Purple Magazine
— S/S 2009 issue 11


What’s happening to this world? Music is free. Movies are free. Pictures are free. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are free. Information is free. Who owns what? Does freedom of information mean freedom to copy anything and everything? Will new ways of making art — and of just surviving — have to evolve? Could we be on the verge of a world where people share things instead of negotiating their prices?
We asked MILTOS MANETAS, an artist of our information age, to select texts by various thinkers who address these issues, and we gave him the first and last word.
Copies, Copying, Copyrights, Intellectual Property, etc.
We think inside our brains. We think we hear our brains working, as if nothing in the outside world is participating actively and systematically in the process of our thinking. But we don’t think just from inside our brains anymore, and even less so with the advent of computers, especially when we spend a lot of time with them. We start to understand how existence is affected by the presence of these calculating machines. Computers do more or less what we do: they copy something. They do Existential Computing. They paste something; they play music; they open a document. We are learning to think with machines that are outside our brains, external to us.
Is that changing the nature of property, what’s ours and what isn’t ours?


I’ve argued against intellectual property elsewhere. But here’s a short and sweet version of the argument: Suppose I compose a poem and recite it to you. As a result, you learn the poem by heart. In effect, there is now a copy of the poem stored in your brain. Who owns that copy? The only answer must be: you do. You own yourself; you own your brain and the contents of your brain. If I owned the copy in your brain, then I would be a part owner of your brain, which would make you a partial slave — which is morally untenable.
Now in addition to owning your brain and the poem stored within, you also own, let’s suppose, a pen and some paper. You use your pen to transcribe onto the paper the poem that’s stored in your head. Now there are two copies of my poem in your possession: one in your brain and one on the paper. Who owns the second copy?

Once again, you do. You produced that second copy using nothing but factors that you owned: your paper, your pen, and your brain (with your neuron-encoded first copy of my poem). That second copy is yours — to keep, to burn, or to transfer. Yes, to transfer. If you give or sell your copy to someone else, or if you use your copy to make a new copy to give or sell to someone else, or if you allow others to use your copy to make new copies, you are making a peaceful use of your own property. You are violating no rights.
“But,” I protest, “that’s my poem you’re selling!”
No, it isn’t. You’re not selling any concrete copies of the poem that are in my possession — I still own those and can control access to them as I please. Nor are you selling the abstract object of which all these copies are instances. You can’t sell an abstract object. Abstract objects can’t be transferred. They are not scarce resources; one person does not lose access to the abstract object just because someone else has gained access. All you’re selling is your copies of the poem. Which is your perfect right. They’re yours to do with as you please. “But,” I protest once more, “I created that abstract object. That makes it my property!” Well, what does it mean to own an abstract object? One thing it might mean is that I own all the instances of that abstract object. In which case I’m engaged in fraud if I claim to be selling copies of my work;
if I still claim copyright in them, then I’m claiming to own the copies and so I’ve never really sold them. But if owning an abstract object means owning all the instances, then it means my owning the copy of my poem in your brain. In that case, intellectual property is a form of slavery. If slavery is illegitimate, then so is intellectual property.
On the other hand, if owning an abstract object doesn’t mean owning its instances, then what does it mean? In selling your concrete copies of my poem, you don’t interfere in any way with my access to the abstract object. So what “ownership” of mine are you infringing upon? Either intellectual property means slavery, or it means nothing at all.
 Écrasez l’infâme

from Thoughtcrime by RODERICK LONG
— — —
The label “pro-sumer” (producer-consumer) has been coined for those users of the Web who contribute to commercial culture via uploading without much in the way of commercial recompense. The issue of who “owns” the content that users generate is not abstract. Many of the major social networking sites have buried deep within their agreements that the sites and their corporate structures have full control over any material uploaded onto them. They even retain the right to continue hosting a page even if the person who created the material on it wishes it to be removed (a not uncommon desire among college seniors who come to understand that their potential bosses have access to a record of their youthful exuberance). There are no surefire safeguards against the abuse of pro-sumerism, but the conscious choice to upload different kinds of media for pro-social, rather than pro-sumer reasons offers an alternate vision to take advantage
of the culture machine’s simulation and participation.


There is a primary difference between material goods and intellectual property. A real estate property exists within set boundaries; it can be sub-divided, built up, re-developed, etc., but it is still very much bounded in space. While it can be developed and redeveloped, real property is neither replicable nor infinitely divisible. As we move into the realm of mass production, the attributes of real property diminish slightly, but their materiality remains. Intellectual property may result in real property, but at base it’s still the only form of exchange in which the producer can sell “something” to a consumer and yet still hold onto that “something.”


It’s been less than a century since entertainment morphed into intellectual property. It was in that century that so many seemingly indelible icons emerged — from Rick’s Café in Casablanca to White Christmas to Batman to “All My Children” to Darth Vader to Matrix — and, hovering over them all [are] the ears, gloves and profitability of Mickey Mouse. If we want to stake out a nuanced position in the discussion over copyright, we can begin from a standpoint that acknowledges that the culture machine exists in a capitalist framework, and that it is foolish to oppose the idea that people should be able to profit from the production of ideas as much as they do from the production of objects. As well, whatever battles being waged over these issues will not make multinational conglomerates abandon the business of culture (there is simply too much money to be made). In any case, large media companies can promote the production of culture simply by pushing these people and creating incentives and environments for them to produce. What should be examined and challenged in this situation is the imbalance of power that accrues to large corporate entities when they try to push copyright into infinity.


At some point an idea, situation or character becomes prevalent enough to form a meme. At that point, society benefits from the open use by all, rather than the restrictive ownership of the private producer. The open-source cultural movement has many diverse gradients from the on-the-far-“copy-left” side who oppose any form of protection or privatism whatsoever to those who want a blend of protection and eventual diffusion of knowledge. This kind of argument does not interest the copyright lawyers hired by Time Warner or Disney and all the rest, but they are narrow stakeholders in an evolving landscape. The point of copyright laws was not simply to reward the holders of these rights, they were intended first and foremost to encourage innovation. The transformation of intellectual production into intellectual property through the course of the 20th century skewed this, but we must remember that the entire purpose of copyright was to encourage uploading. We need to reboot this as an argument. An abusive intellectual property rights structure serves to lock down culture, preventing it from behaving according to the dynamism of a system with strange attractors.


Open-source cultural production challenges more than government and corporate centralization. It also serves to empower the citizenry. The more [that] states and corporations grow, the more individuals need to be able to communicate with others in their own communities and across the globe if they hope to have any say in their own lives. One of the products of the mega-state is the generation of mega-quantities of information. Few individuals have the capacity to move through this data, much less fully understand it. But in networks they can serve as a counterbalance to the “official” take on the information.

from Nowcasting: An Environmental Impact Report on Open Source Culture. by PETER LUNENFELD
— — —
The arrival of a new paradigm has been reflected in and supported by a set of new terms. The 20th century terms, “broadcasting,” “publishing,” and “reception,” have been joined (and in many contexts, replaced), by new terms that describe new operations now possible in relation to media messages. They include “embed,” “annotate,” “comment,” “respond,” “syndicate,” “aggregate,” “upload,” “download,” “rip,” and “share.”
There are a number of interesting things worth noting in relation to this new vocabulary. Firstly,
the new terms are more discriminating than the old ones as they now name many specific operations involved in communication. You don’t simply “receive” a message; you can also annotate it, comment on it, remix it, etc. Secondly, most of the new terms describe new types of users’ activities which were either not possible with the old media or were strictly marginal. (For instance, the marginal “slash” videos made by science fiction fans.) Thirdly, if old terms such as “read,” “view,” and “listen” were media-specific, the new ones are not. For instance, you can “comment” on a blog, a photo, a video, a slide show, a map, etc. Similarly, you can “share” a video, a photo, an article, a map layer, and so on. This media-indifference of the terms indirectly reflects the media-indifference of the underlying software technologies.
from Software Takes Command by LEV MANOVICH
— — —
There is concern among the interested parties that the credits, permissions, rights, and responsibilities one is owed may not be in order, and there is confusion as to what that order might be. Today when an art dematerializes into relational instances and concepts, the property of a technique (as in the ownership
of such a property of a technique) displaces the aura of objective originality as the matter of concern.


Businesses copyright processes all the time. Copyrightable software code is really the copyrighting of a particular technique of instructions that allow the hardware to produce any number of final results. What is protected legally is not the final result (the output, the product), but the technique by which such an output or product can be realized by someone — anyone. “How” something is made precedes “what” is made. Protecting the technique assures copyrightable control of the production of products.


If you can sell it then you must own it, right?
from Mind the Pollocks: (Notes on) Art & Software by BENJAMIN H. BRATTON
— — —
Afterword by MILTOS MANETAS. A large percentage of our body is water, but a large part of our mind is information. The information comes from the outside, and most of it never asked for permission to enter. We all know what a Coca Cola logo looks like; some can even draw it from memory. But we know the Coke logo, together with a trillion other trivial things that have colonized us.
Think of your brain as a piece of land. Every time new information arrives, something is added to the land and becomes a physical property of the land. However small or trivial it is, information occupies space and much of it remains as a permanent record in the field of memory. Whatever we see, hear, or learn literally becomes our property. There is no way to undo all of this information. We can try to create order in some way, so that it fits a mental scheme. But even that is not always possible.
Still, one of the most charismatic aspects of contemporary life is that we can easily copy ideas, forms, styles and objects. That ability makes life an open work in progress. And we are free to manipulate anything inside our own brains, and maybe in anyone else’s.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2009 issue 11

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