Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

Since passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, the Lords of Scarcity have given us one demonstration after another of the totalitarian lengths they’re willing to go to — that they’re driven to, in fact — to preserve their system of power.

Back in the days of the old Soviet Union, the state licensed access to photocopiers and referred to people circulating Samizdat pamphlets as “pirates,” because they undermined the information control that the bureaucratic oligarchy and its system of exploitation depended on.

Twenty years after the Fall of Communism, it’s corporate capitalism that depends on information control as the basis of its power. Capitalism — as opposed to the free market — has always depended on the state to enforce artificial scarcity, artificial property rights, as a source of rents for the ruling class. But around twenty years ago, the forces of abundance unleashed by the digital and network revolutions became an unprecedented threat to the artificial scarcity rents that the Lords of Scarcity depend on. They were forced to resort to unprecedented levels of totalitarian information control to stave off the threat from abundance.

Today “intellectual property” is the central monopoly on which the profits of global corporations depend. “Intellectual property” serves the same protectionist function for transnational corporate capitalism that tariffs did for the old national industries a century ago. IP is a barrier between the corporation and the surrounding world, rather than between a nation and the world. But its essence is the same: A restriction on who is allowed to sell a given good in a given market.

IP is central to the business models of all the dominant industries in the global corporate economy: Agribusiness, biotech, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, software, and electronics.  The profits of these industries depend entirely on the erection of feudal barriers against the flow of information, on the criminalization of competition. Their profits are a form of tribute extracted from labor at gunpoint.

Just as the great landlords once fenced off and enclosed the Earth in order to exact tribute from those they then permitted to work it, the new feudal Lords of Scarcity erect fences against the free flow of information, against the free adoption of innovation. They exact tribute from us for the right to share and build on each other’s ideas.

Corporate capitalism has erected a wall, a DRM Curtain, against the free flow of information.  And it periodically adds bricks to the wall: The WIPO Copyright Treaty, the Uruguay Round TRIPS Accord, the DMCA, ACTA. But it’s never enough, because tyranny of the mind is unenforceable. No matter how many bricks they add to shore up the wall, free people keep right on sharing information.

The most recent new brick is the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” As it turns out, the final Senate vote on SOPA has been postponed to next year. But when it was expected to come up for a vote on December 21, Mozilla introduced an extension for the Firefox browser, DeSopa, that automatically circumvents domain name takedowns by locating other domains for the same numeric IP address. Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, commenting on it, snarked that “the Internet treats the Congressional Law of the Land as damage and routes around it.”

So to you Lords of Scarcity, I proclaim — as did John Perry Barlow twenty years ago: You have no authority that we are bound to respect. We hold your patents, your digital copyright laws, in contempt. We will continue to share information in defiance of your so-called laws. We will devise ways to circumvent your laws faster than you can find ways to enforce them.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall brought down a previous Evil Empire, we’re tearing down your DRM Curtain. You Lords of Scarcity and your corporate system are headed for the ashheap of history.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory