[Paleopsych] CHE: Intellectual Property and the New Class Divisions
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Mon Jan 24 21:38:18 UTC 2005
Intellectual Property and the New Class Divisions
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.28
By PETER MONAGHAN
The concept of intellectual property has created a class division
between "hackers" -- producers of information, be they academics,
creative artists, or others -- and a suffocating "new ruling class"
that has seized ownership of this property via patents, copyrights,
and trademarks. So argues McKenzie Wark, a professor of media and
cultural studies at New School University, in A Hacker Manifesto
(Harvard University Press).
Q. What's new about what this so-called ruling class is doing?
A. Until the late 60s, one thought of copyright or patent as a kind of
limited device, in the context of thinking of knowledge as something
that should be shared. Intellectual property turns it into the
equivalent of a private-property right. That's equivalent to the
enclosure of the commons, in my view.
Q. But why should information differ from any other good?
A. Information has really peculiar qualities. My possession of some
piece of it does not deprive you of it. So the usual laws of scarcity
don't apply. With the rise of digital technology, for the first time
we have something that can, at least in part, really escape from
Economic logic usually starts by saying desires are infinite but means
are scarce, therefore we need resource allocation. Here we have a
nonrivalrous good. We have something that challenges the whole notion
of scarcity. That presents a utopian possibility that one should
explore to the limit. But what one finds is that we are increasingly
shoving information back into the logic of the old economy of scarce
things by legal and technical means.
Q. And the new intellectual-property regime prevents "hackers" from
building on or toying with products that in essence are cultural
A. Exactly. We have the beginnings of whole new kinds of what I would
call abstract-gift economy.
That would include the free-software movement, for example, and the
rise of listservs, and the file-sharing ... movement, which is really
a social movement in all but name that is creating pressure for change
... embodied in a movement around sharing information as a gift.
Q. How can we construe intellectual property more expansively?
A. If you're a programmer, or a musician, or a philosopher, or a
biologist, or a chemist -- those tend to be fairly separate cultural
worlds. But all that we make is now rendered equivalent in the
marketplace by the privatizing of information, by intellectual
So the first thing is to see a common interest that isn't really
addressed by completely privatizing information. It's not in the
interest of the United States or any country to make information
available only to those who can pay for it. That's not how you advance
science. That's not how you advance democracy.
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