The Oil of the 21st Century
Perspectives on Intellectual Property
"Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century" - this quote by Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, one of the world's largest Intellectual Proprietors, offers a unique perspective on the current conflicts around copyrights, patents and trademarks. Not only does it open up the complete panorama of conceptual confusion that surrounds this relatively new and rather hallucinatory form of property - it must also be understood as a direct declaration of war.
The "War Against Piracy" - a preventive, permanent and increasingly panic-driven battle that defies the traditional logic of warfare - is only one of the many strange and contradictory crusades that currently take place at the new frontier of Intellectual Property. Under the banner of the "Information Society", a cartel of corporate knowledge distributors struggle to maintain their exclusive right to the exploitation and commodification of the informational resources of the world. With their campaign for "Digital Rights Management", the copyright industries attempt to simultaneously outlaw the Universal Computer, revoke the Internet and suspend the fundamental laws of information. Under the pretext of the "Creative Commons", an emerging middle class of Intellectual Proprietors fights an uphill battle against the new and increasingly popular forms of networked production that threaten the regimes of individual authorship and legal control. And as it envisions itself drilling for "the oil of the 21st century", the venture capital that fuels the quest for properties yet undiscovered has no choice but to extend the battlefield even further, far beyond the realm of the immaterial, deep into the world of machines, the human body, and the biosphere.
But while Intellectual Property struggles to conquer our hearts and minds, ideas still improve, and technology participates in the improvement. On all fronts, the enormous effort towards expropriation and privatization of public property is met with a strange kind of almost automatic resistance. If piracy - the spontaneously organized, massively distributed and not necessarily noble reappropriation and redistribution of the Commons - seems necessary today, then because technological progress implies it.
Technological progress - from the Printing Press to the BitTorrent protocol - is what essentially drives cultural development and social change, what makes it possible to share ideas, embrace expressions, improve inventions and correct the works of the past. Human history is the history of copying, and the entirely defensive and desperate attempt to stall its advancement by the means of Intellectual Property - the proposition to ressurect the dead as rights holders and turn the living into their licensees - only indicates how profoundly recent advancements in copying technology, the adaptability and scalability they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, are about to change the order of things. What lies at the core of the conflict is the emergence of new modes of subjectivation that escape the globally dominant mode of production. The spectre that is haunting Intellectual Proprietors world-wide is no longer just the much-lamented "death of the author", but the becoming-producer and becoming-distributor of the capitalist consumer.
The world has irrevocably entered the age of digital reproduction, and it is time to revisit the questions that Walter Benjamin raised in the light of photography and film: how to reaffirm the positive potential and promise that lies in today’s means of reproduction, how to refuse the artificial scarcity that is being created as an attempt to contain the uncontrolled circulation of cultural commodities, how to resist the rhetoric of warfare that only articulates the discrepancy between the wealth of technical possibilites and the poverty of their use, and how to renew the people's legitimate claim to copy, to be copied, and to change property relations.
In order to deconstruct - and to develop radically different perspectives on - the "oil of the 21st century", there is an urgent need for approaches that provide fewer answers and more questions, produce less opinion and more curiosity. The coils of the serpent are even more complex than the burrows of the molehill, and the task is to trace, with the same bewilderement that befell Franz Kafka at the advent of the modern juridical bureaucracies, the monstruous, absurd and often outright hilarious legal procedures and protocols of the Intellectual Property Era.