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  • Property is Theory

last modified September 23, 2010 by strypey

Paper for FreeCulture2010

Property is Theory

"In this ghost town where we live there's a wanted poster of you on every corner" - Supergroove, 'Sitting Inside My Head'

Hundreds of years worth of arguments over politics and economics have revolved around the meaning of two words: freedom, and property. The confusion in the history of western philosophy over the meanings of these words, and their relationship to one another, can be summed up in two contradictory quotes from the maverick economist Proudon; "Property is theft", and, "Property is freedom" [1]. Both freedom and property are human constructs, not laws of nature, and Proudhon's point is that whether property serves freedom, or denies it, depends on what meaning is given to property. Yet this elastic understanding of property has been succeeded in general usage by a belief in property as a natural right, as fundamental as the right to life [2], resulting in all sorts of confusion in the debate between its opponents and defenders.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent today than in the concept of "intellectual property". To it's advocates this means  the freedom to benefit from the intangible products of intellectual work by controlling them as an exclusive domain, which others may enter only under conditions imposed by the "owner". Opponents of "intellectual property" include the intellectual progeny of Proudhon, like Brian Martin [3], who reject it simply because they reject property rights in general as tools of enslavement. To quote the anarchist FAQ, "anarchists are against every form of property rights regime which results in the many working for the few" [4]. There are also libertarian theorists who believe that protection of property rights is a prerequisite for freedom, but do not believe organised information qualifies as property, such as Stephan Kinsella [5], and Boldrin and Levine [6]. Then there are those like Richard Stallman, who simply reject the phrase itself as "misleading", and an "overgeneralisation" [7]

Advocates of globalisation instruments like TRIPS [8] have defended the propertisation of cultural commons, for example as the Indonesian state's claim of perpetual ownership of all works "'commonly authored' or of 'unknown authorship'” [9]. They claim that the depletion and despoilation of shared resource pools is inevitable without an owner to take responsibility for their sustainability. This is an extension into the noosphere of a claim which was applied to the geosphere and the biosphere by Garrett Hardin in 1968, in the "tragedy of the commons" [10].

These ideological conflicts over the relative merits of the owned and the commons affects a number of distinct, but increasingly overlapping, communities of hackers (by the Stallman definition, "Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking." [11]). As mentioned earlier, these can be roughly divided into two streams. The geeks; free software developers - the pioneers of free culture; and Agile developers - the 'loose forwards' of software design. The greens; the slow food movement - the catalysts of slow culture; permaculture designers - whose ecological principles weave together the threads of the counterculture; and the Transition activists, who come out of whose initiatives aim to prepare communities for energy descent.

Both free software, and Agile programmers are often professionals, who may code for both free and proprietary software at work. Similarly many slow food gurus, change agents involved in Transition, and permaculture designers, are people with day jobs, which might involve them working on projects for social or for private benefit. Most in these communities would not consider themselves opponents of property rights per se, but faced with aggressive propertisation by multinational corporations, they tend to come down on the 'free to know' side of the debate.