Anarchy & property

In the previous discussion of originality, I outlined some preliminary thoughts on copyright. Basically, it gives me some peace of mind to know that my work is protected, although a more cold-hearted appraisal of various historical events suggests that this may not actually be for the best. By their nature, laws are designed to aid society, and copyright protection for the work of artists "protects" society only to the extent that artists would cease creating were the protection not afforded. While such a choice might be very real for the money-grubber in artist's clothing, the truth of the matter is that society rarely needs such protection when it comes to great art. Short of going out to kill its makers at their births, it cannot be undone by petty forces. Of course, the artist may be much worse off, even if only emotionally, and we'd all like to think that we can enjoy at least some of the fruits of our labor. Perhaps more to the point, I am personally averse to having my work appear in contexts of which I do not approve. Ironically, the Internet is increasingly one of those contexts. Maybe the feeling is too conditioned by Western philosophy or simply born of not wanting to be too arrogant, and so I do think it might be healthier to parallel the Hindu notion that injecting the name of God into any situation can only improve the situation, due to the inherent goodness of God. It makes some sense. Still, my emotional reaction is what it is, and becoming increasingly disenchanted with the money obsession does not make the actual financial recourses very attractive.

What upsets me most is being "singled out" in some sense. It has become culturally acceptable for many people to take my intellectual property as it suits them, which is one of the few "things" I have, yet I certainly cannot occupy an unused plot of land as it suits me. I have seen it argued that, whereas the amount of land on the planet is fixed, I can simply write more. Maybe so. On the other hand, that land has been sitting there for years, its owner did not create it, and the intellectual property is a personal creation hot off the presses. Maybe more to the point, real intellectual property protection is now the preserve of rich corporations, the same rich corporations which happily "frame" my web pages so that they can put their advertising on them without my permission. The truth is that if I were more brazen & persistent, I could occupy that land anyway, just as they do. We basically have anarchy built into our legal system, but it requires some leverage to actualize it. A fundamental stance of anarchist politics (which in some places in Europe would be synonymous with libertarian politics, a label which has come to mean nearly the opposite in the United States) is to question property rights. Alongside the ethical notion that one should not keep in reserve what one does not need, the idea of inherited property is especially central, as it binds the present onto the past in terms of both multiplied opportunity and social interaction. Social issues of inherited property are particularly significant here, since they reflect on copyright as well as artistic legacies & interpretive space.

As an intellectual position, anarchism is essentially two things: recognition that, whether displaced through various agencies or rhetoric or not displaced at all, ultimately might makes right in human social interactions; and, a statement that displacement is often inferior to direct interaction. Beyond that, it revolves on the notion that one should give others their own space up to the point where they start intruding on one's own. It is a critical notion for modern politics, what with health care issues and "victimless crimes" everywhere in the news. Anyway, the fully anarchist position on intellectual property is obviously "anything goes." The issue then is that, whereas it has almost become true for music or writing on the Internet, for many other types of property, anything certainly does not go. Combined with historical continuity in real property, and even the patent system, I believe that the lack of effective copyright for certain kinds of intellectual property is actually increasing the wealth gradient. (Aside for those readers who may not have followed the issue: The patents being granted for certain trivial web ideas are outrageous. Corporations are being granted the exclusive right to simple technical procedures so obvious that fully thousands of people thought of them independently before the patent was issued. What legal action they end up bringing against people using these techniques remains to be seen.) In terms of art on the web, the ethical & philosophical debates of anarchist politics are very much to the fore, and indeed the anarchist worldview has underlied a good portion of Internet development to this point, even if it is now giving way to the rigid wealth-accumulation orientation of American Libertarianism.

An artist needs to be able to use other people's ideas. Isolation is necessarily limited in scope, and cannot support artistic traditions. An anarchist lifestyle, and so arguably an artistic lifestyle, requires some mutual ethics, and that is the area where ideas such as "free exchange of information" break down. They break down in the sense that people with the best ideas otherwise may have to live a subsistence lifestyle, and in the sense that others may want to take credit for those ideas or contaminate them with their own crassness. I've touched on the latter notion already, and so if we can affect things, maybe the "contamination" flows in the opposite direction. When it comes to taking credit, on the surface the notion is merely one of vanity and best forgotten, but more deeply it interacts with the first notion to mean that people who should be supported based on their work do not receive that support. Taking credit is perhaps the central issue, and it involves a fine mental line for the individual. This is ultimately a political issue, but one where music is strangely in the vanguard, for better or worse. It is true not only because of music's nature as a "commodity" which (as opposed to TV or movies) requires readily obtainable bandwidth to transmit, but because of music's long history as a recreated art with a ready distinction between composer and performer. There have always been "ownership issues" in music. Ultimately, one of the biggest drivers of Internet theft is convenience, and so the challenge for artists is to make it convenient (in the broadest sense) for people to pay. The lessons of anarchism place the uphill battles in perspective and frame the questions in terms of getting what we want without jeopardizing what other people want. The final answers on the subject, however, are far from clear.

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Todd M. McComb