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Copyfarleft, Copyjustright and the Iron Law of Copyright Earnings
Copyfarleft, Copyjustright and the Iron Law of Copyright Earnings
Fri, 17 Aug 2007 15:27:22 +0200
Thunderbird 184.108.40.206 (X11/20070802)
Hello, here is my latest article regarding property relations, please
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Challenges to traditional copyright resulting from peer-to-peer
applications, free software, filesharing and appropriation art have
caused a wide ranging debate on the future of copyright. Dmytri Kleiner
brings existing critiques of material property from the left to bear
upon the realm of copyleft artistic production and asks how, within the
existing copyright regime, can artists earn a living?
COPYFARLEFT, COPYJUSTRIGHT AND THE IRON LAW OF COPYRIGHT EARNINGS
by Dmytri Kleiner for Mute Magazine
In the area of software development copyleft has proved to be a
tremendously effective means of creating an information commons which
broadly benefits all those whose production depends on it. However, many
artists, musicians, writers, film-makers and other information producers
remain sceptical that a copyleft based system where anyone is free to
reproduce their work, can earn them a living.
Copyleft licenses guarantee intellectual property freedom by requiring
that reuse and redistribution of information be governed by 'the four
freedoms,' the freedom to use, study, modify and redistribute.
However, property is the enemy of freedom. It is property, the ability
to control productive assets at a distance, the ability to 'own'
something being put to productive use by another person that makes
possible the subjugation of individuals and communities. Where property
is sovereign, the owners of scarce property can deny life by denying
access to property, or if not outright deny life, then make the living
work like slaves for no pay beyond their reproduction costs.
David Ricardo first described Economic Rent. Put simply, economic rent
is income the owner of a productive asset can earn just by owning it,
not by doing anything, just by owning. Thus, Rent is the economic return
for allowing others to use property. What would a person pay for the
right to exist? Well, they would pay everything they produce, minus
their subsistence costs. This is the basic bargaining position faced by
all of us who are born into a world entirely owned by others.
THE IRON LAW OF WAGES
Rent allows owners of scarce property to drive propertyless workers to
subsistence, as David Ricardo explains in his 'Iron Law of Wages' in his
essay Of Wages: 'The natural price of labour is that price which is
necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to
perpetuate their race'.
Subsistence should not be taken to mean the bare-minimum required to
actually survive and reproduce. Even in Ricardo's time, most workers
were generally not in the position that if they earned one penny less
they would immediately fall over and die,. Rather, workers, by their
very definition, are unable to earn enough to do anything more than make
It is often claimed that the iron law of wages does not apply due to the
difference between the theoretical 'natural' price and the actual market
price of labour, but this is no argument against the iron law. So long
as workers do not have property, whatever wage increases they retain are
swept away by price inflation, most often as the result of increased
money competition for locations and the driving up of land rents.
Reducing real wages by inflation as an alternative to reducing money
wages works because of the 'money illusion'. As John Maynard Keynes
writes in his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money: 'It
is sometimes said it would illogical for labour to resist a reduction of
money-wages but not to resist a reduction of real wages [...] experience
shows that this is how labour in fact behaves'.
Price inflation, mostly in the form of econonic rent, prevents workers
from ever earning enough to accumulate ownership of productive assets
themselves and keeps them dependent on the property owners.
What the iron law of wages really means is that workers, as a class,
cannot become property owners and thus cannot escape from having to
allow property owners to appropriate the product of their labour. This
creates different interests between 'owners' of scarce productive assets
and the rest of society.
In modern usage economic rent is understood to apply to any scarce
productive asset. In Ricardo's time that was primarily land. In his
Essay on Profits , David Ricardo argues: 'the interest of the landlord
is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community.'
This opposition is called class struggle - the struggle of those who
produce against those who own. Socialism and all other movements of the
'left' start with this class struggle as their point of departure.
Socialism is the belief that producers themselves should own the means
of production and that rent is nothing other than owners stealing from
producers. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously argued in his landmark
'What is Property?' published in 1840: 'property is theft'.
Property is not a natural phenomena, but rather something that is
created by law. The ability to extract rent is dependent on one's
ability to control a scarce resource even when it is being used by
somebody else. In other words, the ability to force that other person to
pay for it. Or, in terms of production, to force them to share the
product of their labour with the property owner. Control at a distance.
In this way, rent is only possible so long as it is supported by force,
which is happily provided by the state to the owners of property.
Without a means of forcing those who put property to productive use to
share the product of their labour with the absent and idle property
owner, the property owner could not earn a living, let alone accumulate
more property. As Ernest Mandel claims in Historical Materialism and the
Capitalist State (1980): 'without capitalist state violence, there is no
The purpose of property is to ensure a propertyless class exists to
produce the wealth enjoyed by a propertied class. Property is no friend
of labour. This is not to say that individual workers cannot become
property owners, but rather that to do so means to escape their class.
Individual success stories do not change the general case. As Gerald
Cohen quipped, 'I want to rise with my class, not above my class!'
The current global situation confirms that it is the case that workers,
as a class, are not able to accumulate property. A study by the World
Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations
University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of
global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults
accounted for 85% of the world total. 
The bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global
wealth. Extensive statistics, many indicating growing world disparity,
are included in the report.
This is in the context of this great disparity of wealth and the
struggle between classes which any investigation of intellectual
property must be understood.
Intellectual Property, including copyright, is the extension of property
to immaterial assets, to information. Copyright is a legal construction
that tries to make certain kinds of immaterial wealth behave like
material wealth, so that they can be owned, controlled, and traded.
It is often unfortunately said that intellectual property is intended to
allow information producers to earn a living. To allow musicians, for
instance, to earn money from the music they make. However, an
understanding of class struggle makes it clear that so long as the
owning class wants to have music, they must allow musicians to make a
living. They do not require intellectual property for this purpose.
Rather, they require intellectual property so that property owners, not
musicians, can earn money on the music made by musicians.
In any system of property, musicians collectively can no more retain
ownership of the product of their labour than can workers at a textile
sweatshop. The purpose of intellectual property, to rephrase my earlier
statement, is to ensure a propertyless class exists to produce the
information profited on by a propertied class. Intellectual property is
no friend of the intellectual, or creative, worker.
THE IRON LAW OF COPYRIGHT EARNINGS
The system of private control of the means of publication, distribution,
promotion and media production ensures that artists and all other
creative workers can earn no more than their subsistence. Whether you
are biochemist, a musician, a software engineer or a film-maker, you
have signed over all your copyrights to property owners before these
rights have any real financial value for no more than the reproduction
costs of your work. This is what I call the Iron Law of Copyright Earnings.
There are, however, an important differences between intellectual
property and physical property. Physical property is scarce and
rivalrous while intellectual property can be copied, has almost no
reproduction cost and can be used simultaneously by anyone with a copy.
It is exactly this characteristic of unlimited reproducibility that
requires the copyright regime to make information into property. In the
long term, the exchange value of any reproducable good is driven towards
it's reproduction cost by competition. Since there are few barriers to
reproducing an information asset it can have no exchange value beyond
the labour and resources required to reproduce it. In other words, it
has no long term exchange value of it's own. Thus, owners of this
property (again, not to be confused with the producers) need laws to
prevent this reproduction. Only by making it illegal for others to copy
it can the owners extract rent for the right to copy.
While property itself is created by law, material assets are scarce and
rivalrous by nature. However, because copyable information is made
scarce only by law, it can also be made abundant by law, which brings
us, finally, to copyleft.
COPYLEFT AND COPYRIGHT
Information may not have any exchange value without copyright, but it
certainly has use value without copyright and there are many information
producers who's motivation to produce is motivated by creating this use
value whether or not it can directly capture exchange value. It is
therefore no surprise that the idea of copyleft grew to prominence in
software development, in the rise of the free software community.
Software is used in production. Virtually every office, every academy
and every factory relies on software in their day-to-day work, for all
these organizations the use value of software can be directly translated
into exchange value in the course of their normal production, not by
selling the software directly, but by doing whatever business they do,
selling whatever product they sell and using software to increase their
Paying for software licenses and agreeing to the restrictive terms of
such licences is not in their interests. As David Ricardo said about
landlords, the interest of a software company like Microsoft is always
opposed to the interest of every software user.
The organizations that use software, schools, factories, offices,
e-commerce enterprises, collectively employ far more software developers
than the few companies who sell proprietary software, such as Microsoft.
Thus, free software is very attractive to them, it allows them to reduce
their individual development costs by collectively maintaining a common
stock of software assets.
Mikko Mustonen of the Helsinki School of Economics, even argues that
sometimes companies that do sell proprietary licenses have a strong
incentive to contribute to free software. In his 2005 paper 'When Does a
Firm Support Substitute Open Source Programming?' Mustonen argues:
A firm selling a copyright program has an incentive to support
substitute copyleft programming when support creates compatibility
between the programs and programs exhibit network effects.
Thus the use value of free software is wanted by organizations who can
and do pay software developers to make it, even though they have no
exclusive copyright on it.
Yet, free software was not conceived as merely a way to reduce the cost
of corporate software development. Richard Stallman, The inventor of the
General Public Licence (GPL) under which a lot of free software is
released writes on his organisations website:
My work on free software is motivated by an idealistic goal: spreading
freedom and cooperation. I want to encourage free software to spread,
replacing proprietary software that forbids cooperation, and thus make
our society better.
This spirit of cooperation is certainly not unique among software
developers, other creative producers have expressed the desire to work
on a common-stock, a 'commons' of intellectual material in their
practice. As a result copyleft has moved beyond the world of software
and into art as well. musicians, writers and other artists began
releasing their work under GPL-style copyleft licences.
However, there is a problem, art is not, in most cases, a common input
to production as software is. Owners of property will support the
creation of copyleft software, for the reasons described, however in
most cases, they will not support the creation of copyleft art. Why
would they? Like all copyable information, it has no direct exchange
value, and unlike software it generally has no use value in production
either. It's use value exists only among the fans of this art, and if
owners of property can not charge these fans money for the right to
copy, what good it is for them? And if owners of property will not
support copyleft art, which is freely distributed, who will? The answer
is unclear. In some cases institutions such as private and state
cultural funds will, but these can only support a very small number of
artists, and only by employing a dubious and ultimately somewhat
arbitrary selection criteria in deciding who does, and who does not,
receive such funding.
Copyleft, as developed by the free software community, is thus not a
viable option for most artists. Even for software developers, the iron
law of wages applies, they may be able to earn a living, but nothing
more, owners of property will still capture the full value of the
product of their labour.
Copyleft is thus not able to 'make society better' in any material
sense, because not only is it not viable for many kinds of workers, but
the majority of the extra exchange value created by producers of
copyleft information is in every case captured by owners of material
As copyleft cannot allow workers to accumulate wealth beyond
subsistence, copyleft alone cannot change the distribution of productive
assets, which is what any revolutionary strategy must seek to do. Yet
the emergence of free software, filesharing and art forms based upon
sampling and reuse of other media has created a serious problem for the
traditional copyright system.
The music and film industries, in particular, are in the middle of what
basically amounts to an all out war against their own consumers to
prevent them from downloading and sampling their property. It is clear
that digital network technology poses a serious problem to the recording
and film industries.
In the earlier stages of the free software movement most corporations,
especially software companies, reacted very negatively to the idea of
copyleft, and tried to fight it with the same aggressive tactics The
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and its friends are
unleashing attacks on the filesharing community. Most famously these was
the SCO Group's legal actions against companies that use or promote
The actions of RIAA can be understood in that same way, a conservative
reaction to protect their interests. However, not all owners of property
believe that legal action can stop new technologies from emerging. Many
believe that the music and film industry will need to adapt and that
copyright law must be modified for this changing environment.
Thus, just as capital joined the copyleft software movement to reduce
the cost of software development, capital is also joining the copyright
dissident art movement to integrate filesharing and sampling into an
otherwise property-based system of control.
As copyleft does not allow the extraction of rent for the right to copy,
and what owners of property want is not something that will challenge
the property regime, but rather to create more categories and
subcategories so that practices like filesharing and remixing can exist
with the property regime. In other words, copyjustright. A more flexible
version of copyright that can adapt to modern uses but still ultimately
embody and protect the logic of control. The most prominent example of
this is the so-called Creative Commons and it's myriad of 'just right'
licenses. 'Some rights reserved,' the motto of the site says it all.
The iron law of copyright earnings makes it obvious that it is not for
the creators of the music, videos and other creative works licensed that
'some rights are reserved', as artists have no means to bargain for
anything more than subsistence. Of the 'some rights' being reserved, the
primary one is the right of the creators to transfer ownership of these
works to the propertied class. When ever the propertied class find it in
there interests to take ownership, and, of course, entirely on the terms
dictated by the propertied class.
This iron law is illustrated in 'Artists' Earnings and Copyright' by
Martin Kretschmer where he concludes that 'The creator has little to
gain from exclusivity' and in his 2006 study Empirical Evidence On
Copyright Earnings which states: 'Earnings from non-copyright, and
even non-artistic activities are an important source of income for most
creators' which includes many startling statistics, for example the fact
that the median payment distributed by the Performing Right Society (UK)
in 1994 to it's copyright holders was £84.
So if neither copyleft, copyright or copyjustright can overcome the iron
law and ultimately increase the wealth of artists and other workers as a
class, is there any reason at all for a socialist to be interested in
intellectual property licenses?
Socialists promote the idea that wealth must be more justly and
equitably shared and controlled by the people who produce it. Perhaps
the best method of achieving this is through decentralized, worker-owned
enterprises, co-operatives, and councils. For Socialists interested in
workers-self-organisation and commons based production as a means of
class struggle, the answer is a 'yes'.
For the same reason that capitalist organisations support copyleft
software, because it represents a common stock of use value they can
apply to production to create exchange value and thus make money,
commons based production and therefor all worker self-organized
enterprises, can also benefit from such a common stock of copyleft art
and can incorporate artists in their collective enterprises and share in
the resulting income.
As the International Workers of the World state in the preamble to their
Instead of the conservative motto, A fair day's wage for a fair day's
work, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword,
Abolition of the wage system.' and further that 'It is the historic
mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of
production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with
capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have
been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure
of the new society within the shell of the old.
For copyleft to have any revolutionary potential it must be Copyfarleft.
It must insist upon workers ownership of the means of production.
In order to do this a license cannot have a single set of terms for all
users, but rather must have different rules for different classes.
Specifically one set of rules for those who are working within the
context of workers ownership and commons based production, and another
for those who employ private property and wage labour in production.
A copyfarleft license should make it possible for producers to share
freely and to retain the value of their labour product, in otherwords it
must be possible for workers to make money by applying their own labour
to mutual property, but impossible for owners of private property to
make money using wage labour.
Thus under a copyfarleft license a worker-owned printing cooperative
could be free to reproduce, distribute, and modify the common stock as
they like, but a privately owned publishing company would be prevented
from having free access.
A trend in works by pro-copyleft artists seems in one sense related. The
copyleft Non-Commercial licenses create two sets of rules with
theoretically endogenic (orginating within the commons) 'non-commercial'
uses being allowed while exogenic (orginating outside the commons)
'commercial' uses are forbidden except by agreement from the orginal
authors. Examples of such licenses include the Creative Commons
Non-Commercial ShareAlike license.
However, in order to create commons endogenic terms, the works
themselves must be in the commons, and so long as the authors reserve
the right to make money with this work and prevent other commons based
producers from doing so, the work can not be considered to be in the
commons at all, it is a private work. As such, it can not have commons
endogenic-free terms, such as a copyfarleft license would require. This
problem of creating 'commons deeds' for works that are not really a
common stock is typical of the Copyjustright approach typified by the
A copyfarleft license must allow commons based commercial use while
denying the ability to profit by exploiting wage labour. The copyleft
Non-Commercial approach does neither, it prevents commons based
commerce, while restricting wage exploitation only by requiring the
exploiters to share some loot with the so-called original author. In no
way does this overcome the iron law for either the authors or other workers.
'Non Commercial' is not a suitable way to describe the required
endogenic/exogenic boundary. Yet, no other commons license exists that
provides a suitable legal framework for commons based producers to use.
Only a license that efectively prevents alienated property and wage
labour from being employed in the reproduction of the otherwise free
information commons can change the distribution of wealth.
Dmytri Kleiner <email@example.com> is an anarchist hacker and a
co-founder of Telekommunisten [http://www.telekommnunisten.net], a
worker-owned technology company specialising in telephone systems.
Dmytri is a USSR-born Canadian, currently living in Berlin with his wife
Franziska and his daughter Henriette
 David Ricardo,On the Principles of Political Economy, 1817.
 John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and
Money, 1936. Available at:
 David Ricardo An Essay on Profits, 1815. Available from:
 Available from: http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ProProp.html
 James B. Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks, and Edward N.
Wolff, The World Distribution of Household Wealth,
 Available from:
 For more information see:
 Available at: http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_1/kretschmer/
 Available at: http://ipr.dime-eu.org/files/active/0/Kretschmer.pdf
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