With the recently passed copyright act amendment it is topical to look at the concept of intellectual property using the tools of Marxism. We can better understand the concept by looking at it in its proper historical context and its relation to the prevailing economic system.
The invention of intellectual property rights took place in the Italian mercantile states and spread from there to the Netherlands and Britain. The development of the printing press was highly significant, the combination of new technology and changing economic relations brought about the possibility for ‘intellectual property’ a concept that would have been hard to imagine in earlier times. As capitalism developed, the concept was given more credence.
Property is a relationship
Property is not some inherent quality of objects or information, but a social relationship between people. If I am to assert that the computer I am typing this article on is mine, and everyone agrees with me, then it is so. Property is a concept that comes from that agreement. With intellectual property the social nature is even more obvious. If you were to take my computer you would be depriving me of something, but if I were to give you a digital copy of this text, I lose nothing and you gain an article. If I were to assert that I own this article because I created it, and you must pay for a copy of it, you might question how I could demand this when making a copy causes no significant loss of resources on my part.
Technology and the limits of capitalism
Just as the technology of industrialisation led to the change in social relations that saw the feudal era ending and the begining of capitalism, today, in what thinkers such as Fredrick Jameson have termed ‘late capitalism’ technology seems to be advancing at a pace that is faster than existing social relations can keep up with. While text, graphics, software, audio and video can now be reproduced at a cost so small as to be insignificant, the social relations of capitalism insist that engaging in this reproduction is immoral, and legislation (such as the draconian law New Zealand now has) is passed to enforce that relationship between the ‘owners’ of information and the ‘consumers’.
Glimpses of post-capitalist society
With the development of the personal computer and the internet, along with the ability of the average person (at least in the ‘developed’ world) to have access to these things, a form of production has came about that challenges some of the ideas that are part of the ideology of capitalism. While a liberal defender of intellectual property could argue that content creators should be paid for their work and this would not happen if not for the current system of paying for information, we have seen phenomenon such as the Free Software Movement, a global network of people mostly working for free who have created technology that rivals that produced by for-profit corporations. In the artistic sphere we have seen the Creative Commons, a movement to licence work as “some rights reserved” as opposed to “all rights reserved” and of course the plethora of user generated content on the Internet that no creator expects payment for.
When laws are passed to force people to maintain a social relationship that technology has rendered obsolete, we are given more evidence that capitalism has passed its use by date.