Archive for the ‘Key Concepts’ category

Who Owns Science? Part 2: the Bayh-Dole Act

December 18, 2009

In the United States, the question of who owns science was given a loud and clear answer in 1980 by Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole. Their “Bayh-Dole Act” allowed businesses and non-profit organizations to retain private, patent-style rights to control innovations and discoveries, even discoveries developed using federal funding. This effectively privatized large parts of big medicine and the military industrial complex. It also created a new academic trend: universities across the country created offices of technology transfer, which were responsible for surveying research being done and looking for ways to snatch up innovations and take them to market. This greatly accelerated a trend brewing since World War Two: universities began to rely more and more on private sector profitability for their funding. Ask any graduate student in the sciences who funds his/her education, and you’ll find many with private sector grants. It also encouraged another trend: the question of what topics should be researched became increasingly shaped by what is profitable. Because laboratories and experiments are often so expensive, private sector funders have little incentive to invest unless they think results could be profitable. Hence basic research in science, guided by the latest trends in the field, now takes a back seat to research that is more likely or more certain to generate profits.

The Disintegrating Logic of Possession and Value in the Digital Age

December 16, 2009

This cutesy animation ties in to the ontological question of copies that Pete addressed in his previous post and the simplicity of its argument it makes me want to start laying out some fundamental logic of ownership, theft, and value.

Again, we’re looking at the real problem that exists in determinig the nature of copying and theft when it comes to digital media technologies. In particular, we must consider that the narrative of production, sale, use, and theft will be quite different when you attempt to apply it to different types of things.

If we’re talking about a purely physical object such as a bicycle, it’s easy to understand that the object is built and then used or exchanged among individuals. If the bicycle is stolen from you, you’ve gotta take the bus. The object’s value is thus constrained by possession.

When you start talking about analog media, this narrative starts to break down, because while you still need a physical object to realize the value, it is possible to make copies and convert media to different formats (e.g. taping a record) so that the use value – and perhaps even the exchange value – can be multiplied among various users, though the quality of the media may decline as generations of copies proliferate. Here, traditional notions of theft can still apply in the sense that you can’t listen to a record if somebody has stolen it from you, but there is another sense of theft that emerges wherein the act of copying makes it unnecessary for the copier to purchase an original work, thus denying the seller the revenue from that additional sale. Here, the physical possession of the record takes a back seat to the “intellectual property” contained on that record. In this instance, ownership becomes disconnected from possession and associated instead with commercial “rights.” The “theft” here is not of actual currency or products, but rather of the potential for additional revenue associated with the content contained in the sold object. This activity is referred to as “piracy,” though of course the pirates of the high seas were stealing physical, not intellectual property.

Things get even more complicated when we begin to look at digital media. First of all, the exchange of digital content from computer to computer pushes concerns over physical property even further to the sidelines in that authorized exchange often does not necessitate a physical object at all. In fact, the very act of using a piece of digital media usually involves making a copy of sorts (e.g., installing software on your computer). As digital technology all but obliterates the scarcity of any given piece of media, intellectual property-holders are attempting to compensate – and thus retain profits – by tightening restrictions on the traditional notions of ownership that would have applied either to the bicycle or to the record. That is, the use of individual pieces of media cease to be transferrable between users. When you buy a song on the iTunes store, you can’t loan it out to a friend for a week.

When you buy a record, you could reasonably state that you have purchased a copy of that content. When it comes to the iTunes story, you don’t even purchase a copy (copies being totally ubiquitous). Rather, you have perhaps bought access to certain content on a certain device, in some cases for a particular period of time.

Thus, as we transition from the bicycle to the record to the song on the iTunes Store, very basic notions of sale, ownership, and theft have to be reconsidered on a very fundamental level.

Fight for your rights? The problem with “copies.”

December 12, 2009

Today The New York Times published this story about “backlist titles,” books that were once top sellers in paper format, which may or may not be reissued today as ebooks. As publishers work to reformat and reissue such titles, the question of who owns the rights to reproduce these titles – authors or publishers – explodes back onto the scene. The fact that a change in format (from paper to electronic books for example) compels a new round of copyright battling is interesting, raising many questions: is the electronic version a separate “work” with a separate copyright as opposed to the paper version, or is the electronic version merely a copy of the paper work, which therefore puts the original copyright into play?

Behind this copyright question, a deeper question lurks: what is a copy? Obviously the copy is not identical to the original; a copy must be different, a unique object. But on the other hand, how different is too different? At what point does an object become so different from the original that it no longer counts as a copy? This ontological question about copies (or simulacra) and originals (a la Benjamin and Baudrillard), difference and repetition (a la Deleuze), etc., may seem cute or sophistic, but it could be a real thorn in the side of more practical, legal, ethical and political debates about the right to make copies. While I’m on a roll referencing European philosophers: might this problem of the copy be the Derridean lynch-pin which, when pulled out, will cause the whole copyright house of cards to deconstruct (self-destruct)? If we can’t define what a copy is, how can we tell if a copy has been made? How can we tell if an illegal copy has been made, or profited from?

A new thread: health care reform

December 8, 2009

So far, most of our activity here at Enclosure has been devoted to thinking about ‘privatization,’ i.e. the removal of goods, money, people, services, ideas, etc. from public or common spaces, and their installation behind barriers to access, barriers which shore up our capitalist system of private property: hence the term ‘enclosure.’

But this year’s long and frustrating debate in the United States over health care reform provides an opportunity to look at the issue of privatization from another angle. In this debate, we are not witnessing practices of enclosure or privatization; health care is already privatized and heavily deregulated in this country. The real fight for reformers on America’s liberal left has been the ‘public option,’ the attempt to wrest away health care provision from private hands and put it back in public hands. In other words, health care reformers are looking for the opposite of privatization, call it what you will (public-ization, common-ization, dis-enclosure, de-privatization, and so on…). As critics of the logic and practice of privatization, both authors of this blog are, not surprisingly, strong supporters of the public option.

The fact that so many American citizens and politicians are opposed to a public option furnishes another important topic for discussion. Privatization is not only upheld by organizational and institutional powers (copyright law, property law, lawsuits, police protection, etc.); privatization is also normalized, set up as a cultural value, fought for as a cherished belief (especially on the political center and right). The social, political and economic forms that keep privatization in place are supported by a widespread set of beliefs and values. This is to say that we not only have a system of privatization in this country, we also have a culture of privatization (for more on this, see our earlier post about Kristin Ross and cultural theory). In this year’s health care debates, this culture has proven as big an obstacle to reform as has the weight of inherited structural or systemic forms. The right has flooded the public sphere and the mediascape with messages linking a government-run health care plan with Stalinists and Nazis, as if the right to hold a Medicare card would transport one immediately into Animal Farm or 1984. Meanwhile, they miss the point that our current privatized health care system is more like Lord of the Flies. While we’re no policy experts here at Enclosure, we can say that the same capitalist forces working to slap DRM on our mp3s and privatize local utility systems (e.g. water supply and sewage treatment) have their dirty hands all over our health care system.

The lesson to be learned here is that resisting enclosure and privatization from happening in the first place is just as important and just as difficult as it is to dismantle an already existing system and culture of privatization. Hence we always have to think about privatization ‘before the fact’ and ‘after the fact.’ We have to prevent privatization from taking hold, prevent it from expanding, and to prevent it from becoming totalized.

Defintions: Privatization, again.

December 4, 2009

This week I’m reading and teaching Kristin Ross’s mind-blowing, award-winning book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. Although the book deals with France in the 1950s and 1960s, it is also quite rich in generating theoretical insights which could be applied more broadly. Ross effortlessly balances empirical cultural study with critical theory, spinning off a new critique of modernity that is rich in particular historical details, much like Walter Benjamin’s work.

One of her key theoretical concepts is “privatization,” by which she means not the private control or ownership of resources, but a certain kind of alienation, individualism, even solipsism, a withdrawal into oneself. She writes:

The movement inward – a whole complex process that is in some ways the subject of each of my chapters and that Castoriadis, Morin and Lefebvre all called “privatization” – is a movement echoed on the level of everyday life by the withdrawal of the new middle classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors, to the electric kitchens, to the enclosure of private automobiles, to the interior of a new vision of conjugality and an ideology of happiness built around the new unit of middle-class consumption, the couple, and to depoliticization as a response to the increase in bureaucratic control of daily life (p. 11).

Hence, privatization here refers to an overdeveloped sense of privacy, a withdrawal into one’s private home, private thoughts, into one’s subjectivity and individuality. This is a political problem just as much as is the question of who owns your mp3s, your sewage sludge, or any other resource. Ross begins to spell out the political consequences of the idea by riffing on Castoriadis again. Privatization

…emerges when a society’s most important characteristic becomes its success in destroying the political socialization of individuals, such that one experiences public or even social matters not only as hostile or foreign but also out of one’s grasp, unlikely to be affected by one’s actions (p. 106).

This use of the term “privatization” can thus help us to understand why Americans are so hung up on home ownership, why they love their cars so much and hate ‘politics’ so much. It can help us see the personal, individual, subjective consequences of capitalist society’s obsession with privatization. It links up in nice ways with already familiar sociological terms like “bowling alone” and “the lonely crowd.” It connects readily with Habermas’s well-known worries about the decline of the public sphere.

What value could we get out of such a concept? What does it matter if what is being privatized is not our commodities, our possessions, our resources, but rather our time, our space, ourselves? Ross’s brilliant book brings these questions to light, questions which seem eminemently useful, in a new way, for our project on this blog.

Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein

June 14, 2009

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.

For Bob: the free rider problem

June 9, 2009

Thanks to Bob for giving us some really nice food for thought! Bob brought up the free rider problem – who creates the content vs. who merely consumes content? How do systems of distribution or exchange guarantee that content producers are fairly compensated for their work?

The free rider is a problem only in economies such as capitalism, where property is privately held. In systems where there are significant common resources available (feudalism, communism), there are no free riders in the pejorative sense, because everyone uses the common resources freely and that is economically normative. Such systems also normally contain collectively understood work obligations – all can withdraw resources from the common account because all deposit value through their work.

In our own, admittedly somewhat utopian thinking, those of us on the young internet left (like the Swedish Pirate Party, which just took a seat in the EU Parliament!), want to use the internet if possible to transform the capitalist economy by growing a body of commonly available resources, a new non-commercial commons.

In general, the problem with free riders is that they eat up bodies of resources without contributing to those bodies. In the case of digital file sharing, the main distinction is between users who “share” content, by both uploading and downloading, and those who only donwload (the free riders). As a recent research paper in Business/Econ argued, those who take files without giving any in return use up one key resource: bandwidth. They slow down the network for everyone hooked into it, making it incrementally harder for each individual user to upload and download files, and they do so without offering any files in return.

But this same research paper also argues that internet free riders can have a quiet, often unnoticed benefit: they are likely to become uploaders or sharers by accident, because the programs they use to find content are designed to automatically share whatever content they have previously downloaded. The default setting in many P2P programs is to put downloads and uploads in the same folder, to handle all files in and out through that same location. Users can normally change these settings at will, but free riders are the type of users who don’t bother with more advanced settings, looking for a quick fix download – and thus, they end up sharing files anyway.

This trend is especially visible in recent episodes where the MPAA or RIAA tried to sue a group of kids for uploading who “didn’t know what they were doing” or “just wanted to download.” I think there is good reason to suspect that a large percentage of people who share files at all are not interested in these P2P systems and how they work, but just want to download the songs, movies, etc. that they like. Most downloaders are not proud pirates intending to upload, but they use software that uploads on their behalf.

From this perspective, the internet is unusual as a system of exchange because it is full of free riders, and still delivers unprecidented amounts of content, both free and paid. What do we make of this? Can we argue that P2P systems are a unique type of exchange system, one which tends to multiply free riders for their side effects, so to speak? Do free riders matter where transactions are non-commercial, I mean non-monetary? Interesting stuff, and I’m sure we could generate further important questions at will.