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Some Thoughts on Intellectual Property

Years ago I ended up in an argument with a friend about the problems of "intellectual property" and whether or not radical engagements with this concept might be misunderstanding what was at stake. While he was arguing for a rejection of copyright, and I didn't disagree with the general contours of this position, my point was simply that an unqualified rejection of someone's personal intellectual property might end up valorizing private property in general.  That is, I was interested in making sense of how the labour of a writer or academic might be appropriated by others in an exploitative sense.  It is one thing to be opposed to bourgeois copyright laws, it is quite another to spend a significant amount of time producing a variety of ideas that could be plagiarized or commodified by others under the auspices of rejecting these laws.

To be clear, the fact that I spend a significant amount of time blogging and producing articles and documents that are free should demonstrate the fact that I have no problem in not charging a fee for my thoughts.  Moreover, if and when I do end up publishing a book, I would not be morally opposed to its piracy.  I would hope that those who could afford to pay for the product would do so because they care about my well-being; I would understand that those who lacked the economic means were choosing to pirate this hypothetical book.  And those who act otherwise are most often reactionaries who are intrinsically invested in the notion that private property is an immutable fact of nature… A reactionary such as Terry Goodkind, for example, has gone out of his way to humiliate people who dared to pirate his novels.  (Although, to be honest, I happen to think that anyone who would want to promote such poorly written and politically backwards garbage deserves to feel the bullshit ire of the backwards author they're promoting!)

Terry Goodkind: "objectivist" private property terminator

Even still the question of intellectual property lingers.  For those of us who spend most of our time immersed in intellectual labour, and due to the fact that the job market is extremely casualized, we are often reducible to our ideas and publications. What happens to our ability to make a living, then, if someone else steals our ideas due to the fact that they are in a better position to profit from said ideas?  Do we just laugh it off and say that we don't believe in the "property" of ideas and so plagiarism is a-okay?  After all, if our chances of selling ourselves as a commodity are dependent on our intellectual labour, such chances will be hampered by someone who takes our ideas that possesses more connections and time to profit from this expropriation.  But hey, if "intellectual property is theft" in an unqualified sense, then why the hell should I complain if someone with more connections and time presents my ideas as their own and actually gets a secure job?

This is not an abstract problem; I've experienced it in a visceral sense.  Around a month ago I attended a panel and was shocked to discover that one of the panelists was using terminology, without reference, that I had coined in my PhD dissertation three years ago.  Perhaps it was an accident, because lord knows that you can replicate terms with obvious combinations if you've hit upon the same problematic, but the fact that this person was doing their graduate degree at the same institution, took classes with one of the readers of my thesis, and even defined the terms of this concept in precisely the same way that appeared in my thesis caused me to stiffen during the presentation.  In one sense I was glad that the terminology was being used; in another sense I wondered whether my labour would simply become the property (appropriated) of someone else.

Even still, this doesn't bother me too much.  If a concept works, and is useful for contributing to the subversion of capitalism in even the most marginal way, then so be it.  That's why I'm writing this shit in the first place, and probably why I will probably never be legitimated by bourgeois academia.  If it was 1968 things might have been different, but we're living in a time and context where capitalist ideologues have proclaimed "the end of history."

The truth is that I'm more bothered by the possibility of people taking my ideas and turning them into a commodity for their own profit.  This is precisely the process of private property: the privatization of someone's labour that you yourself did not produce through your own labour.  Back to my original suspicions of this unqualified "intellectual property" position: what happens when someone produces something for free and someone else is able to transform what was initially free for everyone into a private commodity?  This happens all the time on a "larger-than-life" level, where corporations own the intellectual labour of various producers, on a less grand level where someone with access to a private company profits from the works of several creators, a translating firm controls the rights of a dead author who would have been opposed to this firm's ability to profit from their work (i.e. as in the company who owns the rights to the English translation of Gramsci's prison notebooks), on an academic level where (and so many of us have heard these horror stories) a tenured professor takes credit for the work of his/her students, or a small press starts reproducing the work of others (and making money) without notification.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a small polemic entitled Maoism or Trotskyism? that I made available online.  Although I would be more than happy to accept a donation for my labour, I intended the PDF of this treatise to be available free-of-charge.  Moreover, when the good folks of the Maison Norman Bethune decided to make it into a dead-tree pamphlet, I was happy to comply because I support the politics of this institution, know the people behind it, and am aware that whatever money is made from the sale of these pamphlets will be used for causes with which I agree.  Comrades who have supported this website, and who have contributed to my political/intellectual growth, are always more than welcome to use it as a resource if and when they can––after all, I've used these same people as a resource on so many occasions.  What I find somewhat irksome, however, is that this Maoism or Trotskyism polemic is being reproduced as a pamphlet, and sold online, by a small press that hasn't bothered to contact me and that appears to be reproducing it so as to turn a profit––it is priced at a wopping £2.50!

I won't lie: I'm tempted, out of sheer narcissism, to order a copy because I'm curious about the design...
Let's be clear: my problem is not that my work is being distributed without my permission or that I'm not making money off of said distribution.  My problem isn't even that they got my name wrong… though I will admit that bizarrely irks me the most (come on people, my last name is "Moufawad-Paul", the hyphen is even in the unimaginative URL of this site).  What bothers me, here, is that something that took a lot of time to write, and was initially offered for free, is being sold online for a tidy sum so as to make a profit for people who did not do this labour.  To be fair, perhaps this "Revolutionary Praxis" group is selling this pamphlet (among others) to drum up money for a decent political cause, but if this is the case it would be nice to be informed.  Nor would I have been offended if they reproduced my pamphlet physically, selling it as part of agitational activities, without informing me.  Hell, even if they sold it on a person-to-person basis, in the flesh world, I wouldn't give a shit because: a) I wouldn't know; b) I understand the need to produce pamphlets in political organizations that not only communicate a politics but allow for low-level fundraising; c) selling such pamphlets to people directly might produce organizational opportunities.  But putting a document cut-and-pasted from the internet on an online store is not an agitational activity; the same people who frequent the above site could easily find the same document for free on my blog without having to pay a dime.  Really, this is just like finding something you wrote in a small bookstore, produced by a press you never heard of, shocked that someone was actually drawing money from your labour.

As marxists we should have a problem with a factory that turns a profit on a given commodity without paying the people who produce this commodity.  Hell, we should begin by problematizing wage-labour itself, and questioning the level of exploitation that persists even when this labour has been paid a particular wage!  But, for some reason, some of us are under the impression that intellectual labour is worth less than the labour that provides us with less ephemeral-seeming products.  None of this is to say that we shouldn't pirate cultural products that we cannot afford (after all, there is a reason that I produced the above-mentioned pamphlet for free), only that those who take advantage of what is offered for free so as to turn a profit should be treated as having dubious motivations.

The decidedly personal tone this blog entry has taken is not simply because I want to complain about how I've been maligned or exploited by the unsolicited reproduction of my intellectual labour (and especially because they misrepresented by name, damnit!), but because this is my current avenue of labour and it is already extremely alienating and exploitative.  To be clear, I am not so delusional as to believe that such intellectual labour is identical to the most exploited and unprivileged proletarian labour in this time or place (globally or nationally), nor am I under the self-aggrandizing impression that such labour is significant enough to warrant successive moments of unsolicited reproduction.  All I know is that this is the venue of labour in which I have been trained and where I find my [casualized] jobs.  Reality being what it is, I also know that it is currently impossible to make a living publishing one's ideas in book form, just as I am aware that others will most probably publish ideas I have helped bring into being before I am able to do so.  They might even make a profit from these ideas while I remain without job security, struggling to survive in a context within which I possess some level of skilled labour.

Returning to the problematic that began this meandering entry, how do we make sense of the ways in which intellectual property functions under capitalism that: a) recognizes the need for access to arts and literature on the part of those who cannot afford it; b) recognizes the need of those producers who often labour in obscurity to not be exploited by those who own the means of production.  I don't think this problem can be solved within the context of capitalism, moreover it also hinges on the connected problem of the division between mental and manual labour and the privileging of the former.  But I do think we need to do our best to find ways to support and distribute the ideas of people who do a lot of hard work in this area that honours their contributions while, at the same time, developing the means to overcome the division between mental and manual labour so that there can be such a thing as mass art and mass literature.