Intellectual Property is Theft

by Vyvian Raoul


Intellectual property is a legally fabricated monopoly, confining culture and science, and violently depriving the poorest and most marginalised from access to critical resources. The fictions of copyright and patent are despotic attempts to monopolise the mind; outrageous constraints on intelligence and creativity; and a destructive protectionist scheme for the profit of power.” – Anon.


As every good anarchist knows, “property is theft”; however, an analysis of property seems to have been all but abandoned by the Left. In this time of total ecological crisis, in the face of a rising tide of fascism not seen since the 1930s, it can seem almost twee to be caught quibbling over property rights. But what if the proprietary mindset, including the ownership of ideas, remains at the root of all our problems?

The ubiquitous slogan is attributed to 19th Century, French anarchist philosopher and propagandist Pierre Joseph Proudhon (who would presumably have renounced any claims over its ownership). While it stands on somewhat shaky conceptual ground (can theft even exist without property to steal?), it has dutifully served its purpose in illustrating a tension that had been a primary battleground of politics long before its coinage: private vs collective control.

Property, and the argument over its ownership, has traditionally been thought about in tangible terms: the things you can touch, feel, put a fence around. But the means of production are more and more of the mind – and ideas are power. Where intellectual property is concerned, this power is exercised in ways that are sometimes similar to material property relations: the doorman’s power to restrict access; the power of enforcement wielded by the cop; and, perhaps most obviously, the power to extract profit, controlled by the legal owner.

Until recently, the song Happy Birthday (to You) was copyrighted. Isn’t there something a little bit crushingly sad about finding that out? Or maybe it’s more shocking than it is surprising – of course it was. It’s the way in which we mark our time passing on this earth, a song that felt like it’s just part of our collective folk tradition – maybe even a global tradition, having been translated into at least 18 languages. Something that you thought belonged equally to everybody because it belongs to nobody, actually belonged to Warner/Chappell Music,who made $5000 a day – or $2million a year –  from its ownership, right up until 2017.

When the scientist who invented the cure for polio, Jonas Salk, was asked in a television interview,  “Who owns this patent?”, Salk replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” But you could, legally speaking, have patented the cure for polio – it was was calculated to be worth $7 billion had it been. Compare Salk’s largesse to the instincts of someone like Martin Shkreli, the CEO of an American drugs company that hiked the price of life-saving HIV-related drugs from $13.50 to $750. If you own the patent to the cure, you’re automatically invested  against prevention.

How might a world without intellectual property, currently so fundamental a frame, actually look? In her science-fiction novel The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines a scientist from the anarchist planet of Anarres who creates a theory for travelling at the speed of light – and becomes embroiled in a battle for its control with the neighbouring “Propertarian” planet, Urras. In relinquishing his legal claim to the idea’s ownership, her anarcho-protagonist outlines what is at stake:

“Do you not understand that I want to give this to you – and to Hain and the other worlds – and to the countries of Urras? But to you all! So that one cannot use it, as A-Io wants to do, to get power over the others, to get richer or to win more wars. So that you cannot use the truth for your private profit, but only for the common good.”

Other artists have attempted to actively interrogate ideas around ownership. There’s a long tradition of anonymous, often collective, authorship, and picking apart intellectual property by negating individual ego has become part of this challenge; Luther Blissett and Wu Ming are well-known examples from the anarchist world. As Stewart Home has said of his collective authorship experiment Karen Eliot:

The purpose of many different people using the same name is to create a situation for which no one in particular is responsible and to practically examine western philosophical notions of identity, individuality, originality, value and truth.”

As well as anonymity and collectivity, artists (including Stewart Home), have also attempted to pick at the idea of property through conscious and inconspicuous plagiarism. These artists claim that abandoning the pursuit of originality in favour of authenticity is the only worthwhile, to say nothing of realistic, possibility for creativity. To consciously and authentically pinch the words of film director Jim Jarmusch (consciously and authentically pinching the words of fellow film director, Jean-Luc Godard):

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.'”

On his death-bed, Mikhail Bakunin – no-gods-father of the anarchist movement – was asked about writing a memoir, so that future generations might learn of his original contributions to knowledge. His response was a refutation of the very possibility of the ownership of ideas itself: “The mind of the world’s greatest genius is entirely the product of the collective intellectual and industrial labour of all past and present generations.”

Today, almost all publishers – including our well-loved radical ones – have the ownership of intellectual property at the heart of their business. Even those that are workers’ cooperatives might share profits more equitably between their members, but that profit is still extracted from contractual control of the ideas of their authors. Strange that some of the most politically engaged thinkers of our day appear quite happy with this sort of exploitation; particularly strange when an alternative publishing model exists in Creative Commons, which allows for work to be controlled by its creators (so that others can’t profit from it against their will), even for credit to be given where it is due through various levels of attribution licensing, whilst negating traditional forms of ownership.

Prefigurative politics can all-too-often lead us down the dead-end of life-stylism and individual action; at the same time, if we don’t do things differently, we can’t expect things to be different. Letting go of the proprietary mindset means it’s much easier to let go of an idea if you find it no longer holds value; never owning an idea makes it much easier to try new ones. Invention for invention’s sake can be a gift to all humanity. Individual ownership of anything is ultimately a question of greed, wrapped up in the language of rights. In short, recognising that you cannot own an idea – even if you try –  is revolutionary.


Vyvian Raoul is the co-author of Advertising Shits In Your Head (PM Press) and an editor at Dog Section Press. All Dog Section Press titles are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence and available to read for free online.


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