On Monday (May 14, 2012), the Wall Street Journal published two stories on some of the major players in corporate patent wrangling.
The first story, featuring tech firms Nvidia and Intellectual Ventures, highlights the defensive role of patents as a strategic investment. Nvidia’s general counsel, David Shannon, remarks in the article that “[t]he acquisition of IP is a strategy every company is using right now.”
Elsewhere, in the litigation theater of the intellectual property wars Shannon cites, Apple and Samsung skirmished in a federal appellate court over whether Samsung could market its Galaxy tablet in the U.S. The case is just one in the constant and frenzied volley of IP-related lawsuits within the technology industries, whose most important assets are no longer physical goods, but special legal protections.
These stories and many more just like them hint at something at the core of the way that the economic ruling class employs the power of the modern state.
The role of the state in the economy is and always has been to allow a small elite to create gates and tolls around wealth and natural resources, to monopolize them and the products of labor. As a particular medium for this operating principle, the modern state is somewhat unique, built upon quite specific thinking as to roles and capabilities of bureaucrats working within centralized, hierarchical organizations.
It is in that way very similar, in both its philosophical assumptions and in its functioning, to the modern corporation. Narratives that position business and government as rivals ignore not only the similarities of the two, but their mutual interdependence. Indeed it would be practically impossible to neatly separate the two from one another in the history of the modern, total state.
Technology represents the proverbial double-edged sword within such a paradigm. On the one hand, in its relation to the do-it-yourself realm, technology has thrown wide potentialities of self-sufficiency and independence that few could have imagined, new ways to live and to thrive in a world outside of the state-corporate economic and social structure.
At the same time, the emergence of new industries and new technologies must be regarded as central in the evolution of the kind of state we know today, the reach and scope of authority seeming to lengthen and expand daily.
Discussing the international law framework around “intellectual property,” specifically the TRIPS agreement, economist Donald G. Richards notes the ways that international IP rules “reflect the real and perceived interests of cross-national classes.” Richards argues, as do market anarchists, that worldwide protection of patents and copyrights “facilitates the expansion of global capitalism while reinforcing the currently prevailing hierarchy of production and power relations.”
On a fundamental level, patents and copyrights dictate the ways in which people are allowed to use their own tangible property, from pens and paper to scrap metal and computer chips. They thus represent the kinds of coercive, monopoly privileges that genuine free markets stand against in principle. Using the restrictive power of the state to limit competition raises the prices of our computers, automobiles, food and clothing — virtually all of the good and services we buy.
“Competition” today is no more than a clash between rich, monolithic global corporate titans who would rather use the legal system to ban competitors than actually compete. Competition between Samsung and Apple may be fierce enough in the courtroom, but what would happen in a real free market, one where no one was entitled to special privileges through IP?
Then the consumer might not be merely a consumer; she might just be an autonomous individual with more capacity for self-sufficiency than we can imagine in a today shackled to millions of pieces of paper housing corporate patents.