We are all pirates today! Specially those of us who live in what is called the Third World. One would be hard pressed to find a person who has not bought an “illegal” copy of either music, films, books or software. But these are only those who can afford the luxury of both surplus income to spend on entertainment and the luxury of surplus time to partake of leisure. Even the poorest of the poor would have sustained “piracy” when they bought medicines which infringed patents drawn in the First World or similarly, bought seeds to cultivate their half acre plot.
Unfortunately though, the life of a pirate is hardly the stuff of adventure and fun as it was in the high seas a few centuries ago. Today’s pirates are not individualistic bandits who have decided to rob the riches of the galleons and escape the rigidity of the new laws being introduced in Europe and North America to organise capitalism. Pirates of our contemporary world are millions, in fact billions, of people who suddenly find that activities which have been the bedrock of human civilization for millennia have suddenly been criminalised and who find themselves at the receiving end of one of the world’s largest PR exercise to demonise them.
There is no government and hardly any public body which does not rail against the evils of piracy. A West European Software business forum claims that global software piracy leads to annual “losses” of 250 billion pound sterling and a few million jobs. While the British music industry claims an annual loss of 650 million pounds in those little islands alone, the Indian music industry claims losses of about Rs. 20 billion annually. These figures are merely indicative of the size of this “problem” and goes to show that piracy and counterfeiting is all pervasive. Other studies put the total global value of all pirated and “illegal” products and services at anything between US $ 600 billion to US $ 1 trillion. Given that most pirated goods are a fraction of the cost of “legal” goods, this implies a much higher volume of goods and services which are “infringing” intellectual property.
A study by OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) – the rich countries club – states “Counterfeit and pirated products are now for sale in virtually every country and affect every major product sector.” It adds that piracy and the market of “illegal” goods is growing despite increasingly stringent laws, better technology and a sustained media campaign.
Is this merely because the overwhelming majority of people in this world are criminal minded and love to cheat “intellectual property holders” of their hard earned money? Is this massive economy sustained merely on the mafia networks? Obviously not.
The concept of what today is called “intellectual property” grew in the early years of the development of capitalism in Europe. The idea of copyright grew in late medieval and early modern Europe where the introduction of printing technology revolutionised the production of books. From a few thousand copies of all books in Europe, the advent of the printing press produced a few million books in a couple of decades! Under this impact, copyright transformed from the traditional right of Church and State to regulate copies of books to a right of the author to allow others to copy his book for a fee. Patents originated even before copyright with the need for the new merchant capitalists and proto-manufacturing capitalists of Italy to restrict the spread of new technologies to their competitors and thus protect their profits. This was a legal innovation since earlier the secrecy and rigidity of trade guilds had prevented manufacturing practices and skills from being copied.
Capitalism is based on the fact that all things – both material and non-material – which human beings need to live a full life can be, and increasingly are commodified. This means that everything gets a price on it and is marketable and marketed. If earlier a person could get his or her food, clothing, shelter from the local environment without the mediation of the market, with the emergence of capitalism, such goods were available only through purchase in the market. Initially, commodification took hesitant steps, in small geographical zones like city-states, for a few select goods. The new capitalists, small in economic size and politically vulnerable, yet fired with the zeal of pioneers and their ever growing profits, used these traditional rights of control over copying and replicating to discourage new competitors from crowding the small markets and reducing their profits.
Over the centuries, as commodification has penetrated into more areas of human life, so has the tyranny of copyrights and patents. While initially only manufactured goods and commercial services were commodified and available in the market, now almost all human needs, demands and aspirations are commodified, have a price tag and are “freely” available in the market. In the contemporary world there is hardly any human relation or emotion which is not a commodity. As an aside, this all pervasive commodification is evident in the expansion of use of the word “thing” which originally meant only an inanimate object. Anything(!) – inanimate object, living creature, human being, idea, emotions, etc – which we cannot give an exact name to can be referred to as a “thing”.
While commodification helps in extensive reproduction of the “thing” in question and its wide dissemination over the entire planet, it destroys the ability to innovate and experiment with the very “thing”. Protection of intellectual property, as it is now fashionably called, if successfully implemented would dull the human race into intense mediocrity and a banal reproduction of what is already available.
A cursory look at human history shows that never have human beings been able to develop revolutionary ideas – ideas which can transform the course of history – when their creativity is shackled to money or material gain. Almost inevitably new ideas and creations are a result of a passion (what we in our language would call Junoon) to know the world, to understand the roots of our existence and its material foundation, to explore the far reaches of the mind. It has always been the result of the “disinterested pursuit of knowledge and excellence”, never a result of servility to mammon.
Even in the modern world, which is marked by the dominance of capitalism and its commodities, the greatest of human achievements are rarely ever from a pursuit of monetary gain. While none of us remember the merchants of Venice who invented patents to protect their profits, we remember the glorious Italians like Leonardo da Vinci who created Mona Lisa. We still listen to Beethoven while multi-millionaire rock stars of just ten years ago are all but forgotten. Think of any person whose idea, music, novel, poem, painting has been celebrated over generations and you will find that that person created out of passion and disinterest in profits! Money corrodes everything, including creativity.
Activities which were never a commodity throughout human history, which were never made private property to be put up for sale, have increasingly been commodified with the advance of capitalism. Music, painting, literature, theatre and its modern form – films, medicine, teaching, research, etc. are all now commodities traded in the market. Even in contexts where these are deliberately kept out of the market by the individuals concerned, there is now a universalisation of the idea that the “use-value” of a good should have a close correlation with its “exchange value”.
But there is a problem with private property. It goes against the very grain of sharing and using in common interest the resources we have to live our lives. There is a contradiction in the very heart of private property. While it fences off a part of the planet’s resources for the private profit of one person, this profit can only be actualised in the context of sharing that resource with others. When such ‘fencing off’ is limited to resources like land (specially in a context where the land-human ratio is not adverse to humans), this contradiction remains dormant and hidden. It remains so even when private property is extended to other inanimate objects like metals, minerals, manufactured goods, etc. But this contradiction starts emerging into the political stage, that is it becomes self-evident as a contradiction, when it starts ‘fencing off’, commodifying, making private property of resources and activities which are essential for human survival in that particular social-economic context. Historically this happened first with the forests in Europe and then in Europe’s colonies since the peasantry was crucially dependant on forest produce, both flora and fauna, for their survival.
But this contradiction becomes more glaring when the bandwagon of commodification moves onto resources like water which are not only higher in the scale of human necessities but also less controllable in physical terms. A plot of land can be fenced off with ease, while those deprived can find a substitute for the food available from that land, but water has no substitute for human survival and is much harder to keep under physical control – it flows, evaporates, etc. Therefore the attempts to privatise water have been so much more difficult than to privatise land. Similar is the situation with medicines and health where substitution of private controlled resource is a low possibility.
The situation with regard to ideas and other creations of the mind is similar, even though they are mostly not essential for survival. Music, art, theatre, literature can be fruitful only when other people partake of that activity. By their very definition, they exist in a social space and are meaningless without being widely shared. Here, for reasons other than survival of the species, the contradiction between the aspiration of private property to fence of its ‘thing’ and its need to imbricate itself widely in human relations to actualise its potential is posed starkly. There is little that can ameliorate this contradiction.
The expansion of piracy and counterfeiting is almost parallel to the historical expansion of capitalism to cover the entire planet and commodify – make private property – all its material and intellectual resources. In this context, I would argue that the all pervasive, global nature of piracy and counterfeiting is not only a protest against the inability to pay the exaggerated prices charged by the private corporations, but is actually a symptom of an all pervasive, global “everyday resistance” by billions of people against the commodification of their lives. Unfortunately for us, this “everyday resistance” is not politically conscious of its world historical role, but rather becomes a tool for petty crime and mafia networks.
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A shorter version of this article appeared in my weekly column in The Post on 8 August, 2007.