Last week I was asked by Cinema Politica Newcastle to give a post-screening talk on copyfight after a showing of RIP: A Remix Manifesto. With the extreme weather, attendance suffered and thus a retreat to the pub for an informal conversation amongst a small dedicated group of cinephiles seemed more appropriate than delivering a formal presentation. But I thought it might be worth posting my remarks here.
What RIP: A Remix Manifesto does extremely well is show what becomes possible when changes in technology and accessibility are harnessed by human creativity to catalyse a shift from what Lawrence Lessig has called a ‘read only’ culture--where one is limited in the ways in which they can engage with artefacts--to a ‘read/write’ culture where the ways that we interact with our cultural worlds are bound primarily by the limits of our imagination.
And what the film also does extremely well is to point to the contemporary imbalance between property rights--for some property owners--on the one hand and creative expression, innovation, and common-sense on the other. If we operate on the basis that read/write cultures are something to be fostered because they stimulate innovation, development, and cultural vibrancy, Lawrence Lessig reminds us that this means embracing amateur creativity including placing limits of the reach of copyright regulation. The point is that creativity and innovation, forces that bring together elements of existing work in novel ways, requires leaving amateur creativity free from draconian forms of regulation that can stifle cultural expression and its social transmission. As the philosopher Henri Bergson argued, freedom itself is the ability to create the unforeseen, an ability that seems to me to be harnessed through our creative capacities.
Thus, at a time when one would think that creativity would be encouraged--after all, isn’t innovation the key to the knowledge economy?--it is actually being hemmed in by material constraints. These constraints are imposed by a legal regulatory system that has been designed to force a return to a read only culture of times past that probably only really ever existed in the imaginations of media company executives and Lars Ulrich from Metallica. So despite the human capacity for ingenuity, the presence of myriad technologies that are able to harness this capacity in exciting new ways, and the potential for these to combine to create cultural products and artefacts with positive social potential, we instead have a system that produces:
- legions of copyright trolls who extort money from the unsuspecting public by threatening lawsuits based on allegations of minor infringements;
- terms and conditions for items that one purchases that exceed the length of some of Shakespeare’s greatest works;
- channels of distribution for cultural products that attempt to create artificial scarcity;
- byzantine and draconian limits on the freedom of cultural expression;
- copyright asset stripping and predatory speculation;
- the imposition of forms of intrusive surveillance and monitoring of the general public paid for with public money;
- the premise of guilty until proven innocent;
- and proprietary systems and digital rights management that limit choice and innovation by attempting to circumvent the research and development powers of the crowd that arise through modifications, home brewing, and hacking.
So the question for me then is how can we position the contemporary pathology historically? One place to start is by turning to the work of noted economic historian Karl Polanyi and his classic text The Great Transformation. Although first published in 1944, it provides excellent insight into the contemporary imbalance between markets and property rights on the one hand and society and the public interest on the other.
Polanyi argued that for most of human history, markets--those places where distribution and exchange took place literally and figuratively--were embedded into societies. In part, this meant that they were a means to dispose of surplus and regulated in ways--sometimes formally, sometimes through cultural custom--such that their most potentially deleterious effects could be mitigated. But beginning with the rise of capitalism in Europe, he argued markets began to be understood as self-regulating entities. The policy prescription therefore was to treat markets as a separate entity apart from both society and from politics (i.e., markets had their own technical logics and natural tendencies that one must adhere to or suffer the consequences). This change in governing logic meant that satisfying markets, not society, became a primary focus for government. Yet, so-called ‘free markets’ require inordinate amounts of legislation, rules, and laws in order to ‘self-regulate’.
So the dis-embedding of markets necessary for capitalism wasn’t a project that could arise spontaneously. It required a strong state to intervene in order to impose market logics onto societies that regulated themselves through a different form of moral economy. Moreover, the state was needed in order to enforce new property regimes. Paradoxically, the initial success of this project turned into its biggest failure. As Polanyi documents, the effects of the transformationto market dominated socieities were so socially corrosive that the state and other institutions had to intervene almost immediately to mitigate the devastation that ensued. He referred to this oscillation as the double movement.
Unfortunately, over the past four decades, most societies have completely forgotten the lessons outlined in the Great Transformation about the importance of protecting social and cultural institutions in the wake of markets. While one might want to argue that markets have produced historically high levels of wealth overall, the intellectual property rights underpinning copyright and the forms of lawfare associated with them have become a way of embedding the material privileges of the wealthy (e.g., large media conglomerates, big pharma, big tech, big food), sustaining business models that would otherwise be unviable, and encouraging unproductive forms of rentierism as opposed to innovation and development. And as we are experiencing first hand, this comes with significant social and cultural costs that are borne by the general public, much like those Polanyi documented in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
On a final note, the next time you hear a media company stooge, vacuous politician, or Lars from Metallica harping on about the negative consequences of file-sharing, limited copyright provisions, remixing, sharing , hacking, home-brewing, or making, look at how their arguments are structured. The appeal is always through notions of private property, revenue losses, the need for economic incentivization, and spurious analogies--for example, that file sharing is like stealing from a shop--that reinforce the idea that culture should be subordinate to market logics. It then follows that if culture refuses to be subordinate, the state must implement, by any means necessary, measures to ensure that specific market principles (i.e., property rights) dominate. They never present arguments that show the cultural or social benefits of constraining amateur creativity or forms of innovation that arise by limiting the collective ingenuity that can develop through crowd sourcing. This is because they don’t have any. Moreover, the idea that someone might design, code, tinker, write, or rock out because they see creative expression as a fundamental part of the human condition to be experienced, enjoyed, and SHARED regardless of the potential market benefits that might accrue by artificially creating scarcity is completely alien to them. Thus, the problem is more broadly based than the particulars of copyfight itself. It requires finding the means and measures of catalysing the social protections against the marketization of everyday life that are so desperately needed.