, I’d be silly not to realize that we do live in them. Within that, given the difference between what people want/need and what info cartels are actually offering, IP systems will be challenged, and perhaps rightfully so in some instances, because of the availability of the tools and knowledge to challenge them. How long book companies own rights to manuscripts (as opposed to authors), imo, will also be one of the looming IP questions. The decyphering of where those new lines should be is coming, whether de jure or de facto, in my opinion.

    I think the open source model, which maybe through OWS has begun experimenting with similar models in the political world as well, is one of the few forces outside of the exclusively corporate realm to really start parsing out very smart and democratic new boundaries.

    Am I any sort of expert? No. But we need to start thinking about these things because we’re clearly generations behind the corporations.

    As for your daughter starving, it truly says something horrible about our modern way of life that you have to depend on a patent system to keep food on your daughter’s plate.

    For that, I hope you’ll forgive the rest of us.

    In Solidarity,

  5. I can see both sides. There certainly needs to be a discussion of this topic when corporations can sue in international court based upon IPR and keep poor people in Africa from getting aids medicine because those companies would loose profits if they did (actually happened). At the same time, there ARE people who need protection – from the rich corporations, for instance, who would rip off the inventions of poorer people and tie them up in court if they resisted. I’ve known of a few cases like that – and some of the dirtiest dealing I’ve ever heard of was huge rich corporations stealing the ideas of intelligent poor people and not compensating them ONE PENNY for the idea they invented. One blatant case I’m slightly familiar with: the shop and all of the computer code and drawings were torched, and shortly afterward a major corporation came out with a carbon copy of the unit. The inventor sued, and they bankrupted him in court by demanding that he PROVE every little bit was his own creation and drawing the case out until his limited money vanished. Since the drawings and code were in the shop, he couldn’t easily prove his case, although he DID have witnesses to the fact he’d created it. (He’d just started the patent process when they did that to him.) It was another case that a poor person was screwed, and then hurt again by the American so-called Justice system.

    I had 7 inventions for archaeology I’d been working on when someone torched my workshop… but that’s a different story, and if I ever get a chance to work on them, this discussion will become more vital (at least two or three of them are patentable and the others probably of value, at least to archaeologists).

    Where I run into it right now is when I am trying to find peer-reviewed journal articles connected to the research I’ve been doing (as a volunteer), and run into a demand for payment. I do have a legitimate way around it, but it’s a bit more time consuming and irritating (requiring a one hour drive to and from school). Sometimes I need to scan the article to see if it’s got what I’m looking for and that’s sometimes blocked.

    I understand this from the company’s point of view as well… it costs money to publish peer-reviewed scientific journals, and the editors and staff need to be paid. It’s when they get greedy that it becomes a problem (and at the same time, libraries often try to get only the specific journals someone asks for, not realizing that there are many others that also should be included – they can get cheap).

    Certainly there needs to be discussion of this topic… and I think that if corporations weren’t so damned greedy, it wouldn’t be necessary.

    One other point struck me… just about anyone can publish anything (and they do) on the internet. Much if not most of it is pure junk. Having a peer-review system is absolutely necessary for scientific articles because it weeds out the fake science and bad methodology at the outset. (Imagine it if creationists could publish their crap in a real journal… that’s why peer review is so critical.) Yeah, it also has its problems (we study examples in the more intro classes), but for the most part it works and if a journal is peer-reviewed, you can be pretty sure that it’s reasonably reliable. This isn’t cheap and it is time consuming (and people DO deserve an income while working on it). So while we do discuss the problems being exposed by Anonymous (which I for the most part support), there are times when there has to be some control of information.

    One final point – cultural intellectual rights. This is a huge ethical issue in anthropology as there HAVE been tribes whose knowledge was taken and corporations raked in billions while they literally starved. Plus, we have knowledge that is private… because of the theft of our lands, much of our culture, and even in a sense a major part of our identity, the elders have decided that much of the knowledge we retained will remain private and not for “white” consumption and exploitation. I would be outraged if someone, for instance, recorded the private prayers and stories from our religion and published them. Or worse, somehow got the private information and understanding of our spiritual leaders and allowed people access to that.

    So, some sort of new balance must be found… something that protects people from the greedy, but also protects the income of people who do things like peer-reviewed publishing, protects people who come up with ideas from having them taken without proper compensation, and protects people like Native groups who have knowledge that could be valuable.

  6. I have been protesting the outrageous prices of movies and music by not purchasing anything from either industry for years now. I wait for the movies to come out on free TV and listen to the radio if I want music. If we all did this for even 1 fiscal quarter, these industries might get the point and stop raping us at the register.

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