Enclosure of Information as Public Good under a Regime of Artificial Scarcity

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Mick Brooks:

"Our main point in this article is to look at ideas as a commodity, which is what capitalism strives to turn them into so as to make money. Marx was aware that selling ideas created a problem under capitalism. In Theories of Surplus Value, Volume I, on paged 353 he says, “The product of mental labour i.e. science - is far below its value, because the labour time to reproduce it bears no relation to that required for its original production. A schoolboy can learn the binomial theorem in an hour.”

And in Capital, Volume I, on page 508, “once discovered, the law of deflection of a magnetic needle in a field of electric current, or the law of magnetisation of iron by electricity, cost absolutely nothing.” And, in a footnote on the same page, “Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means prevents him from exploiting it.”

And again, “…a distinction should be made between universal labour and co-operative labour. Both kinds play their role in the process of production, both flow one into the other, but both are also differentiated. Universal labour is all scientific labour, all discovery and all invention… The far greater cost of operating an establishment based on a new invention as compared to later establishments arising ex suis ossibus.” (from their very bones)

“This is so very true that the trail-blazers generally go bankrupt, and only those who later buy the buildings, machinery etc., at a cheaper price make money out of it. It is therefore, generally the most worthless and miserable sort of money capitalists who draw the greatest profit out of all the new developments of the universal labour of the human spirit and their social application through combined labour.” (Capital, Volume III, p. 199)

So information and ideas have some, but not all, the characteristics of a public good. It is possible to sell information, though there are problems. Ideas can be excluded from other people's use. But their consumption does not prevent anyone else using them - they are not rival in consumption. In that sense the world of ideas is the opposite of the “tragedy of the commons”. It ought to be freely available, but capitalists can enclose it - and that's exactly what they are trying to do.

Aristotle despised the Sophists because they sold philosophy for money. He said it was wise that they insisted in cash up front because “no one will pay for what they already know.” The problem in selling information is that revealing it to a potential buyer renders it worthless. But there are ways of packaging information as a commodity. And very profitable it can be! Business and legal databases in particular command huge prices.

It would actually be in the interests of the development of the productive forces that all information and innovation were freely diffused throughout the economy. Under capitalism, innovation would not take place at all under those conditions. Only by retarding the spread of ideas and charging rents can capitalism develop the powers of production. In other words this is an example of capitalism as a fetter on the development of the productive forces.

We naturally regard ideas, whether they be the writings of Shakespeare, knowledge as to how to mend a flat tyre on a bike or the binomial theorem, as common property. They are part of our common heritage, the basis of what we have achieved so far and the launch pad for further progress for humanity.

Now, however, private property has been artificially created in certain classes of ideas. This is called intellectual property. The aim of these laws was to give an incentive under capitalism for individuals to generate new ideas and to stop others free riding on them. In return the creators were awarded monopoly ownership of the product of their thought for a limited period, and the right to charge others for using it. Whether this has actually accelerated the creation of ideas is a moot point. Marx realised that John Milton would have written poetry whether he found a buyer for the manuscript or not, for, “Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as an activity of his own nature.” (Capital, Vol. I, p. 1044)

In any case, creation is seldom only the result of individual genius. We all incorporate the advances of others as building blocks in our own thought without even considering it. That is how humanity advances. And they want to stop it! Lawrence Lessig makes this point strongly. (Free culture: the nature and future of creativity, Penguin, USA, 2005).

The Marx brothers were a funny act; but they came from a long tradition of performers who swapped and stole from each others' gags and routines - and improved them. (No intellectual property rights in jokes, then!)

Walt Disney took tales like 'Snow White' collected by the brothers Grimm and turned them into feature length cartoons. On page 87, while emphasising the communal nature of creativity and culture, Lessig asserts that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Actually the outlines of the plot are in Ovid's Metamorphoses, written in Latin around the time of Christ. Does this make Shakespeare a plagiarist? If alive today, would he live in fear of the intellectual property police?

An example of this intellectual property is copyright. Charles Dickens' works were very popular in the USA in the nineteenth century, but he didn't receive a penny from the pirated editions published there. But the principle was that Dickens wrote the books; he deserved the reward. That principle has been turned upside down by the new privatisers who are using intellectual property laws to steal our intellectual commons. A classic example is the articles academics write for learned journals. You might think they get paid for their efforts. Not a bit of it. They assign the copyright to the publisher. They can't even distribute the article they've written to their own students without permission.

But the academics are the ones who come up with the innovative ideas, if that is what they are. Copyright does not protect them if their work is published in a journal. It protects the handful of global publishing companies - Thomson, Elsevier, Lexis/Nexis, Taylor & Francis and so on - who dominate this market. And who pays the academics to do the research? We do. Through our taxes we subsidise the research departments of our public universities. We effectively subsidise these super-rich publishing companies to make money out of other people's ideas. They sell most of their scholarly journals to university libraries at a price typically three times as high as they would charge an individual. The university library, a captive buyer, holds out the begging bowl to the government. We pay again. Overall result: the intellectual commons are ploughed up and fenced in just like Helpston Green.

The rights of copyright are continually being extended to encroach on the commons of ideas. Till recently, the US publishing company West claimed to own the rights to all American court cases since 1776, because they had published the reports. At least with a book or journal, once you have paid to get access to the content, you can sell it or pass it on. These days, academic journals are more likely to be delivered in university libraries in the form of databases. The library rents them from the database owner, who can restrict access to the online content. The library never gets to own the information or articles on the databases. With a book or journal a library can build up a back file over time. But with a database every year the institution has to renew its subscription to retain access to back issues.

The additional result of this new enclosure is a slowing in the process of mutual exchange of ideas, which is what academia is surely supposed to be about. And, if these ideas are helpful for humanity, their diffusion will be slowed by the monopolists who - grotesque notion! - claim to own ideas they never thought up. In a striking phrase Bollier has referred in his book 'Silent Theft' to the “medievalisation of the national system of innovation.” (David Bollier, Silent theft: the private plunder of our common wealth, Routledge, 2003). He is comparing the attempts of capitalists to capture rents from “their” intellectual property with the highway robbery of medieval aristocrats who levied tolls on traders and restricted the growth of commerce and prosperity.

Intellectual rights are getting everywhere. And they are no spur to creativity. Gilberto Gil was a famous Brazilian musician, who is now a minister in the reformist government there. He sees tough intellectual property laws as a 20th century idea, and says, “the 20th century is a cul de sac.” He decided to set an example by making his songs available for free download. Time Warner disagreed, and Time Warner won. Gilberto wrote and performed the songs. What have Time Warner ever “created” apart from money?

Private property rights have already been extended to the airwaves, so radio and TV companies are given monopoly rights to broadcast i.e. a “licence to print money.” Senator John McCain, a critic of the American giveaway to the big diversified media and entertainment monopolies, commented that this is, “one of the great rip-offs in American history. They used to rob trains in the Old West, now we rob spectrum.” (http://www.marxist.com/intellectual-property-rights221105.htm)