The problem is still privilege

The NYT had an article illustrating how intellectual property privileges afforded by the government are so much more likely to be exercised by the rich and powerful than you and me:

Like many in the art world he saw an uncanny resemblance between the iPhone commercial and his own 1995 video "Telephones," which opens with a similar montage of film clips showing actors answering the phone. That seven-and-a-half-minute video, one of Mr. Marclay's signature works, has been exhibited widely throughout Europe and the United States.

About a year before, Mr. Marclay said, Apple had approached the Paula Cooper Gallery, which represents his work in New York, about using "Telephones" in an advertisement.

"I told them I didn't want to do it," he said. His main concern, he said, was that "advertisers on that scale have so much power and visibility" and that "everyone would think of my video as the Apple iPhone ad."

Mr. Marclay said he spoke with a lawyer after learning of the commercial but decided not to pursue legal action. "When people with that much power and money copy you, there's not much you can do," he said.

In theory, intellectual property laws are designed to confer privileges to everybody equally. In practice, they commodify an essential aspect of human consciousness and experience in a way that is unessential and artificial. Because ideas and concepts don't map well to the world of property rights, the privilege is often expensive to fully realize, so it naturally favors monied owners. Not only can these owners enforce their own rights, but they're much more likely to get away with violating others'. To put it another way, intellectual property laws are designed to force the producers of ideas to operate on terms that favor the rich and powerful.

This is why it pisses me off so much when propertarians and other market fundamentalists intone that the clear solution to overprivileged corporations is for everybody to incorporate themselves. The problem with limited liability, for example, is not that I don't have it, but that anybody has it. The problem with corporate personhood isn't that corporations don't deserve human rights - it's that they can't have human rights, and so justice is necessarily perverted in delivering them.

As long as we think privilege is something to be equalized and regulated - that we just need to engineer the right mix of powers among people - we will look to an authority like the state. And all the while, we'll wonder why human needs continue to go unmet, despite our best efforts to change the formulae of regulation and privileging. The goal is not a society of fully equal actors, but a society of human actors, who operate in a context that is fully human and natural without need for mediation from without.

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Written on Saturday, August 09, 2008