Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein

In the discussion around my previous post, P and Bob have been pushing me to consider what seems to be one of the most important problems with the principle of open source (or even “open resource”) culture – if content is shared for free (often on the internet), how can producers/sellers of content (large and small alike) continue to make a living? Won’t most users/consumers choose free copies of content over paid ones? – it’s only economically rational, after all. Will the production of culture become economically unsustainable?

It’s a fair line of questioning, and unavoidable. Most discussions of what’s happening to culture in the digital era will eventually unearth the same concern. P and I had already thought of the question, and discussed it a bit in person in January, but have never written about it directly on the blog, perhaps dodging it for its difficulty, before Bob reminded us of its importance.

As P put it, the large corporate distributors of culture – record companies, film companies, etc. – have recently been defending their turf against open source encroachment by arguing, loudly and publicly, that free sharing of cultural content will not only ruin their business as middle men, but also make it harder for the artists whose work they sell to make a living. As P argued, we know that this is true for large corporations, but is it true for smaller producers, even individual artists? To put it in Bob’s terms, does open source culture pose the same problem for “private ownership” in general as it does for “corporate ownership” in specific?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet. In order to find out, we could start by talking with (or researching) some independent producers and sellers of culture, like Ani DiFranco or Ian MacKaye, to see if their business is suffering in the digital era. As both indy stars operate record labels, it might also be interesting to seek out some unsigned artists who distribute their own content.

Behind all this, there’s a deeper issue. As Bob perceptively picked out, there’s some tension here at Enclosure between a general critique of all private ownership/property, and a specific critique of corporate ownership. Are we waging a critique of private property itself, or are we only concerned about large holders and monopolies? I see my views on this as a spectrum of value: small businesses are preferable to large ones, but an end to private property would be even better. While it is easy to readily critique corporate power and monopolies, it is a bit harder for me to critique smaller businesses (even though they are for-profit enterprises just the same). These are broad and difficult questions – we’ll have to keep working on them as our discussion continues.

Meanwhile, I wanted to catch up on a tidbit Bob mentioned: Einstein’s day job. Coincidentally, the subject is very relevant for Enclosure. In 1905 when Einstein published his first two groundbreaking articles in physics, he was working for the Swiss patent office, himself contributing to the private enclosure of science and technology.

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3 Comments on “Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein”

  1. P Says:

    I’m glad that we’ve gotten to this discussion at this moment, because it gives me the opportunity to make a tough question even tougher by referencing a few articles that I’ve read recently and have been wanting to synthesize into some discussion of the extent to which or ways in which we are engaged in an anti-capitalist (Marxist?) project. These are weighty labels, but then, one main thrust of our discussion seems to be a system of resources where each produces according to ability and uses according to need.

    Anyway, as I was thinking about this question, I came across Lawrence Lessig’s review of Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism. Lessig goes head to head with Helprin’s notion that good ol’ fashioned creative work is being destroyed by a digital orgy of piracy and unauthorized re-use (admittedly, I have not read the book yet – this is taken from Lessig’s rebuttal).

    However, in a subsequent post, Lessig goes on to comment on why his understanding of digital sharing economies should not be considered socialism (contrary to a recent Wired article “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online“). Lessig’s main point is that he understands “socialism” as connoting a central element of coersion – though he later clarifies that this “coersion” really just means the establishment of sovereignty in a Schmittian/Benjaminian sense (not that Lessig uses these terms). Anyway, I think there’s a question here about the potential narrowness of Lessig’s interpretation of Violence, etc.

    Overall, however, I’ve often felt that the conclusions that Lessig draws from his own work have been insufficiently radical. He still holds to the notion that copyright is a vital tool in supporting the production of creative work though commercial monopoly, despite the critiques he has so often made about the limiting proprietary mindset that this system has engendered. I wonder whether my discomfort boils down to a qualm with his apparent faith in The Market’s positive influence in cultural production.

    So: Are we socialists?

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      I, for one, often use the label “socialist” to describe my own political views, so I’m comfortable with it.

      But I think more to the point, we are drawing on a spectrum of left wing ideas:

      radical liberalism – idea of full intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, fair use, etc.

      communism and socialism – idea of collective property, public ownership, public rights to use common resources

      utopian socialism and anarchism – idea of small communities sharing resources, organizing the way resources are distributed and used themselves, local govt, participatory democracy. Co-op tradition strong in Oberlin, Brooklyn and Ann Arbor is close at hand, here.


      So I guess I am a socialist-pluralist. The only thing I am sure of is that classical liberalism is NOT the end of history.

  2. P Says:

    Ok, let me try to rephrase. I am also comfortable with identifying prominent socialist arguments within our overall project. I think, however, that if we assume that for better or worse, capitalism is sticking around for a while, we have to ask outselves what sort of opportunities we want individual artists and/or intermediaries to have vis a vis making money off of art.

    If we do think that at least independent artists should have the opportunity to make a living off of their creative work within the context of consumer capitalism, we have to address teh question of how exactly that would happen in a world where all digital content has been coercively decommodified or de-monitized. To the end, my sense is that digital technologies’ impact on the commercial side of culture production is most pronounced when it comes to selling productized, digitally reproducable cultural forms (e.g. films, TV episodes, recorded music), and much less when it comes to cultural pieces that cannot be reproduced though these means (live performance, works with some kind of value as “original” pieces – obviously we’re back in Benjaminian territory here – and various types of merchandise or memoribilia).

    What might the effects of such a system be on either independent producers or corporate middlemen?

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