Blackout
Fighting the arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.
My website is not blacked out in protest of SOPA. My avatars have not been defaced, I am rebroadcasting no hashtags and endorsing no occupations. On balance I am perhaps as opposed to the protests as I am to the bill, and here is why: because SOPA, PIPA, DMCA, MPAA, RIAA, and all these other acronyms are not the problem. They are symptoms of a problem, and that problem has far deeper roots.

To explain, let me quote from activist Mario Savio's speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, nearly 50 years ago now:

Now, there are at least two ways in which sit-ins and civil disobedience [can] occur. One: when a law is promulgated which is totally unacceptable to people, and they violate it again and again and again till it's rescinded; appealed. Alright. But there's another way. There's another way. Sometimes, the form of the law is such as to render impossible its effective violation as a method to have it repealed. Sometimes, the grievances of people are more than just the law, extend to a whole mode of arbitrary power, a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.


Consider an inert object, like a block of metal, a stick, or — if you prefer — the brain of representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). Now pull at both ends simultaneously, or hold one end in place and push on the other, or anchor both ends and give the middle a shove. What happens?

Whenever a material is subjected to forces with different vectors, the difference between them exists as tension, and tension yearns to be resolved. Sometimes the material merely deforms slightly, pulled apart like malleable clay. Sometimes it splits clean in two like a snapped twig. Sometimes, like a glass gripped too firmly, it shatters.

But wherever tension exists, it is because there are multiple forces acting on that material. Today, January 18th, tension is created between the belief that information has an owner and the belief that it does not. It is as simple as that. SOPA and PIPA should not perplex us. They are the logical conclusion of an intellectual property regime that insists that sole proprietorship of an idea is ideal or, for that matter, intellectually defensible. In object-oriented programming, SOPA is merely an instance — an example of what "intellectual property" means.

Lost in the discussion about DNS and the fundamentals of the Internet and other such ephemera is the kernel of this whole thing. SOPA is not about censorship, at least not in any profoundly surprising way. To state it bluntly: copyright is censorship. That's all it is. You can rationalize it however you like — certainly, rational arguments can be made in favor of censorship — but at the end of the day, censorship is all that copyright is. It is your bald assertion that you have the authority to compel someone else not to say something. Period.

Once you assert that ideas are ownable — that one person can and should exert authority over their distribution — the floodgates are open. That patents create chilling effects on cancer research, that recording labels sue the indigent for six-figure sums, that companies want to change the structure of the Internet to facilitate the defense of their intellectual property, that the text of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s public "I have a dream" speech is under copyright until 2038, that research conducted with public funds is locked away from the public by gatekeepers charging extortionate fees, that the public domain has become a political statement rather than a matter of course — all these things are part and parcel of the exact same narrative as the "©" glyph. That's what intellectual property is: a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.

This very arbitrary nature is what makes it so hard to pin down, and one reason why the SOPA protests are in many cases so grating: the participation of people who believe that ideas can be owned, but are shocked, shocked to find their owners actually attempting to defend that ownership. But where is the line? Is it okay for a daycare to paint Disney characters on their wall? Is it okay to have a song playing in the background of a video you upload to the Internet? Is it okay to lend a novel to a friend? If it's okay to do that, is it okay to copy that floppy? And if not, why not? When we find ourselves introducing limitations on the power of a new technology to compel it to follow the same rules as an older one, where have we gone wrong?

It's hard to answer these questions procedurally, because they get back to the very philosophical underpinnings of what intellectual property is, means, and does. The conversation around SOPA, PIPA, the DMCA and similar legislation must of necessity involve a conversation around patents and copyrights themselves. Otherwise there will be no end to the legislation, to the lawsuits, to the arguments and the vague sense of irrationality that underlies it all. As I have quoted Mario Savio, and for a bit of irony, let me quote Ayn Rand:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.


Or, put another way: if tension exists from the difference between two oppositional forces, one of those forces must be removed. It is up to us to do that. We are creative people: we own blogs, we write, we make music, we draw, we take pictures — we create things, every day. To the extent that SOPA has parents, it's not only the content industries who are at fault: it's us. This may not be the world we wanted, but it's the world we created. It may not be the world we expected, but it's the world we deserve. And if we expect different things — if we want to put an end to this discordant thinking that breeds such legislation — then it's up to us to change it.

But. So you say you don't like SOPA: then what are you going to do? If you are an academic paid with taxpayer dollars, are you going to make sure that you only publish in journals that are accessible to the taxpayer? If you are a writer who has spent their lifetime being inspired by the work of others, are you going to open your works to the public domain? If you are a programmer reliant on tools and theories bound by open standards, are you going to insist on creating open source code?

And if you will, is this true of every Redditer cheering on the blackout, or is it just one more Internet bandwagon to hitch to? Because here's the problem: the gap between "I endorse something" and "I am opposed to something, but not enough to inconvenience myself over it" is as near enough to nothing as makes no difference. I, personally, endorse the Creative Commons. It is not a positive step for my career as a writer, because it effectively enjoins me from seeking publication — but it is the way in which I can resolve what would otherwise strike me as a contradiction. And I think that it is incumbent upon all of us to examine our premises and to make that choice.

Mind you, this is not an endorsement of piracy. I am not inclined to see piracy in moral terms — certainly I don't think piracy is civil disobedience, and I find the argument that it is to be self-serving and ridiculous. I am not a pirate. Between magazines, newspapers, video games, music, books and movies I spend a couple hundred dollars a month on media. If people wish to license their work under the terms of the current intellectual property regime I will respect that choice, and you should too.

As creative individuals, we need to make a choice about how we deal with creativity, because if we expect to stop SOPA and its children at their source then this battle begins with us. Let me turn back to Mario Savio:

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part — you can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all!


This is where SOPA came from. Not out of the corrupt pens of venal politicians, or the insidious desires of corporate executives. It came from the internally consistent, normal, logical, proper operation of a machine so intrinsically wrongheaded in its goals that there came a point at which the application of its philosophy became, completely defensibly, "shut down everything." And this is our moment. This is our time to put our bodies upon the gears. This is our time to stop the machine. This is our opportunity to be free.

If we expect the world to change, it has to change with us. So yes, black out Wikipedia and BoingBong. Retweet a pithy message. Put a black bar over your IM avatar. And as to your own actions, take a look at where the system of intellectual property has gotten us and, if you're not happy with SOPA, then refuse to take part. End your allegiance to a system that swears by the ownership of thoughts until it is completely and radically transformed. Follow your exultation of freedom not by overt protest, but by the greatest defiance of all: liberating the products of your own creative mind.

In a very real sense, intellectual property as it stands now is the fundamental embodiment of the tragedy of the commons. We are led to believe that we should exert sole ownership of our ideas, notwithstanding that creativity has always been the child of many fathers, and an unbroken, generational line of likeminded artists. But because we are led to accept this, we overextend what our rights are. In claiming complete ownership, we claim more than our share, until at last that intellectual commons has been so fenced in and so overtaxed that it reaches its breaking point — as it has here.

As it has, indeed, in the last century of increasing restrictions and increasing control. People who drew on a wealth of free ideas insisted that the products of that wealth be locked up. People whose creativity would not exist without a vibrant public domain have argued their right to destroy that same domain with such vigor that they have very nearly succeeded. They have borrowed from the past but put the future up as collateral — now the bill has come due.

So reject the whole institution, and I mean this with no ill will, or accept the consequences. So long as there is the notion of intellectual property, and the notion of its defense, there will be things like SOPA. If not now, then later this year. If not this year, then the next. If not the next, then ten years from now, when the rhetoric of the intellectually propertied aristocracy has worn down all resistance in the minds of consumers and would-be creators. Consider how the reviled DMCA has become a fact of life. Consider how its chilling effects have endured.

For there are enduring consequences. But there are no enduring contradictions, and no enduring tensions. All of this will end in one way or the other. To date it has resolved in a deformation of our liberties, a constriction of our creativity; a notion of what it means to be "free" in conflict with what it means to have "copy rights" that has been distorted further and further. One day it will snap. The existing structures are so incompatible with the world we are living in that either they, or that world, must change.

The only question then is: on which side will you have been?
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