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Mark Warburton (Global) - Copyleft: A Direct Challenge to the Sanctity of Copyright? Part I

Mark Warburton, Editorial Assistant at IDG Connect, presents a three part series covering the clash of copyright and copyleft, that will publish every Wednesday. Part one looks at the background of copyright law.


The Philosophical and Economical Birth of Copyright

It is common knowledge that copyright law gives an author the ability to protect their work (whether intellectual or artistic) from other people reproducing, changing, or distributing it in any shape or form. Yet it is worth looking at briefly how this certainty - and in turn, its laws - were set in stone. Intellectual property rights gradually spread through Europe in tandem with the economic transition from mercantilism to the early capitalism of Holland and Britain in the 17th century.

Copyright, essentially, could only be realized within our current economic system, since its function is meaningless without a developed market economy supported by a particular conception of the individual.* It was later, during the 18th century, that the idea of intellectual property eventually became a significant force. During the Romantic era, with its emphasis on crediting the individual as sole possessor of artistic and creative products - and thus avoiding transcendent explanations for talent - intellectual propriety fell into the same common sense ‘given' as physical propriety already had, sharing much of its foundational value.*

Creative people and the products (both intellectual and artistic) they produce are often lauded for their ‘genius'. It is not a necessity, however, to see creativity (as an enclosed activity) like this at all. Eastern thought - and more recent social science - hint that (especially) intellectual products are expressions of accumulated wisdom; and that genius is reliant on the appropriation of determined knowledge and its reconfiguration, making it specific to its contextual conditions. These ideas, that emphasise the holistic sense in which intellectual property are created - as we shall see - share more in common with a particular contemporary ethos to intellectual propriety, copyleft.


Copyright Under Fire

The expansion of copyright laws, steadied by the foundations already mentioned, continues to thrive. It entered a substantive stage with the signing of the TRIPs Agreement, a multilateral set of intellectual property laws, in 1995. This increased regulation of intellectual property coincided with the arrival (and paradoxical nature) of the Internet: The Internet blurred the lines of intellectual property by the fluidity of its flow of information, availability of software etc. , yet created new channels for the commodification of information. It is because of this latter aspect that copyright has been criticized by contemporary Marxists. Much as Karl Marx was concerned about how the use-value (literally, how useful a product is) of something was relegated to its commodity value (what it is worth in terms of monetary exchange) in physical production; contemporary Marxists raised similar suspicions that intellectual propriety (and the information that it produced) was taking a similar route. The danger was, and is, that information as a resource, something of actual or potential use, took a back seat to information as a commodity. And it is here where the Marxists stumbled upon a telling insight,

"[this contradiction] that lies at the heart of the political economy of intellectual property is between the low to non-existent marginal cost of reproduction of knowledge and its treatment as scarce property"1

It could be argued then, from this insight, that copyright's hold on intellectual property restricts the viral nature of ideas while trapping them into a logic - perpetuated by the current economic system - that develops exclusive benefits (at a cost) for their ownership and control. It is because of the relentlessly viral nature of ideas that an emerging copyleft attempts to prioritize, as opposed to the tight leash of copyright law; and it is to copyleft we will turn to in the next post.

*The conception that that we are separate, individual human beings that know our selves and interests i.e., the particular (responsible) owner of particular things - affirming the idea of propriety. Simply put, the ‘common-sense' notion (and everything that comes with it) that Bob owns house A so Phil does not.



Next Wednesday: Copyleft and its assimilation by corporations
Wednesday 13 of September: The hacker ethos and the crisis of online property

Tell us what you think: either pop your comment below, or if you prefer, drop me an email at Mark is Editorial Assistant at IDG Connect International


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