Artists, activists and theorists brought together at the Accè(s) festival contributed to the “Digital craftsmen” e-book that has just been put online. Makery offers you an extract. Johan Söderberg, researcher in information technology, questions intellectual property in the fablab era.
It had been finished for months, but still wasn’t available online: Artisans numériques (Digital Craftsmen), the e-book that went hand in hand with the 2012 edition of the Accè(s) festival in Pau, under the direction of Ewen Chardronnet (incidentally a contributor for Makery), can be downloaded pronto from the HYX editions website! On the 18th of October 2012 Accè(s) had invited a load of influential people for a day on “fablab technological, artistic and social issues”. This book, erudite as well as geared for the general public, manages to be an excellent entry point in the universe of labs and a perfect handbook on a DiY culture that reshuffles the cards of the economy (and not just virtually).
In terms of popularisation, Camille Bosqué’s text (she is also a contributor for Makery!), «We Owe it all to the Hippies», tells the “short story of the American counterculture, the first virtual communities, the hackers, the fablabs, and the makers”. She came back to the Whole Earth Catalogue, ancestor of Thingiverse and other Instructables, that was sold in hundreds of thousands at the end of the seventies although published on paper with unpredictable publications. Digital Craftsmen gets down to the essential part, exhibits and also searches in the political and economical theory for the foundations of the maker movement. Artists, theorists, activists lay out an eclectic table of contents with contributions from Cécile Babiole, Ryoichi Kurokawa, Diego Movilla, Jose Perez de Lama, Johan Söderberg, Géraud Soulhiol, Usinette and MacKenzie Wark.
Digital craftsmen does not hesitate to shake the ideology sometimes appended to the lab spirit, this “fablab fashion” of the moment. Cécile Babiole alludes here to her ideas on the “fantasies and contradictions on digital fabrication”(with pictures of her work of art Copies non conformes). Diego Movilla’s work of art, Broken, produced for the 2012 Accè(s) edition is dissected… McKenzie Wark, author of the Hacker manifesto tells us about the relations between hacker culture and digital fabrication.
In order to incite you to download and read these 186 pages, Makery chose for you an extract of a dense and theoretical text on intellectual property, that has already been given a rough time by digital reproduction and today confronted with the end of the manufactured object. This text signed by Johan Söderberg, Swedish researcher in science and information technology, reflects on criticisms of intellectual property brought by digital technology to bring up the idea of an “increased property” in the context of the fablab.
Digital craftsmen, under the editorial management of Ewen Chardronnet, Hyx editions in free download at this address.
A text by Johan Söderberg
Almost as soon as a consumer-grade 3D printer became widely available to the public, the first intellectual property conflict arose over printable, three-dimensional objects. In February 2011, the first cease and desist letter was sent to Thingiverse, a repository for files of such objects. The designer behind the letter, Ulrich Schwanitz, claimed ownership over an object that had been uploaded to Thingiverse. The object in question was a model of a Penrose triangle. It is a well-known optical illusion where the sides of the triangle end in the wrong places. The object cannot exist except as a two-dimensional representation on a piece of paper. Schwanitz had designed a three-dimensional object which, when viewed from the right angle, appears to be a Penrose triangle. A user of Thingiverse reverse-engineered the object from a photo. Fearing secondary liability under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the company behind Thingiverse decided to take down the file, though the legal situation was uncertain. The original, two-dimensional representation of the Penrose Triangle design is in the public domain, and it remains unclear if Schwanitz asserted his copyright over the design file, that is, over the software code, or over the blueprint of the structure of the object, or over the photo with the image of the Penrose triangle. After public outcry Schwanitz dropped his charges and released the design for free (Rideout, 2012). However, this initial encounter has been followed by requests from more strident, corporate claimants. It is telling that the first copyright claim over printable, three-dimensional objects concerned a shape that on logical grounds cannot exist in physical, embodied space, except as an optical illusion and a trickery of the eye.
Already a year before the Penrose debacle, many hobbyists in the community building open source 3D printers had doubts about the role of Thingiverse. Responding to those doubts, one of the founders of the Swedish filesharing service The Pirate Bay launched a new website called ”The Product Bay”. It was announced that the repository would be fully dedicated to information freedom. In conjunction with this initiative, young adherers of the Swedish Pirate Party made visits to furniture- and design fairs in order to pass the message on to IKEA-salesmen and professional designers. Their days were numbered, just like the days of the middlemen in the music- and film-industry. This threat, or promise, cuts to the heart of the rationale behind the development of the open source 3D printer. The technology was developed by a group of hobbyists and hackers with the explicit aim of expanding the conflict over intellectual property to tangible, physical goods (Bowyer, 2004). A pointer is an auxiliary project to the 3D printer, the development of a user-friendly 3D scanner. It holds out the promise of circumventing in physical space any control that legal authorities might try to exercise over repositories and computer networks. With a 3D scanner sitting next to the 3D-printer, design files can be generated (that is, scanned) directly from existing physical objects.
The proposition that the 3D printer/scanner will make physical goods copyable just as software code borders on the hyperbolic. The claim has a fleeting resemblance with what the actually existing machine can do. Here I will leave aside the technical objections that one may want to raise against this idea. My concern in the present paper is with the imaginary that propels the development of the home-built technology in one or the other direction. The chief merit of the open source 3D printer is that it introduces a narrative where ”bits” and ”atoms” converge, and, in so doing, shatters some taken-for-granted tropes about intellectual property. The convergence between the two prompts another convergence, that of disciplinary boundaries within the academy and corresponding, theoretical approaches. The study of new media and communication technologies is pulled into a larger circuit of production, commodification and labour relations. Differently put, the old critique of political economy reassert itself over this not-so-new subject field. I set out to mobilise the political economy analysis against the predominant critique of intellectual property. The exceptionalism claimed for information vis-à-vis physical goods, by practitioners and scholars alike, is the shaky ground upon which the house of intellectual property critique has been built. In what follows, I suggest that this argument draws on the limited self-understanding of free software/open source advocates, combined with the limited theoretical presumptions of the classical and neo-classical economic paradigm.
When hackers and hobbyists shift their attention from (proprietary) software to (closed) hardware, the industrial economy as a whole becomes implicated in their critique of intellectual property. Intellectual property is put on an equal footing with private property. To followers of the open source 3D printer, this is perceived as a push back against vested interests and intellectual property advocates. The decision of hackers and hobbyists to open a new front in the struggle against intellectual property could alternatively be interpreted as a reflection of developments in the property regime at large. According to such an interpretation, intellectual property, far from being rendered obsolete by recent, technological advancements, stands to become the dominant form of property. Tangible, physical goods will not be spared. In addition to the 3D-printer and other digital fabrication tools, the rise of the so-called ”Internet-of-things” and ”augmented reality” points in the same direction: a bleeding-out from the virtual and informational realm to physical, embodied existence. Corresponding with this movement, one can foresee a future where ownership, market exchanges, rent extraction and labour relations are regulated through what I elect to call “augmented property”.
The crux is the notion of scarcity, the alpha and omega of the economic discipline which gives raise to its radical Other: inexhaustible abundance of informational resources.
The starting point of the information exceptionalism hypothesis is a matter-of-factness assertion about the positive existence of scarcity in the physical world, borrowed from the economic discipline. The alternative is a historically and sociologically informed approach, according to which scarcity (both of intangible and tangible goods) is always-already inscribed in prevailing social relations. It is here that a robust analysis of intellectual property must start. My claim might sound counter-intuitive. Scarcity in the physical world is a condition of modern life, everywhere experienced as shortage and unfulfilled want. Certainty of such experiences must be suspended in favour of a viewpoint that relates scarcity to the social whole of the market-industrial system. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, drawing on his studies of archaic societies, talked from such an elevated vantage point when he made the following remarks:
“The market-industrial system institutes scarcity, in a manner completely unparalleled and to a degree nowhere else approximated. Where production and distribution are arranged through the behaviour of prices, and all livelihoods depend on getting and spending, insufficiency of material means becomes the explicit, calculable starting point of all economic activity.” Marshall David Sahlins, “Stone Age Economics”, 1972
Numerous historians have demonstrated how this state of affairs came to be, starting with the enclosure movement in fifteenth and sixteenth century England (Perelman, 2000). Land that previously had been held in common was fenced in and assigned to individual property holders. Land was made into a scarce resource, just as information at one point was made to be an abstract and decontextualised entity. The current expansion of intellectual property, in James Boyle’s memorable words, amounts to ”a second enclosure movement” (Boyle, 2003). He exemplifies an analysis that starts with a broader critique of private property and commodification as moments in a historically unfolding, social whole. The historical perspective on scarcity puts stress on continuity rather than discontinuity, and shows that the political economy of information is not so exceptional after all. Nothing said so far denies the common sense notion that there is a qualitative difference between information goods and tangible goods. Nor do I deny that it can be meaningful to reflect over this difference. What is at stake is solely how to best frame such an inquiry. The point was forcefully made by Dan Schiller in his critique of the information exceptionalism hypothesis:
“As against the postindustrialists’ assertion that the value of information derives from its inherent attributes as a resource, we counter that its value stems uniquely from its transformation into a commodity — a resource socially revalued and refined through progressive historical application of wage labor and the market to its production and exchange.” Dan Schiller, “How to Think About Information, In The Political Economy of Information”, 1988
What appears to be inherent characteristics of information turns out to be, on a second look, a passing moment in a larger, historical process. Previously in the text I mentioned that information was defined in the mid-twentieth century as an abstract and decontextualised entity. Competing definitions of information existed at the time but this one was best aligned to the needs of an ascending scientific-industrial complex. Fifty years down the road, Claude Shannon’s definition of information has sunk into the infrastructures, practices and representations of our society. To say that his definition of information is a cultural innovation and a construction does not imply that it could be wished away tomorrow, simply by making a critique of it. Information thus understood is real enough, and it has contributed to a rupture in the fabric of society, roughly corresponding with the spread of information technology. My only contention is that this rupture should be located in the labour process, not in some inherent characteristics attributed to information as-such. Instead of speaking of ”infinitely reproducible information treated as a scarce resource”, it would be more appropriate to say ”private property straitjacketed onto a socialised labour process”. The chief advantage with the latter description is that it allows a more dynamic style of reasoning. A given, empirical reality can be studied as transitional in its becoming.
The advantages of the latter approach is plain to see when the object of study is technological change and creative destruction. The convergence of hardware and software is a case in point. This trend was working its way long before the surge of home-made, open source 3D printers forced the issue. A case in point is field-programmable circuits, widely used in the computer industry since more than a decade. The circuits are manufactured in such a way that the final design can be reprogrammed at a later date, as if it was software code. Needless to say, we owe the existence of field-programmable circuits to something more than the innate trajectory of scientific and technological progress. A testimony from an industry leader in the 1990s, anticipating the increased use of field-programmable circuits, makes this point succinctly:
“Our edge is that we can use easily available programming skills to do what previously required expensive and hard-to-recruit chip designers.” William Gibson, “Can Software Replace Hardware”, 1999
Both the abstract, mathematical definition of information famously stipulated by Claude Shannon, which later underpinned the many claims about cyberspace as a realm detached from physical, embodied existence, and the latest narrative where the two realms converge again, should be located in a larger circuit of production, commodification and labour relations. That is to say, intellectual property needs to be analysed from the vantage point of a critique of the political economy.
In the article, I have questioned the information exceptionalism hypothesis, upon which the predominant critique against intellectual property rests. This critique has been cut out from the same cloth as the economic discipline. Neo-classical economic theory, the dominant tendency within economics, is not an academic pursuit like any other. It is a feedstock of hegemonic thought and as such a material force, rewriting the world according to its own abstractions. In order to make any prediction about the economy, neo-classical theory must first postulate the omnipresence of scarcity. Scarcity is a condition for seeing, and, subsequently, the constitutive, blind angle of this ‘scientific paradigm’. It is this anomaly that critics of intellectual property exploit when they talk about the exceptionality of non-rival information goods. The irony of the reversal is easy enough to appreciate. The rationale for having intellectual property is overthrown from within the citadel of property. The liturgy of free markets is being chanted in praise of information commons. The price to pay, however, is that the blind spot of the economic discipline is duly reproduced in the critique of intellectual property. This is evident from the works of Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, as well as in the thinking of many hackers and hobbyists. It is not sufficient to criticise the intellectual flaws of this narrative without also recognising how practitioners make it work for them when they engage in boundary work. A case in point is the distinction between “free speech” and “free beer”. When advocates of free software insists on this boundary, they present themselves as strictly advocating civil rights issues, while exempting a critique of ownership, markets and wealth distribution from their stated opposition to intellectual property rights.
The boundary work that hackers, activists and academics have engaged in since 1980s is now being destabilised due to the introduction of a new narrative element. Namely, the exclamation that, to put it in the jargon of the Californian ideology: “atoms are the new bits”. At the heart of articulating this new imaginary are the hobbyists building open source 3D printers. The machine was devised with the stated objective of knocking down the railing between information and physical goods. The expectation among many of the hobbyist is that the same disruptive forces will be unleashed on industrial manufacturers as have already beset the music- and film industry. Filesharing will be generalised to the whole of the economy. Stated in more abstract terms, the hobbyists pay tribute to the insight, that the line between information commons and property markets is not given once and for all, inscribed in the nature of the resources. Rather, because the line is a construction, it is subject to being reconstructed and renegotiated through their inventive practices. From the vantage point of the hobbyists, this is seen as an aggressive move, the opening-up of a new front in the struggle against intellectual property.
Sadly, the same insight is mirrored on the ”opposite” side, where naturalistic fallacies about property are being renounced with equal vigour. In discussions about the relation between property, markets and technology, neoconservative think tanks have taken the constructivist lesson to heart. For instance, in a re-examination of the old debate about lighthouses and public goods, one economist has observed that light is now being replaced with radio signals as a means for assisting navigation. The latter technology is designed in such a way that rent can easily be extracted for the service. The writer rejoices: Due to technological change, there are no such things as natural public goods anymore. It is only institutional inertness which holds back the relentless expansion and intensification of markets (Foldvary 2003). What this reasoning points to is a future, where the most controversial aspects of intellectual property, i.e. digitial rights management systems, real-time customer surveillance, and intricate price discrimination, have spilled over the former boundary between virtual and physical, and redefined private property as we once knew it. The two types of property converge into what I call “augmented property”. Thanks to the augmentation of property, the granularity of commodities can be made infinitely small. Infinite are the ways to parse up information and provide it on a pay-per basis. The coarse way in which goods and services are being charged for today will, a few years down the line, look like an endless long tail of market failures. Technology holds out the promise of closing the market failures, over and over again. As the conflict over augmented property unfolds, piracy will be generalised to every corner of society. And everywhere we will hear the battle cry: atoms want to be free too!