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"Anarchism Triumphant"
Alex Steffen, 4 Oct 03

Eben Moglen's Anarchism Triumphant is fast becoming a classic essay, required reading for those who wish to understand why distributed, collaborative approaches (like open source software) and intellectual property regimes are on a collision course and gaining speed. It's a partisan screed from a brilliant thinker who clearly believes that collaboration will triumph decisively. It is also, however, one of the most clearly-put articulations of why that may be the case yet to see print:

"My argument, before we paused for refreshment in the real world, can be summarized this way: Software - whether executable programs, music, visual art, liturgy, weaponry, or what have you - consists of bitstreams, which although essentially indistinguishable are treated by a confusing multiplicity of legal categories. This multiplicity is unstable in the long term for reasons integral to the legal process. The unstable diversity of rules is caused by the need to distinguish among kinds of property interests in bitstreams. This need is primarily felt by those who stand to profit from the socially acceptable forms of monopoly created by treating ideas as property. Those of us who are worried about the social inequity and cultural hegemony created by this intellectually unsatisfying and morally repugnant regime are shouted down. Those doing the shouting, the dwarves and the droids, believe that these property rules are necessary not from any overt yearning for life in Murdochworld - though a little luxurious co-optation is always welcome - but because the metaphor of incentives, which they take to be not just an image but an argument, proves that these rules - despite their lamentable consequences - are necessary if we are to make good software. The only way to continue to believe this is to ignore the facts. At the center of the digital revolution, with the executable bitstreams that make everything else possible, propertarian regimes not only do not make things better, they can make things radically worse. Property concepts, whatever else may be wrong with them, do not enable and have in fact retarded progress.


"In the digital society, it's all connected. We can't depend for the long run on distinguishing one bitstream from another in order to figure out which rules apply. What happened to software is already happening to music. Their recording industry lordships are now scrambling wildly to retain control over distribution, as both musicians and listeners realize that the middlepeople are no longer necessary. ... The anarchist revolution in music is different from the one in software tout court, but here too - as any teenager with an MP3 collection of self-released music from unsigned artists can tell you - theory has been killed off by the facts. Whether you are Mick Jagger, or a great national artist from the third world looking for a global audience, or a garret-dweller reinventing music, the recording industry will soon have nothing to offer you that you can't get better for free. And music doesn't sound worse when distributed for free, pay what you want directly to the artist, and don't pay anything if you don't want to. Give it to your friends; they might like it."

"What happened to music is also happening to news. The wire services, as any U.S. law student learns even before taking the near-obligatory course in Copyright for Droids, have a protectible property interest in their expression of the news, even if not in the facts the news reports. So why are they now giving all their output away? Because in the world of the Net, most news is commodity news. And the original advantage of the news gatherers, that they were internally connected in ways others were not when communications were expensive, is gone. Now what matters is collecting eyeballs to deliver to advertisers. It isn't the wire services that have the advantage in covering Kosovo, that's for sure. Much less those paragons of "intellectual" property, their television lordships. They, with their overpaid pretty people and their massive technical infrastructure, are about the only organizations in the world that can't afford to be everywhere all the time. And then they have to limit themselves to ninety seconds a story, or the eyeball hunters will go somewhere else. So who makes better news, the propertarians or the anarchists? We shall soon see."

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