“Intellectual property” in capitalism Ruthless Criticism

The Pirate Party movement and its “dream of humanity” – with no chance:

“Intellectual property” in capitalism

The Pirate Parties are political parties named after the BitTorrent tracker The Pirate Bay which are achieving some success in European elections. Their major issue is the free availability of all knowledge on the internet. Their party program states – in a somewhat pathetic tone:

“The ancient dream of compiling all human knowledge and culture and to store it for the present and future is within close grasp thanks to the rapid technological development of the past decades ... The present legal framework for copyrights limits the potential of the current development, since it is based on an outdated concept of so-called ‘intellectual property,’ which opposes the goal of a knowledge and information society.” [Manifesto of the Pirate Party]

Presented like this, the “dream” sounds like a modern and humane cause, and certainly one can’t say anything against their view because with the catchword “knowledge society” it already stands on the political agenda and is technologically within reach! However, the Pirates are terribly mistaken here. Promising technology has not come into the world in order to realize a “human dream.”

For others, who are opposed to the Pirates and want copyright retained at all costs, its abolition would mean the opposite of a “dream of humanity.” Rudolf Hickel, director of the Labor and Economics Institute at the University of Bremen, paints a dramatic picture of what would happen if the internet were to really make all intellectual “achievements” available free of charge:

“The demand to be able to click and use everything leads to a massive expropriation of creative and intellectual producers. They are deprived of their livelihood. A society that dissolves the fundamental right to intellectual property has no chance of survival. Its economic, social, technological and cultural power of innovation is extinguished.”

The professor speaks of a “massive expropriation,” thus of an assault on property: This is the cornerstone of capitalism. If that would not apply to intellectual products, then progress, which is based on the property-protected use of knowledge and ideas, would no longer be possible.

There are thus two opposing positions: one promising themselves the fulfillment of a “dream” through free access to knowledge, others seeing this as a dangerous attack on society’s “power of innovation.” So one wonders: what’s this “intellectual property” all about?


An owner tags his commodity with a price. He wants to sell it, thus he does not need it himself. However, with the price he excludes everyone who cannot pay him from using this commodity; his only concern is to make money with it. The buyer needs the commodity, but can get access to it only by paying the seller, who then relinquishes it.

This exchange, after which the seller no longer has anything to do with his commodity, looks completely different with an intellectual product. An idea, a bit of knowledge someone has worked out, a piece of music someone has composed, is owned in quite a different way than a material product, a car or a house or a factory. If one passes it on, one does not give it away – one retains it, after all, in one’s head. The intellectual producer normally retains something of his product, provides it to others, and in this way many people or even everybody then have something of it: the inventor just like the others who find the knowledge or cultural good useful or beautiful.

An intellectual product is generalized by being passed on, maybe others even develop it, but the intellectual producer loses nothing. This probably gives the Pirates the idea that these products must really be socially available goods, which is why they insist on free access to existing knowledge. This is certainly an attractive idea: Everyone can freely use scientific-technical inventions or artistic ideas, and the constantly propagated “knowledge society” would solely have the sensible meaning that everyone then just knows more – but this is totally unwordly in a capitalistic world and absolutely contrary to the system. Here the state has assigned everybody to struggle through life as a property owner, and it does this – as we said before – by first excluding everybody else from what one disposes of in order to then secondly get rid of it for money. The state even lays this down for those who know how to think scientifically or technically or even artistically: With its force, it grants them the license to make the results of their thinking into commodities. This is a not exactly a blessing for humanity.

Leaving aside money and property for a moment, a scientific discovery is nothing other than a step to free oneself from dependence on the conditions and vagaries of nature. In general terms: Such a finding is useful for improving the productive power of labor. But who in this society is responsible for increasing the productivity of labor? Solely those who are able to make use of labor: They own the means of production which those who have nothing but their labor power just don’t have. The owners of the means of production are called “the economy,” and they do not help themselves to scientific knowledge out of the philanthropic motive of increasing the productive power of labor to relieve each individual of ever more toil with at the same time a growing output of goods. They do it for a completely different reason: How can the profitability of the invested capital be increased with the help of science? Strictly speaking, capitalists are not interested in scientific knowledge, but in its practical technical use in their production process. They use it to increase the yield which they get out of their human resources, the workers, and out of their natural resources, thus their profitability. For humans and nature, this is not particularly beneficial: Under the dictates of increasing profitability, their wear and tear is always further pursued from one high point to the next – because in this way and only in this way can the wealth measured in money – and only this counts in capitalism – constantly grow. Capitalists use scientific knowledge for this purpose, and of course they use it against their competitors. The more capital a capitalist has available, the more he can get a scientific edge over his competitors and withhold these productivity gains from them. The economics professor Hickel calls this the “social power of innovation” and this is only a way of saying that he simply can’t imagine any other step forward than one that results from capitalist competition. And because he can’t do this, he is not ashamed to turn it into a blessing for “all of us.”

This is also thus an achievement of the property order set up by the state. It ensures that intellectual products become commodities, hence for sale, by providing them with rights of use, e.g., with patents. They thereby become means of competition, and indeed for both sides, the capitalists as well as the intellectual producers. Because these people are also compelled by the state-established system of property to use their invention to provide themselves with an income on which they can live more or less well. Consequently, their labor is forced into the character of private labor which can be sold, whether they want this or not, and in competition with others. The Pirate dream of a universal social access to all useful knowledge has no chance in a capitalistic society. Here knowledge must be put on the market in competition with others in order to achieve an income, because this society functions in this way in all its branches and it subjects intellectual labor in the same way.


As noble as the Pirates come across with their “dream,” they then become just as timid again. Because to challenge private property, the sacrosanct basic principle of capitalist society, is really the last thing they have in mind. They have barely started to argue with intellectual property and barely have they been massively addressed – in particular by the so-called “creative artists” – when they become afraid and by no means want to tread on the toes of the protagonists of beautiful appearances. Actually, they only want to continue romping around on the internet free of charge and have puffed that up into a dream of humanity. So they waver around and make up compromises like: intellectual property can be protected with a few exceptions suitable for them. Because a party that wants to work its way upwards in democracy, where property is supreme, must be very careful.

[Translated from analysis of GegenStandpunkt on Radio Lora Munich, July 16, 2012]