Intellectual Property Is Not Property

I have been thinking about this subject for a long time. I now try to organize my scribbled notes into something a bit more organized.

In 2014 the newest U2 album descended from the cloud, unannounced, on to nearly every apple device on the planet. The reason seems simple enough; shrewd apple marketing, which hoped to keep apple users locked into apple products and maybe bring others over from elsewhere. The reason is fair enough, although with so much negative coverage it may have backfired slightly. But the negativity came in at a very strange angle (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/13/has-rocknroll-sold-out-u2-apple-stunt). The attacks have mainly originated from the music industry who see this as both a competition to their own corporate structure and to the inherent value of downloadable music itself. It now appears that U2 downloads are worthless in their assessment. I actually agree with them, but I want to universalize their argument a bit more. [I didn’t really enjoy that new album, but this has nothing to do with my opinions from hereon in.]

Marxism is old idea now, there are specific parts which remain popular and there are ideas that are heavily disputed, particularly by economists. However there is one thing that will always remain, and that is Marx’s method of investigation. Marx did not criticise capitalism from outside, he aimed to critique capitalism from within. Only by embracing everything about the system could he find problems and inconsistencies that he determined would undermine the system as a whole. This procedure of inquiry is valuable and could be used for this issue of music value assessment and copyright. So let’s start by not judging the current system but by analysing it form within.

In the artistic fields we have individuals who produce something, a musician for instance uses time from his/her days to compose a song and records the final version onto a single CD. This CD has acquired value from the time and energy expended by the human body. The musician then sells this CD (which is a material embodiment of his/her labour) to a record company for $1M. The record company is now in debt of that money. To recover this money the company makes many copies of the original CD and sells them to consumers. Now, in paying for the copying and the distribution of the CD the company has to make more than $1M to recover the costs, it will also charge more so as to make a profit for the capitalists. But where is this extra value coming from? Surely there is an exact $-amount that the CD contains within it. The ‘labour value’ held within the physical CD is being diluted with every copy made, but the price that is being charged to the consumer is much more than this. I think this is what is referred to as ‘surplus value’ in Marxist terms. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_value#Theory ).

 

There is always ambiguity of where surplus value comes from. I argue that in the case of artistic endeavors the value comes from the collective recognition from (or reflection of) society. A terrible song made of random notes will not be popular (and will not sell) however a song which touches the hearts and minds of the society is rewarded with success (and money). Is the value of the artist’s expression in the form of e.g. a musical song not then partly a possession of the people? The surplus value can only be, in my opinion, from the reflective interplay between an artist and a collection of people i.e. society.

 

For this reason, I would actually go further and say that, an artist is not the sole owner of his work, for he/she could not have produced it without a society to reflect against.

So do I have a problem with apple paying U2 for an album then distributing it freely? Not really, it’s exactly what it’s worth in my view.

State Violence

As I was writing yesterday about the Gwangju uprising and the movie “A Taxi Driver” I got to thinking more about state violence. Although May 18th 1980 was only 37 years ago, Korea is a fast moving democracy and we have come a long way since then…. or have we? I am reminded of a thesis I read a few years ago and it still shocks me… “Police, Paramilitaries, Nationalists and Gangsters: The Processes of State Building in Korea” By Jonson Nathaniel Porteux (original link, my local copy). In the process of researching this topic the author embedded himself within  various korean social structures, even including the mob (usually referred to as 조폭 “jopok” or 건달 “geondal” in korean).

He found that gangsters are still used by local authorities and private businesses to handle disputes through physical violence.  Here is the opening to his thesis…

At 2pm on what seemed to be a normal day in Insadong, a historic tourist destination located in central Seoul, South Korea (henceforth, Korea), what seemed to be hundreds of police clad in riot gear suddenly appeared and quickly lined up into formation on either side of the street and in the back alley ways of the district. Ambulances were additionally positioned on opposite ends of the roughly 700 meter long road. 76 Street vendors as well were stationed next to their pushcarts, wearing red protest bands a cross their foreheads. Not long after the police were in position, did a group of 150 young thugs, both male and female, wearing yellow vests, start marching down the street, going from one vendor stall to the next, destroying them and beating any vendor who challenged them. Guiding the yellow clad thugs were a few intimidating men who seemed to be in their early to mid 40s, screaming their well followed orders. The process took about one hour the thugs having moved from one end of the street to the other and back again. The street vendors were selling their wares illegally and were labeled as public nuisances – they didn’t pay taxes to the state – they didn’t pay rent –  and they often sold the same goods as the businesses in the area which had to pay highly to be there. The violence committed against the street vendors however, was also a criminal act, and the services of the thugs were directly and formally contracted out by the Jongno-gu 2 district office. This event did not occur in pre-1987 authoritarian Korea. It occurred on May 24th, 2011 in a country which is often characterized and hailed as being a prosperous and consolidated democracy.
The events which transpired on May 24th are not isolated to either that day or to street vendors alone. Rather, the practice as described above is part of a larger phenomenon in which the state either directly contracts the services of private security firms, or tolerates their use in limited, highly controlled areas. Questions raised in my mind that day are the questions that motivate this study. If the vendors are breaking the law, why can’t the police simply arrest or otherwise sanction them in to compliance? How come Korean society, a society that has a well-documented history of being both contentiousness and in favor of civilian controlled rule, not be able, or more accurately, willing, to hold its elected leaders and the police accountable for allowing such acts to occur? Why would the state collaborate with groups to carry out criminal violence against its own citizens –  in broad daylight and in a democracy no less? This phenomenon directly contradicts the notion of the legitimacy of the state on the one hand, and on the other, the illegitimacy of the groups which engage in criminal violence. This dissertation is an attempt to understand this complex phenomenon.
What [….] are the conditions under which state actors in high capacity, democratic states would collude with private actors in carrying out extra legal violence within their own territorial boundaries, and against their own citizens whom they have been charged with protecting?!

 

A Taxi Driver and the Gwangju Uprising

A few days ago I watched the new Korean movie Taxi Driver (택시 운전사), directed by Jang Hoon (who was an assistant to Kim Kiduk for many years). I was compelled to see this movie since I became aware that it was a true story about the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. Even though the movie is in Korean with no subtitles, I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see this movie on it’s opening night. So I gathered some friends from work and we went.

The opening of the movie is quite light hearted, as we follow the taxi driver, Kim Man-seob (played by Song Kang-ho, a regularly appearing actor in many great movies by Park Chan-wook e.g. Thirst), around the streets of Seoul. The juxtaposition of the opening with the latter parts of the movie may be deliberate on the part of the writer/director. It draws you in and lowers you emotional guard to what is a deeply harrowing story.

Short on money, Kim Man-seob decides to take a job driving a reporter, Peter (based on the life of the late Jürgen Hinzpeter) to Gwangju, a distance of roughly 300km. Unbeknownst to the driver, the city of Gwangju is on military lock-down and they have to sneak and bluff their way through. This is indeed true, the city was cut off from the rest of the country and no-one knew what was going on there.

On the 18th May 1980, students at the Chonnam National University began protesting its closure. This was met by force from 30 paratroopers. Within a few days and many escalations, the conflict reach a deadly turning point when ROK soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing and injuring hundreds of protesters. The government then blockaded the city and cut off telephone lines and other forms of communication. While inside the city the people declared Gwangju a ‘liberated’ city and had set up the Citizens’ and Student’s Settlement Committees and begun work negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims as well as organising funerals, public campaigns, traffic control, withdrawal of weapons, and medical aid.

Peter was the only foreign journalist in Gwangju at the time and was welcomed warmly by everyone. It quickly became clear to him that his pictures and films of the violence and oppression by the ROK soldiers against the protesters must be spread world wide to shine a light on the situation. Within Korea the reporting of the Gwangju protest was highly biased towards the government side, and in fact the most informed Koreans were those living in Germany (there was and still is a large Korean community living in Germany), where the news of the Gwangju massacre first broke.

The movie and the real life story of Gwangju is about the coming together of people against a tyrannical rule; taxi drivers acted at ambulances, house-wifes made and donated food, students and professors organized daily town hall style meetings to give everyone a voice. The movie is also a reminder to be cautious of our own government and the ‘official’ stories that they tell us. Unfortunately, as has been borne out of history, those who are in power will lie, cheat and even kill when that power or their legitimacy is questioned. Nonetheless, it must always be questioned.

[Interesting aside, while the reporter and the taxi driver are both based on real people, the taxi driver was never found by the reporter in real life after they separated. The real Jurgen speaks at the end of the movie, expressing his wish to meet him again. I wonder if, now that the movie and their story has spread, someone manages to find the illusive Kim Man-seob.]

Killing Our Citizens

Several years ago a man was shot in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. He was shot by South Korean soldiers after repeated warnings, as he tried to swim across the Imjin river (BBC article). I find this story  disturbing on two levels. One is of course that a person was killed, there should always be a moment to reflect when we are faced with a death of a fellow citizen. However the second is a more subtle point, I have brought up this story with several friends and there is a very little sympathy for this man. I find this hard to comprehend. He broke the law in entering the DMZ, he knew those laws, but I still think we should stand up collectively and denounce this act.

I have made this point to many people, but the law does not decide what is right from wrong, it is a rough set of guidelines for conducting ourselves in a society. For instance, if you drive through a red traffic light to block another car from hitting a child who happens to have walked onto the road, you would have technically broken the law. But I doubt a judge would punish you for this infraction. We do not know the particulars of this recent case, but can you imagine a scenario where this man really deserved to be shot in the back and killed?

Legally this soldier was following orders. But I don’t think the legality defines the rightness or wrongness of this or any situation. If I didn’t drive my car passed the red light to protect the helpless child on the road, I would not be held to account in a legal court, but I would still have done the wrong thing in not helping the child.

Why do we find it so easy to relinquish our autonomous moral character to legal (civilised) conformity. Its a bit like Milgrom’s Experiment. If you’re not familiar with this, it is the infamous psychological experiment whereby a volunteer is persuaded to inflict pain on another person. Through obedience to authority the majority of participants are quite willing to inflict life threatening pain. This explains how a soldier is stripped of their critical thinking and could thus make such a call. But it does not explain why we would have such a deadly legal framework in place, even in a place such as the DMZ.

Asked if the soldiers’ response was excessive, Brigadier General Cho Jong-sul at a  briefing said: “It was legitimate. In a combat area like this, anyone who ignores our soldiers’ repeated warnings and tries to run away to North Korea will get shot.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/09/17/military-defends-killing-of-defector/)

I think it is time to question legitimacy and this raises the question of civil disobedience. Right now we are just talking about this issue. But lets say we had time to do something about it. For example, “in the US the state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s supplying ammo for the Vietnam conflict; but the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because it’s legal and proper and should be done. It’s proper to carry out actions that will prevent the criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a traffic ordinance in order to prevent the kid from being killed.” –  from the Chomsky-Foucault debate ’71.