By David Lowery
Can you imagine the outrage if leading voices in Corporate America started advocating that we abolish all individual private property rights? Citizens could no longer own any property. All property would be collectivized. Citizens could no longer profit by creating and owning things. Further what if these same corporate voices used the justification that private property rights were hindering their ability to innovate?
We’d all laugh. Or man the barricades. This would never happen, right?
Well it is happening. This is exactly what many in the tech blogosphere are arguing we should do in the cyber-economy. These faux revolutionaries are arguing that Intellectual Property and the Internet are incompatible so in the name of “freedom” Intellectual Property must go. In the cyber economy ALL property is intellectual property. This means these folks are advocating for no private property in cyberspace. What does that sound like? Depending on your political leanings this is either some sort of corporate feudalism or a radical form of socialism.
Humans have had a lot of experience with both systems. Feudalism and radical forms of socialism have been practiced in many countries all over the world. Neither of these systems fostered democracy, free speech or anything anyone would regard as freedom. But more importantly these two systems stifled innovation and crippled the economies of the countries that were subjected to these political systems. Generally in order to encourage innovation and wealth creation an economic system must reward and incentivize everyone involved in the process. For example you can’t just reward the distributors of a product and neglect to reward the manufacturer of the product. You would not build a system that incentivized and rewarded innovation in the distribution and servicing of cars but refused to allocate any revenue to the manufacturer of cars.* There would be nothing for the distributors to sell. The only way the system might work is if the distributors managed to steal cars from the innovative neighboring economy that incentivizes and rewards the car creators. BTW this is exactly how YouTube and File-sharing sites manage to survive.
Now I’ve read enough mystical pseudo revolutionary garbage about the web to know what the responses will be to what i’ve just said. They generally fall into three categories:
“The Internet is different”
“Old Economic laws do not apply to the cyber-economy”
“A magic beaver lives in a spaceship under the Googleplex”
The Internet is different than what? This is never satisfactorily explained. Seems like a funny point but no one has ever been able to convince me (or themselves ) once I press this point.
Old economic laws do not apply to the cyber-economy? Yes they do. There is nothing different or new about the cyber-economy. Goods with near zero marginal costs? We have those in regular-space. We’ve had them for hundreds of years. The list goes on and on. If it makes any difference Google’s Chief economist Hal Varian also thinks the old economic laws apply.
While it’s entirely possible that a magic beaver lives in a spaceship under the Goggleplex other pseudo religious and mystical properties assigned to the technology industry and in particular the web are just not true. I will bet anyone $1,000 dollars that 5 years from today The Technological Singularity has not occurred. The Technological Singularity is a Nerd reverse creation myth. Abolishing intellectual property is not gonna turn the web into a super intelligent being and usher in a new age of peace, prosperity and enlightenment.
There are many more quasi religious narratives about the web. Some milder and some stranger. I don’t mean to single out this one. They all need to be debunked and challenged. For all they do is empower demagogues and commence hunts for Apostates.
I realize that what I am saying about robust property rights and healthy economies is nothing new. It’s a rather elementary and banal critique of the Copyleft’s proposed cyber-economy. What is more interesting is why there are so few other voices out there challenging these wackjobs? Why is it left to the singer of a moderately successful cult rock band to challenge this nonsense? That’s the real story here. Where are the grown-ups?
It think it has something to do with those quasi religious narratives about the web. It encourages fanatics, nut jobs and unreasoned discussion. I mentioned last week that there is a mathematical argument to be made that the internet is making us stupider. Well there is also a very good argument to be made that the web is actually stifling free speech. It is certainly not always the place for reasoned discussion. It’s a land balkanized by ossified opinions and guarded by trolls.
The web is a place where people go to hear their own deeply held opinions parroted by others. There are few places that you may have a fair and balanced discussion. And If you say the wrong thing in the wrong neighborhood you find yourself in trouble. That’s why their are few “grown-ups” on the web. Most are not willing to endure the stream of hate mail, nasty Facebook comments, angry tweets and out-and-out threats that the tech blogosphere DELIGHTS in unleashing on anyone with which they disagree. That is why this rather radical idea of abolishing all intellectual property has taken hold. The grown-ups don’t wanna be called names by generation gimme.
So why do so many in the tech blogosphere advocate the complete abolition of intellectual property rights?
The short answer is most don’t. Most of those in the tech blogosphere advocating abolition are knowing pawns in a cynical short term strategy to protect the profits of web and technology companies. There are many web and tech companies that have built their businesses on the intellectual property of others. They are afraid they may have to share some of their new found tech wealth with the“dinosaurs” that created the content that drives their traffic. It’s a handy distraction.
I believe most of these bloggers (and many of their readers) know that abolishing all intellectual property would cripple Silicon Valley and the tech industry. For example abolishing all intellectual property would allow Foxconn and others to just make their own identical versions of the iPhone and iPad.
When someone like myself points out the effect this would have on Silicon Valley these same bloggers begin to tie themselves in Gordian knots trying to protect some Intellectual Property rights while abolishing others. These people are fakes. They don’t really believe what they themselves write so I’m not gonna bother with them.
I’m more interested in the true believers. People like John Perry Barlow and Lawrence Lessig. These are not some isolated unknown radicals. These are are two of the most highly regarded voices on the web about the web. Often called visionaries or philosophers by their followers, Lessig is a former Harvard University Law professor and John Perry Barlow is the Co-Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and former Grateful Dead lyricist).
Barlow is very straightforward. Given the chance he will pound the table and shout “Intellectual Property is Not Property!”. At least he is honest about it. He doesn’t pretend that he is trying to “save” copyright from the “copyright maximalists” (apostates). Nevertheless he is a hypocrite in other ways. Barlow made his fortune from his intellectual property, his co-writes with the the Grateful Dead. If Barlow really believes that Intellectual Property is so terrible he should give away his earnings and relinquish all rights to these songs. This looks like another case of “Do as I say not as I do”.
Lessig is more complex. I could spend a week blogging about Lessig. He is a member of “The Internet is Different” faction and leader of one of the quasi religious factions (See his “Code is Law”). He’s also the philosophical leader of the Web 2.0 industry. For those of you who don’t know what is meant by Web 2.0 and what I find so sinister about it here’s Lessig’s appearance on The Colbert Report:
Watch from 0:44 to 1:25.
Colbert: Well let’s see (laughing)…so the hybrid economy is where everybody else does the work and Flickr makes all the money?
Lessig: (Mock voice and hand gestures) Don’t tell anybody! Don’t tell anybody!
The great thing about this exchange is that it appears that Lessig is genuinely surprised by Colbert’s one sentence smackdown of Web 2.0 companies. He didn’t have a ready answer to such an obvious observation. Like it has never occurred to him that the Web 2.0 is an “Architecture of Exploitation” as Danish internet theorist Søren Mørk Petersen describes it. Apparently Lessig lives in one of those internet genius bubbles with only occasional visits from Web 2.0 sycophants. No real criticism has ever reached this man. He’s never had to think through the IMMEDIATE moral and ethical consequences of his crackpot theories.
Lessig’s writings in sum total are contradictory and incoherent. He loves to be on both sides of an issue. At one panel he angrily demanded that a critic name one time he “lauded the appropriation of intellectual property.” This was after he wrote an essay entitled “In defense of Piracy.” Like a true lawyer Lessig has a depends-what-the-definition-of-is-is defense at the ready. Turns out his definition of piracy is different.
Some people point to Lessig’s political flexibility as a sign that he’s operating on a higher level than the rest of us. He was a clerk to Anton “corporations are people” Scalia and he works with Occupy Wall Street. He proposes a second constitutional convention (oh I’m sure that would never get hijacked by pro-corporate interests and oligarchs). When you dig into his pseudo philosophical tomes like “Code is Law” or “The Hybrid Economy” you realize they don’t say anything. They are empty slogans with a book surrounding them. His seemingly complexity is really just political opportunism.
What is absolutely clear is that Lessig wants to specifically screw entertainers and artists. He proposes limiting copyrights to as little as 5 years. Given that a copyright for a song begins when the lyrics are written down or hummed into your iPhone voice memo app, many copyrights would expire before the artist could commercially exploit the song. But that’s not even the worst of it. He would weaken copyright in ways that in practice would not be copyright at all and it would tilt the playing field towards giant internet corporate interests. Artists would not be able to commercially exploit their works anyway in Lessig’s world. So even those 5 years are meaningless. So Lessig is an abolish IP radical he just doesn’t have the balls to come out and say it. At least the cattle rancher Barlow is a man about it.
But the reason Lessig get’s my vote for most likely to be the manchurian candidate 2012? He is virtually silent when it comes to a web or tech company abusing the rights of an artist. He is supposedly all for the little guy and endlessly rails about corporate corruption yet strangely silent when it’s an Ellen Siedler vs Google. You’d think someone concerned with copyright AND the internet would have something to say on subjects like this.
I’ve tried with this guy. I’ve tried to read his stuff. I’ve tried to find some decent semi coherent vision here. I’ve tried to see him as a visionary that stands for something. This is the best I can muster:
“The internet is cool, Web/Tech corporations are people, Songwriters are serfs and Power to the people.”
I’m not the only one confused by what exactly this web visionary is envisioning. I urge you to check out his wikipedia entry. It seems that even his Web 2.0 biographers are confused by what he is for and against.
And now the rumor is this guy has political aspirations. God help us all.
While Lessig et al espouse a pseudo-socialistic view towards intellectual property in Cyberspace a lot of the push to collectivize intellectual property is driven by those on the right that claim a fake Libertarian ideology. An ideology I like to distinguish from real Libertarianism by calling it Li-BRAT-arianism.
Li-Brat-arians are those who think that there are absolutely no limits to personal freedom. If you can do it, it is acceptable. To prevent someone from doing something even if it violates other’s rights is a dangerous throttling of “freedom”. They miss the more nuanced perspective of long time Libertarian thinkers who look at everyone’s individual freedoms and measure the kind and net loss of freedoms.
Take for instance industrial-scale-for-profit unlicensed file-sharing by the likes of MegaUpload or Mp3Tunes. Li-Brat-arians argue while it’s not cool to violate the rights of others to control and exploit their songs. While it’s not cool to expropriate and exploit songs without performers and writers permission, any attempts to stop a for-profit corporation from doing this is a dangerous infringement of the right to free speech. This ignores the violations of others private property rights and it is simply a bratty argument. Something I’d expect to hear from my pre-teens not fully grown college educated adults writing for a national Magazine.
Li-BRAT-arians need to go back and read Bastiat, (the father of all Liberalism, Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism.) Bastiat argued clearly and convincingly that the protection of private property rights are a necessary condition of liberty. Even his rival the Left Anarchist Proudhon eventually modified his “Property is Theft” to “Property is Freedom” because he believed that workers had a right to the product of their labor as expressed in private property. Further he believed this was the very expression of freedom. He also made it clear that his “Property is theft” slogan was a little bit of bomb throwing.
In my first memorandum, in a frontal assault upon the established order, I said things like, Property is theft! The intention was to lodge a protest, to highlight, so to speak, the inanity of our institutions. At the time, that was my sole concern.
So Li-Brat-arians are more radical than either Proudhon and Bastiat. Li-Brat-arians are actually arguing the Communist point of view!
(Proudhon and Bastiat are both quite enlightening on the subject of how freedom, liberty and private property interact. Especially Proudhon’s distinction between his views and socialism. Contrary to the uniformed opinion of Proudhon he is very much in favor of private property. I don’t do them justice here. But I urge you to read both of them.)
In an attempt to avoid the whole property issue there is a related and overlapping group of fake legal scholars that make the mentally and morally challenged argument that because copying files leaves the original intact and hence nothing has “gone missing” that in fact no “theft” has occurred. This is a semantic distinction, a narrow technical argument. An argument that you expect to come from someone paid to be morally and ethically flexible like a criminal defense attorney. But not, as it was recently argued, by Rutgers law professor Seth Green in a guest Op Ed for the NY Times.
Okay I’ll take the bait. Let’s pretend this is a semantic argument that needs urgent resolution before we can all start behaving like decent human beings. Let’s pretend this argument is truly a four alarm semantic emergency that it requires New York Times Op Eds and stands in the way of us protecting our fellow citizens rights. Then indeed let’s come up with a new word!
Indeed, let’s re-classify this violation of personal property rights, constitutional rights and human rights (artist copyrights are spelled out in all major international human rights agreements), let’s re-classify these violations as artist rape or if you find this too honest I would also accept artist trafficking.
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