Property Rights

Late last week, two Republican representatives — Rep. Ric Keller, of Florida, and Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, of California — introduced their own proposal intended to combat music and movie piracy on campus computer networks. The measure is very similar to the Senate proposal, made in July by Sen. Harry M. Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader, as an amendment to the renewal of the Higher Education Act.

Like Mr. Reid’s amendment, the House proposal calls on the U.S. secretary of education to identify the 25 institutions that received the most notices identifying cases of copyright infringement of both music and movies. The colleges appearing on those lists would then be required to devise “a plan for implementing a technology-based deterrent” to illegal file swapping.

Brock Read, Posted on Monday October 8, 2007, Chronicle of Higher Education

Property, to use the traditional critical term, is reified. That is, we tend to think of it as fixed and self-evident and as natural as sunshine. In fact, our particular notions of property are the product of a long history of debate and struggle and even violence.

Roughly speaking, as Marx emphasized, this process began its modern phase with the fights over the commonsin Great Britain more than four hundred years ago. We seem to witnessing a similar shift in our understanding of property due largely to the Internet.

There’s the fight over music sharing, on the one hand, and the attempt by some bands, including Prince, Radio Head, and Nine Inch Nails, to develop new forms of distribution and income outside of the traditional corporate realm. This will surely poor more solvent on those older models of property and copy right.

Those who benefited most from the traditional forms of property– including some rock bands– tend to be most adamant about trying to reestablish its prominence. Thus the law described above, more than 25,000 law suites, and the fate of Jamie Thomas, a single-mom fined more than $200,000 for file sharing.

Bit-torrent has rendered all of this silly, of course, more of a last ditch bit of theater than a successful reinforcement of property rights. In academia the emerging forms of property have already created havoc in traditional models of citation, which were rooted in bourgeois notions of authorship and individualism.

A book has an author or perhaps multiple authors, but what about a corporate web site? They’ve made heroic efforts to adapt, but I don’t think any of the major academic formats (APA, MLA) have fully come to terms with what has happened.

Along side all of this is an even more profound battle over traditional notions of ownership and property in science and academic knowledge. In academia, MIT bucked the proprietary trend by creating an open library of its courses, for example, called Open Course Ware.

Other schools, including Carnegie Melon, quickly followed their lead. Arguably, the Open Course Ware movement takes it cue from another challenge to traditional forms of property, the Open Source Movement.

In science the same sorts of challenges to traditional notions of property are creating lively and sometime contentious debates. Here too, the fight is being waged by those with the most to loose if there’s a move towards collective ownership.

On this front is the battle between the American Association of Publishers, with its PRISM (The Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine) initiative, and organizations like the Public Library of Science, which believes that knowledge should be made available to all.

Here, as with the battle over socialized medicine, the defenders of the status quo tend to disparage collective ownership as somehow lesser than private ownership. PRISM’s name suggests that open access to science somehow cheapens that science, just as advocates of private medicine contend that public medicine is somehow less effective.

Nature did a good job of describing the outlines of the struggle. None of its true of course, and I doubt they can get this genie back in the bottle. Transparency strengthens science, of course.

On the other hand, of course, privatization of public property proceeds apace under the Bush administration proving once again that they have no sense of the direction of contemporary history and culture. Hopefully that will stop once everyone gets used to the advantages of collective ownership.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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