Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 3: Commons, Copyright, and Radical Politics

Previous posts in this series:
Music and the "Gift Economy" 1: An Introduction
Music and the "Gift Economy" 2: Examples

The concept of a gift economy brings up issues concerning property, wealth distribution, and the value of labor. Some theorists have suggested that partial or full implementation of a gift economy may eliminate some of the perceived problems with capitalism and with market economies.

A gift economy does not necessarily eliminate private property ownership; however, advocating that people give away what they own undermines the desirability of ownership. An alternative to private ownership is public ownership. This can come in the form of state or government ownership, but it can also come in the form of commons. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for her exploration of commons.
Commons is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people. In a commons, the resource can be small and serve a tiny group (the family refrigerator), it can be community-level (sidewalks, playgrounds, libraries, and so on), or it can extend to international and global levels (deep seas, the atmosphere, the Internet, and scientific knowledge). The commons can be well bounded (a community park or library); transboundary (the Danube River, migrating wildlife, the Internet); or without clear boundaries (knowledge, the ozone layer).

Commons analysts have often found it necessary to differentiate between a commons as a resource or resource system and a commons as a property-rights regime. Shared resource systems — called common-pool resources — are types of economic goods, independent of particular property rights. Common property on the other hand is a legal regime — a jointly owned legal set of rights (Bromley 1986; Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop 1975). ...

The analysis of any type of commons must involve the rules, decisions, and behaviors people make in groups in relation to their shared resource. Economist Mancur Olson’s influential The Logic of Collective Action (1965) is still being read by students today as a basic introduction to the challenges of human organization. Collective action, voluntary groups working to achieve a shared goal, is a key ingredient in understanding commons. Olson laid the groundwork for the study of incentives for people to contribute to a joint endeavor and outlined the basic problem of free riding, where one reaps benefits from the commons without contributing to its maintenance. "Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons," by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom in Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. 2006.
Here's more on the concept of commons from Yochai Benkler:
The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively enforced.

Commons can be divided into four types based on two parameters. The first parameter is whether they are open to anyone or only to a defined group. ... The second parameter is whether a commons system is regulated or unregulated. Practically all well -studied, limited common property regimes are regulated by more or less elaborate rules — some formal, some social-conventional — governing the use of the resources. Open commons, on the other hand, vary widely. Some commons, called open access, are governed by no rule. Anyone can use resources within these types of commons at will and without payment. ... The most successful and obvious regulated commons [include] sidewalks, streets, roads, and highways ... In all these cases, however, the characteristic of commons is that the constraints, if any, are symmetric among all users, and cannot be unilaterally controlled by any single individual. Wealth of Networks. 2006.
If you would like to know more about commons, here's a resource.

In recent decades the concept of commons has been extended into cyberspace.
In this sense the definition of Free Culture gathers all those subcultures that shaped a quasi-political agenda around the free reproduction of digital file. The kick-off was the slogan “Information wants to be free” launched by Stewart Brand at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984. Later the hacker underground boosted the Free Software movement and then a chain of new keywords was generated: Open Source, Open Content, Gift Economy, Digital Commons, Free Cooperation, Knowledge Sharing and other do-it-yourself variants like Open Source Architecture, Open Source Art and so on. “Free Culture” is also the title of the book of Lawrence Lessing, founder of Creative Commons. "The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage," by Matteo Pasquinelli in Studies in Network Cultures. 2008.
The move toward information commons has led a number of people to ask for revisions in copyright laws or to eliminate them altogether. One variation is copyleft.
Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom. ...

To copyleft a program, we first state that it is copyrighted; then we add distribution terms, which are a legal instrument that gives everyone the rights to use, modify, and redistribute the program's code, or any program derived from it, but only if the distribution terms are unchanged. "What is Copyleft?," GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF).
The copyright debate has been particularly relevant within music, art, and publishing discussions. We've built up a system of paying people based on copyright, so if we eliminate it, we need to develop or embrace alternative economic systems to provide for artists, musicians, and writers. That's where theis entire series is headed: Are there alternatives and will they work?
  • In the information age, we are seeing money concentrated in ever fewer hands, overburdening a financially rich minority with decision-making, while the views of the majority are largely ignored. Massive grassroots opposition exists worldwide to the "privatisation of the commons" – the rapacious systematic exploitation of our shared natural, social & cultural heritage. Nevertheless, the current financial system encourages such selfish and shortsighted plunder by rewarding its perpetrators. Many feel powerless in the face of the scale, anonymity and sheer iniquity of modern economic practice. As the unfairness of "free-market capitalism" becomes increasingly palpable, demand for constructive alternatives is on the rise. "Altruistic Economics & The Internet Gift Economy," by Robin Upton, altruists.org/ 7/7/05.

  • ... the majority of workers faces a declassing (d├ęclassement) of life conditions despite skills getting richer and richer in knowledge. It is not a mystery that the New Economy has generated more McJobs. This model can be easily applied to the internet economy and its workforce, where users are in charge of content production and web management but do not share any profit. "The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage," by Matteo Pasquinelli in Studies in Network Cultures. 2008.
  • There is concern among some groups that by eliminating copyright but not making other changes in the system there will be further exploitation of creatives and workers. One alternative is copyfarleft, proposed by Dmytri Kleiner, an anarchist hacker and a co-founder of Telekommunisten, a worker-owned technology company.
    However, there is a problem, art is not, in most cases, a common input to production as software is. Owners of property will support the creation of copyleft software, for the reasons described, however in most cases, they will not support the creation of copyleft art. Why would they? Like all copyable information, it has no direct exchange value, and unlike software it generally has no use value in production either. It’s use value exists only among the fans of this art, and if owners of property can not charge these fans money for the right to copy, what good it is for them? And if owners of property will not support copyleft art, which is freely distributed, who will? The answer is unclear. In some cases institutions such as private and state cultural funds will, but these can only support a very small number of artists, and only by employing a dubious and ultimately somewhat arbitrary selection criteria in deciding who does, and who does not, receive such funding.

    Copyleft, as developed by the free software community, is thus not a viable option for most artists. Even for software developers, the iron law of wages applies, they may be able to earn a living, but nothing more, owners of property will still capture the full value of the product of their labour....

    For copyleft to have any revolutionary potential it must be Copyfarleft. It must insist upon workers ownership of the means of production.

    In order to do this a license cannot have a single set of terms for all users, but rather must have different rules for different classes. Specifically one set of rules for those who are working within the context of workers ownership and commons based production, and another for those who employ private property and wage labour in production.

    A copyfarleft license should make it possible for producers to share freely and to retain the value of their labour product, in otherwords it must be possible for workers to make money by applying their own labour to mutual property, but impossible for owners of private property to make money using wage labour.

    Thus under a copyfarleft license a worker-owned printing cooperative could be free to reproduce, distribute, and modify the common stock as they like, but a privately owned publishing company would be prevented from having free access. "Copyfarleft and Copyjustright," Mute magazine, 7/18/07.
    For more discussion about copyfarleft and additional citations, go here.

    Pasquinelli also covers many of the issues regarding free culture, so I recommend that you read his full paper. Here are two excerpts:
  • Looking at today's media discourse, [Georges] Bataille is enrolled only to justify a sort of digital potlatch — a furious but sterile reproduction of digital copies.

    ... [Michel] Serres uses the same parasitic model for intellectual labour and the network itself (as Technology is an extension of the deceptive nature of Logos): “this cybernetics gets more and more complicated, makes a chain, then a network. Yet it is founded on the theft of information, quite a simple thing.” Serres’ opportunistic relation between intellectual and material production may sound traditionalist, but even when Lazzarato and Negri started to write in 1991 about the “hegemony of intellectual labour”, the exploitive dimension of capital over mass intellectuality was clear.

  • Economically digitalism believes that an almost energy-free digital reproduction of data can emulate the energy-expensive material production. For sure the digital can dematerialise any kind of communication but it can not affect biomass production. Politically digitalism believes in a mutual gift economy. Internet is supposed to be virtually free of any exploitation and tends naturally towards a social equilibrium. Here digitalism works as an disembodied politics with no acknowledgement of the offline labour that is sustaining the online world (a class divide that precedes any digital divide). "The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage," by Matteo Pasquinelli in Studies in Network Cultures. 2008.
  • All of the above establishes that people have been attempting to deal with property, wealth distribution, and the value of labor in the digital age. Other than the copyfarleft idea, I haven't cited any proposed solutions. More on that to come.

    Next: Music and the "Gift Economy" 4: Personal Versus Impersonal Transactions

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

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