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Reflections on Abolitionism: Copyright and Beyond

Leonhard Dobusch, “Reflections on Abolitionism: Copyright and Beyond,” in Governance across Borders: Transnational Fields and Transversal Themes, edited by Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (Cologne: Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, 2013)”1

While conventional discourse on global governance in general and copyright regulation in particular mainly discusses complementary or conflicting ways of regulation, abolitionist positions are mentioned only rarely.

The following reflection on the role – the potential virtues and deficiencies – of abolitionist reasoning is inspired by a recent blog post110 by Stephan Kinsella. In his article the self-described “Austro-Anarchist Libertarian” and author of the book Against Intellectual Property111 features works by cartoonist Nina Paley (see her video “All Creative Work Is Derivative”112). In an email to Kinsella, Paley describes herself as follows:

I’m now artist-in-residence at QuestionCopyright.org, and do what I can to promote alternatives to copyright. (Actually I’m a copyright abolitionist, but many find that identification unpalatable.)

Why is being a copyright abolitionist so “unpalatable” that even outspokenly critical individuals such as Paley feel the need to hide it? Is it the threat they embody by proposing such a seemingly radical position? Or is it the lack of connectivity for further debate that leads to awkward moments and the self-perception of being unpalatable in the eyes of others?

In the field of copyright, abolitionism can also be found among economists, as is evidenced by Boldrin and Levine’s volume Against Intellectual Monopoly113. Consistent with their theoretical claims, Boldrin, Levine and Kinsella have put the following “copyright notice” on their blog “Against Monopoly”114:

Copyright Notice: We don’t think much of copyright, so you can do what you want with the content on this blog. Of course we are hungry for publicity, so we would be pleased if you avoided plagiarism and gave us credit for what we have written. We encourage you not to impose copyright restrictions on your “derivative” works, but we won’t try to stop you. For the legally or statist minded, you can consider yourself subject to a Creative Commons Attribution License.

But regulatory abolitionism, of course, is neither a specialty of copyright or intellectual property, nor is it restricted to libertarians. Far-left organisations involved in the anti-globalisation movement also make regular calls for the “abolishment” or “dismantling” of existing regulatory institutions
such as the WTO, the IMF and related treaties (see, for example, the Organic Consumers Associ- ation, socialism.com or “10 Reasons to Dismantle the WTO”115).

Motives for the abolitionism of libertarians and socialists are completely oppositional, of course: while the latter see it as a first and to a certain extent dialectal step towards new and presumably better transnational institutions, the former do not seek to re- place the existing regulations with any alternative.

For moderate critics of both copyright regulation and globalisation, abolitionist viewpoints and activism seem to be a two-edged sword: on the one hand, they are eager to distance themselves from abolitionists. Copyright critic Lawrence Lessig, for example, states in a Billboard Q&A116:

The first big mistake is that people confuse my work with the growing copyright abolitionist movement that is out there. I’m fundamentally not a copyright abolitionist. I believe copyright is an essential part of the creative industry and culture is richer both in the money sense and in the diversity sense with copyright than with- out it. My objective is to find ways to update copyright and make it make sense in a different technological context, and that should be an objective shared by people who are in the industry”.

On the other hand, this very distancing from “radical” abolitionists is what makes those critics “moderates” and thereby allows them, at the same time, to define and fill what could be called a “centrist” position. To put it bluntly: if there were no abolitionists, critics of copyright regulation or the WTO would even be tempted to “invent” them.

Whether the threat of being defamed as part of a quixotic camp of radical abolitionists is outweighed by the opportunities granted by playing the role of the “sensible” centrist is, of course, an empirical question. It depends not least upon the actual strength of abolitionist movements and on the success of moderates in differentiating themselves from those. In any case, looking at the reasons for and the role of abolitionists in transnational regulatory struggles seems to be a worthwhile endeavor.

110 Kinsella, Stephan (2010): Nina Paley’s “All Creative Work is Derivative”. February 15, 2010. http://www.stephankinsella.com/2010/02/ nina-paleys-all-creative-work-is-derivative/

111 Kinsella, Stephan (2008): Against Intellectual Property. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute. http://mises.org/books/against.pdf

112 Question Copyright (2010): All Creative Work Is Derivative. youtube.com. February 9, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcvd5JZkUXY

113 Boldrin, Michele, Levine, David K. (2008): Against Intellectual Monopoly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://www.dklevine. com/papers/imbookfinalall.pdf

114 See “Against Monopoly” Homepage. http:// www.againstmonopoly.org/ (at the bottom of the page)

115 Mokhiber, Russel, Weissmann, Robert (1999): 10 Reasons to Dismantle the WTO. November 23, 1999. http://lists.essential.org/ corp-focus/msg00050.html

116 Bruno, Anthony (2009): The Billboard Q&A: Lawrence Lessig. Febraury 14, 2009. http://www. law.stanford.edu/news/the-billboard-q-a-lawrence-lessig

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.