[Marxism] Intellectual property and Marxism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 09:28:44 MST 2004

Dan Hunter "Marxist-Lessigism." Legal Affairs (Nov-Dec 2004)

Computer users of the world have united behind Stanford law professor 
Lawrence Lessig-and what they're doing is much more important than his 
critics realize.

AT SWARTHMORE COLLEGE, the crowd is mostly students, and maybe a few 
professors and interested outsiders. It's a typical turnout for a public 
lecture by a well-known law professor. But there is something different and 
a little odd about this group. Swarthmore doesn't have a law school, so the 
audience includes no young men in suits that still have the label attached, 
and no young women with high-heeled shoes so new the soles aren't scuffed. 
And there is something else, something funny about the T-shirts. Everywhere 
you look, there are T-shirts with slogans, not logos. No "Tommy Hilfiger" 
and "Ralph Lauren" here. Just shirts with references too obscure to parse. 
What is "Downhill Battle"? Or "Grey Tuesday"? One kid has a shirt with the 
picture of a skull and crossbones on it, and written boldly across it are 
the words "Home Taping is Killing the Music Industry." Look closer, and 
you'll see, in tiny type, "(And it's fun)."

A couple of students get up to introduce the speaker. They're nervous, 
disorganized, and rambling. Now you notice the handmade signs: "Swarthmore 
Coalition for the Digital Commons" is taped to the lectern, and "Free 
Culture" is written on the wall. It starts to become clear. This isn't just 
a lecture; it's a political rally. People start to shuffle; the students 
are losing their audience as the garbled introductions continue. But when 
the speaker gets up to start, the shuffling ends and there is a ripple of 
excitement. He is Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor, known to 
this crowd as Larry. Dressed in black and wearing a pair of spectacles that 
could have been handed down by Ben Franklin, he waits until the crowd 
settles. And finally, you get it. Outside, lightning is cracking, but the 
smell in the air is not the ozone from the thunderstorm. It's the smell of 

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY-"I.P.," AS IT'S CALLED-revolves around three basic 
property interests granted by federal statute: copyrights, patents, and 
trademarks. Copyrights cover expression by authors of various sorts, 
including books, plays, music, and so on. Patents protect underlying ideas 
of useful inventions and processes, such as a chemical reaction or an 
inventive mechanical device. And trademarks cover business brands. For much 
of the 20th century, these I.P. interests (and other close cousins such as 
trade secrets, unfair competition, and celebrities' publicity rights) were 
narrow and uncontroversial. Businesses in the industrial era cared about 
the factory, the production line, and the land needed for them. But as the 
modern era rolled on, the importance of industrial production waned. No 
longer were heavy machinery and physical plants the predominant means of 
production; no longer was physical inventory central to industry. In the 
developed world, control over intangibles came to dominate the business 
agenda, and so too the political agenda.


doing at Swarthmore on a wet night in April. He's talking about his new 
book, Free Culture, in which he argues for scaling back the copyright 
system. Lessig is a prodigy of the legal academy: Now 43, he earned a B.A. 
in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, 
an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He 
clerked for Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and for 
Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court, and he was a professor at the 
University of Chicago and Harvard Law Schools before Stanford lured him in 
a competition with Yale and Harvard. His rZsumZ lists four books and 61 law 
review articles produced in his 15-year career as a legal academic. But not 
everything he has touched has turned to gold. While he has written about 
aspects of the Constitution dealing with subjects other than intellectual 
property, the constitutionalists in the academy greet some of that work 
with derision and even his admirers often consider him an extravagant 

With his dazzling academic record, fiery rhetoric, and prolific writing, 
however, Lessig has become the most recognizable voice to articulate why it 
was a bad idea to privatize the open environment of the Internet, and how 
the expansion of I.P. threatens future innovation. Tonight he's lending 
support to a student protest group, one formed by the students threatened 
when they exposed the electronic voting scandal. Like other student groups, 
this one is renouncing private I.P. interests, has the word "commons" in 
its name, identifies with the I.P. have-nots, and invokes a class struggle. 
Means of production, communal ownership, class struggle, students with 
slogans on their shirts. Sounds like a Marxist revolution.

LIKE MANY OTHER I.P. REFORMERS, Lessig is routinely denounced as a 
communist. The most recent such attack was by a high-profile technology 
columnist named Stephen Manes. In several vitriolic attacks prompted by 
Lessig's Free Culture, Manes described Lessig as "blustering" and 
"bloviating," a "buffoon" and an "idiot," whose ideas ("droppings") were 
"nuts" and "laughable." Manes contrasted Lessig's "radicalism" on copyright 
policy with the stance of "responsible creators" like Walt Disney, and made 
it clear that the sort of reform Lessig advocates is ideologically suspect 
because it involves stealing property from copyright owners. Manes proposed 
renaming Lessig's book, Freeloader Culture: A Manifesto for Stealing 
Intellectual Property. The allusion to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's 
Communist Manifesto is hard to miss.




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