With roots in the laws of seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, intellectual property protections go back to the beginnings of capitalism itself.
The online magazine Jacobin
recently featured a three-part series tracing the history of property law and its contemporary manifestations.
For at least a decade, legal scholarship on gender bias in intellectual property rights has acknowledged the engagement of almost no one. Every academic paper published notes how small the field is; each researcher cites the two or three others they can; conferences feature the same key figures annually. Intellectual property rights is not a policy area to which women have paid much attention; nor have their cheerleaders, feminists.
Widespread feminine disinterest in this particular form of law is matched nearly equally by its disinterest in women. Current and historic protection under intellectual property legislation has restricted access to economic and cultural viability along gender lines. In recent decades, similar bias has been found and corrected in civil rights, family and employment law, and domestic violence legislation. IP laws sit at the crux of several debates raging right now: concerns regarding women in the literary arts, for example, and the wage gap. The paucity of strong female roles in TV and film. Gender bias in post-recession job hiring. The skimpy costumes of female characters in comic books. The global economic condition of women.
Degendering Value: Gendered conceptions of credit and reward are written into the structures of intellectual property law
The state’s current approach to intellectual property has come under scrutiny of late, as its disconnect from anything that might have once legitimated it has become more and more obvious. The activities of rent-seeking patent trolls, who accumulate patents solely for the purpose of filing lawsuits, have been highlighted by National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” program. And the absurdities of strict copyright enforcement are apparent in the life-destroying legal judgments leveled against small-time downloaders — $220,000 against Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe employee Jammie Thomas-Rasset for twenty-four songs, $675,000 against college student Joel Tenenbaum for thirty.
Faced with these outrages, it’s tempting to demand the immediate destruction of the entire edifice of patent and copyright protection. All the more since intellectual property compounds the general socialist discomfort with private property, because the right it encodes is such an expansive one. No longer just the right to control a particular physical space or object, it abstracts the property form into the control of patterns and processes, wherever and whenever they appear. Instead of owning a book or a factory, the intellectually propertied class controls all copies of the book, and all implementations of the production process within the factory.
Property and Theft: The overthrow of all intellectual property leaves unanswered the question of how to control the exploitation of the cultural commons by digital capitalists
In late June, soul musician Stevie Wonder flew to Morocco to perform at a diplomatic conference for the World Intellectual Property Organization. Conference delegates were signing a treaty granting small exceptions to international copyright protections, improving access for blind and visually impaired persons. Wonder said the treaty was important because it helped “information to be accessible forever,” and it demonstrated “that it is possible to do business and do good at the same time.”
Business leaders disagreed with this “Ebony and Ivory” vision of harmony and social justice. For months, organizations like the Intellectual Property Owners Association had urged American trade representatives to reject the treaty because, “despite substantial differences between copyrights and patent protection,” allowing this exception might open the door to needy countries or people pleading exceptions for clean energy technology or pharmaceuticals. It would “threaten to upset the fundamental balance on which our US and global IP system is based.”
The reference to “balance” here demonstrates that while piracy may occasionally be radical (see Gavin Mueller’s “Gimme the Loot,” from Jacobin, 7-8), copyright as a system is largely reactionary. Though “balance” can refer to the more utilitarian emphasis copyright is given in the US Constitution — a limited-term monopoly to “promote the useful arts and sciences” — in the mouths of the propertied elite, “balance” generally means that while they are willing to consider marginal tweaks to these arbitrary protections, they basically want to maintain the status quo in terms of property and power.
Locked Out: With roots in the laws of seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, intellectual property protections go back to the beginnings of capitalism itself