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Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness

BY David Eaves | Tuesday, August 6 2013

It is hard for Westerners to realize just how much we take for granted about intellectual property, and in particular, how much the property owner’s perspective--be it a corporation, government or creative artist--is embedded in our view of the world as the natural order of things.

While sharing and copying technologies are disrupting some of the ways we understanding “content,” when you visit a non-Western country like India, the spectrum of choices become broader. There is less timidity wrestling with questions like: should poor farmers pay inflated prices for patented genetically-engineered seeds? How long should patents be given for life-saving medicines that cost more than many make in a year? Should Indian universities spend millions on academic journals and articles? In the United States or other rich countries we may weigh both sides of these questions--the rights of the owner vs. the moral rights of the user--but there’s no question people elsewhere, such as in India, weigh them different given the questions of life and death or of poverty and development.

Consequently, conversations about open knowledge outside the supposedly settled lands of the “rich” often stretch beyond permission-based “fair use” and “creative commons” approaches. There is a desire to explore potential moral rights to use “content” in addition to just property rights that may be granted under statutes.

A couple of months ago I sat down in Bangalore with Sunil Abraham, the founder and executive director of the Center for Internet & Society (CIS) there, to talk about the center, and his views on the role of technology and openness in politics and society. One part of our conversation led to this WeGov column on “I Paid a Bribe” and the challenge of fighting corruption in India using technology. Here I want to reflect further on how Sunil and his counterparts may be radically challenging how we should think about open information more generally.

As we talked, Sunil outlined how people and organizations were using “open” methodologies to advance social movements or create counter power. To explain his view he sketched out the following “map” of IP rights and freedoms to show people use and view the different “permissions” (some legal, some illegal). [Click to enlarge.]

As a high-level overview this map offers a general list of the tools at the disposal of citizens interested in playing with intellectual property, particularly as they pursue social justice issues.

At the top of the chart are the various forms of “permissions” that a property owner may (or may not) grant you. Thus at the far left sits the most restrictive IP regime and, as you move right, the user gets more and more freedoms (or, if you take the perspective of property owners, property loses more and more of its formal legal protections and a different notion, of “moral rights,” arises).

The second row divides the permissions and the actors along what Sunil believes is one of the most important permissions - the requirement to attribute (or the freedom not to).

Finally, at the bottom, I’ve placed various actors along the spectrum to both show where they might be positioned in the access debate and/or how they use these tools to advance their aims. Thus someone like Lawrence Lessig, the intellectual father of Creative Commons, might support many uses of information as long as the owner gives permission; whereas groups like the Pirate Party or the Yes Men edge further out into uses that may not appear legitimate to a property owner.

Particularly interesting is Sunil’s decision to include non-legal “permissions” such as ignoring the property holders rights in his spectrum of openness. He sees this as the position of the Pirate Party, which he suggests advocates that people should have the right to do what they want with intellectual property even if they don’t have permission, with the exception, interestingly, of ignoring attribution.

He also includes two even more radical “permissions” – counterfeiting, that is claiming that you created the work – and false attribution – assigning your work to someone else! Sunil sees Anonymous as often using the former and the Yes Men as using the latter. “They (the Yes Men) are playing with the attribution layer,” he says, by conducting actions such as their fake DOW press release about the Bhopal disaster.

Pushing the identity envelope
To Sunil, the big dividing line is less about legal vs. illegal but around this issue of attribution. “This is the most exciting area because this (the non-attribution area) is where you escape surveillance,” he declares.

“All the modern day regulation over IP is trying to pin an individual against their actions and then trying to attach responsibility so as to prosecute them,” Sunil says. “All that is circumvented when you play with the attribution layer.”

This matters a great deal for individuals and organizations trying to create counter power – particularly against the state or large corporate interests. In this regard Sunil is actually linking the tools (or permissions) along the open spectrum to civil disobedience. Of course, such “permissions” are also used by states all the time, such as pretending that a covert action was the responsibility of someone else, or simply denying responsibility for some action.

This, in turn, has some interesting implications.

The first is, that it allows Sunil to weave together a number of groups that might not normally be seen as connected because he can map their strategies or tools against a common axis. Thus Lawrence Lessig, the Yes Man, companies and journalists can all be organized based on what “permissions” they believe are legitimate. For example, journalists and new publishers are often seen as fairly pro-copyright (it protects their work) but they are quite happy to ignore the proprietary rights of a government or corporate document and publish its contents, if they believe that action is in the public interest. Hence their position on the spectrum as “willing to ignore proprietary rights.” (Leave aside government arguments that publishing such documents is “stealing” when, at least in the US, they are technically already not subject to copyright.) However, a credible newspaper or journalist would never knowingly attribute a quote or document to a different person. Attribution remains sacred, even when legal proprietary rights are not.

It also tests the notions of who is actually an IP radical. As Sunil notes: “The more you move to the right the more radical you are. Because everywhere on the left you actually have to educate people about the law, which is currently unfair to the user, before you even introduce them to the alternatives. You aren’t even challenging the injustice in the law! On the right you are operating at a level that is liberated from identity and accountability. You are hacking identity.”

Sunil is thus justifying how the use of “illegal” permissions may actually be a form of civil disobedience that can be recognized as legitimate. This is something journalists confront regularly as well. Many are willing to publish “illegally” obtained leaked documents when they believe that may serve the public good. What is ethical is not always legal and so there position on this chart is more nuanced than one might initially suspect.

This is not to say that Sunil doesn’t believe in the effectiveness of legal approaches. For him this map represents a more complete range of choices an activist can choose from as they try to develop their strategy.

“So what you do, and the specific change you are trying to precipitate, you’ll have to determine what strategy you need. Sometimes working within the left hand group is sufficient. Having a non-derivative, non-commercial license to enable students to access academic works, in India, is good enough… But then, to do what the Yes Men did to DOW Chemicals? You have to be over on the right side.”

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