The New Enclosures

Early Tuesday (February 14) morning, Bloomberg reported on Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility Holdings for a cool $12.5 billion. Noting that the deal leaves Google with “17,000 additional patents,” the story called the transaction “the largest wireless-equipment deal in at least a decade,” implicating what the EU’s antitrust czar cites as “increasingly strategic use of patents in the sector.”

Worries about the competitiveness of the tech sphere are not at all misguided. A handful of huge companies, functioning through a web of subsidiaries, joint ventures and franchisees, now control much of the capital that drives the interconnected global economy. Confusion is thus introduced upon probing into the source or cause of the lack of competition that now seems such a pronounced feature of this bundle of phenomena that is globalization.

It is telling that so many see commerce itself as coextensive or synonymous with exploitation, simple trade with the system of capitalism we know as reality today. But market anarchists are careful not to confuse genuine laissez faire with the churning machine of global corporate capitalism, which depends completely on outrages against the very principles it professes to revere.

Intellectual property protections provide an exemplary case. Advanced on the grounds that they both protect and incentivize innovation and the creative spirit, patents and copyrights are neither necessary to, or consistent with, achieving those ends.

The definitive consequence of such legal impediments, in fact, is to stifle competition and abort technological advancements, building barricades around the most valuable, socially beneficial ideas to the advantage of a privileged corporate elite.

By drawing on the coercive force of state power to prohibit others from applying or developing scientific principles, naturally free in the facts of nature, the holders of patent privileges are empowered to demand usurious rents on practically all productive activity. The largest and most powerful multinational companies, situated with the connections and resources to navigate the legal and regulatory corridors, have successfully hemmed in the essence of the “New Econony.”

Reflecting on the transition “from commons to corporate patents on life,” philosopher and activist Vandana Shiva observed that “[d]uring the Uruguay Round negotiations of the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], the United States succeeded in forcing its own patent system onto the world through the WTO.” As a practical matter — and coupled with noisome land grabs for giant companies — the American system means that rich firms can license out their trademarks, patents and copyrights at virtually zero cost, all while capturing record profits.

Those who find the abuse of workers and the transformation of the non-Western world into a giant sweatshop (and I count myself among them), might stop pointing the finger at some supposed “free market” and start taking aim at intellectual property.

Intellectual property rights are, in their very nature, anti-competitive, deliberately designed to grant exclusive monopolies that dictate what you can and can’t do with the tangible materials that you own. Nothing short of chattel slavery could be more repugnant to anything worthy of the descriptive “free” (as in “free market”).

Of the lobbying efforts of major companies in the lead up to the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) accord — an international treaty overseen by the WTO — one Monsanto spokesman said, “The industries and traders of world commerce have played simultaneously the role of patients, diagnosticians, and prescribing physicians.”

What they have molded is a stunning masterwork of monopoly, fast against legitimate individual rights and devoted solely to the welfare of big business. Absent the global legal regime around IP, many of our basic needs for survival would be cheap and abundant, a condition made possible by technologies that are already all around us. God forbid.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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