Art, Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy (AIPKE)


This page provides an introductory guide to the themes covered in Art, Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy, and also includes some retrospective thoughts on AIPKE from the perspective of August 2005.

Guide to the Contents

Art, Intellectual Property & the Knowledge Economy (AIPKE) cuts across a number of themes. The Abstract on page 2 of the "Contents Pages" goes some way to summarising what the thesis is about. However, while it explains the overall thrust of the argument, it doesn't survey the number of themes covered.

The chapter breakdowns in the "Contents Pages" give a better idea of the themes and the structure of the argument.

However, a description of themes would include the following, in no particular order:

The Structure of AIPKE

The layout of the argument is fairly straightforward: abstract and literature review first and then a linear layout of chapters, starting with the early Renaissance. For editorial reasons, the argument isn't presented in exact chronological sequence, though the narrative is coherent when laid out in that order.

The chapters were written to work as part of the whole, but also 'stand' on their own terms. Read as stand-alone pieces, Chapter Two and Chapter Four could almost be from different works. AIPKE can be read in the sequence presented, or dipped into, but as far as possible the major chapters have integral structures. You don't need to read the whole thing to get one chapter.

On Reflection: What AIPKE is Actually About

It is important to say something about AIPKE from the perspective of August 2005. As suggested in Notes on the Edit, much has changed since 2001/2 when most of the material was assembled.

In the late 1990s, I thought that intellectual property was the question. In so many areas of life, its expansion had led to effects that were ethically questionable, disturbing or plain bizarre. But, somewhere during the process of research, I became aware that intellectual property wasn't the question. The question was, not so much what was happening to intellectual property but why?

There were many unspoken, but culturally-located, assumptions at work in the law. There were just as many in the political ideology driving its expansion. The job became one of understanding what had happened, what was happening and why: a process of trying to bring to light those unspoken assumptions.

Looking back it is obvious that, consciously or unconsciously, I was describing the development and application of ideology. Ultimately, it was not the law that interested me, but what various actors thought or believed about the law. It was not political economy, but what people believed in terms of its models. It was not art, as such, but rather its discourse.

From the current perspective it seems to me that ideology was, and is, the really important question.

During the interregnum between the Cold War and the War on Terror the question of ideology was marginalised from serious critical debate. There was the collapse of quasi 'socialism' in Eastern Europe and the marginalisation of the democratic left in Western Europe, not to mention Francis Fukyama's 'End of History'. Many of the 'big' intellectual figures on the left went through a process or reorientation, a coming to terms with new 'realities'.

The greatest irony of the period was that the 'death of ideology' was itself predicated upon the most ridiculous of ideological constructs — that of dialectical history. The Achilles heel of Marxist historicism and practical 'socialist' politics, became the lynchpin of daily political 'pragmatism', while simultaneously functioning the central claims of the knowledge economy as the 'natural' development of an 'evolutionary developmental order'.

It should be no surprise that today's former 'trots' are so easily converted to economic neo-liberalism and political neo-conservatism — once a sucker for a simplistic narrative purporting to explain the complexity of human affairs, always a sucker for a simplistic narrative.

From the perspective of August 2005, the most pressing job, for those on the left and the right of the political spectrum, is to seriously re-engage with a critical study of ideology, with its formation, transmission and effects. This is not a call for a re-engagement in a dialectical struggle between left and right, but a call for a recognition of, and critical engagement with, the blindness created when quite necessary theories, methodologies, and narratives are mistaken for fact.

Theory, method and narrative are, of course, essential to comprehension, but too often, the form they give to the facts becomes reified. It is also too easy to pour contemporary debate in to old containers — the blurring of producer/consumer roles online is read as an outcome of a 'historical' 'digi-marxist' dialectic; the debates from Frankfurt are disinterred and set upon the creative industries and cultural policy; the disaggregated, self-organising nature of Wikipedia is taken as evidence of the mythical 'hidden hand' that underlies the 'self-organising' free market.

Let's be clear, ideology has never been more omnipresent, unchallenged and corrosive to understanding than it is today. Awareness of ideology, and its processes, has never seemed weaker.

The Starting Point for AIPKE

The thinking that informs AIPKE emerged during the writing of a short art theory module for MA Fine Arts in the Department of Visual Arts at Goldsmiths. Transmissions (which I co-wrote and taught with Bernadette Buckley) attempted to lay out different approaches to authorship that had emerged in critical theory and art practice since the 1960s.

I also had a long-standing interest in the difference between creative processes as they occurred in the realms of art and science. The initial outline for doctoral research was based on how the author function might develop in relation to cyber theory. However, the futurology quickly gave way to what, at first, appeared to be more prosaic concerns.

The difference between the creative concept at the heart of copyright, originality, and the creative concept at the heart of patent law, invention, was hardly broached in legal literature. In common usage there seemed little difference between them. Yet, in legal terms, one pointed towards the realm of culture and personal expression and the other towards science, technology and industry. The role of culturally located concepts of creativity in functioning such different legal and social realms became the locus of early research.

Scanning legal bookshelves, I came across James Boyle's 'Shamans, Software and Spleens'. Boyle dealt with complex concepts in a deft manner. But most importantly, as a lawyer, he was unusually aware of the contemporary debates in critical theory and cultural studies. Boyle’s book made it easy to link from the debates in critical theory around authorship, genius and originality to the law. However, he also indicated how a path might be developed from intellectual property law into other areas of social concern. The dye was cast.

From Ideology to Fact?: 1997-2005

In 1997, the idea of someone with a background in art history and critical theory researching intellectual property was regarded as odd. One professor of history asked me why I was interested in such an "obscure" topic. Another professor, a critical theorist, confided that, within two years, copyright would be swept away by the Internet. I was, therefore, wasting my time.

Before too long, the first public discourse around the Knowledge Economy began to emerge. The Clinton and Blair administrations, unencumbered by Cold War perspectives, but increasingly worried by competition from the East, begun to pursue the concept of an IP-rich economy that would ring fence the economies of developed states.

It is debatable how far that discourse was a report on what was actually happening or an incitement for it to happen. By the late 1990s, rhetoric about creativity and economy blistered everywhere in the UK media. Certainly, changes wrought by new bio-tech and communications technology were bound to have social repercussions. More importantly, two vast geo-political influences on political and economic ideology were at work. On one hand, the end of the Cold War created a political vacuum that disorientated 'Westernised' states. On the other hand, long-term structural changes to those economies ushered in by the collapse of fixed exchange rates in the early 1970s begun to be felt.

The ideological response was the concept of the knowledge economy. The concept served, and still serves, two primary functions. Firstly, it provides a rallying point for old, developed economies threatened by competition and, secondly, it provides a conceptual map to orientate policy in a (perceived) political vacuum. The key question is whether that supposed vacuum ever really existed. That is something I will return to below.

The Reagan, Bush and Thatcher governments of the 1980s were defined by the rhetoric of 'tough choices' and 'economic realities'. By the late 1990s, the public relations lessons had been learnt. The Clinton-Blair era continued the principles of economic deregulation and free-market ideology, but utilised the primary technique of hucksterism to sell the policy. Where commodity is unpleasant or controversial, associate it with an unchallengeable human value.

Who could argue that knowledge was a bad thing? Who could argue that unlocking the people's creativity was a bad thing? Those who objected to policy were put into the position of having to object to fundamental human values. Much as the resource wars and political battles of the Cold War era had been fought out under the aegis of 'democracy', the new war was to be fought on similarly appealing principles — the search for knowledge and the freedom for human creativity.

At the time the research for AIPKE was undertaken, the Knowledge Economy was — as my analysis and that of others demonstrated — primarily an ideology. That is, it was a set of beliefs, being rapidly written in to policy. Despite the claims advance by its advocates, it had not yet occurred. Indeed, the gap between the ideology and fact remains considerable.

The last five years have been fascinating, as we have witnessed the transition from speculative theory to political platform, from platform to policy, policy to funding, and funding into everyday practical structures. Perhaps the only historical parallel is the collectivisation and industrialisation of former Soviet Bloc countries with their major reorientation of labour markets and resources under "Five-Year Plans". While the command and control structures employed have been entirely different, the sight of ideology so rapidly enacted as practice has been no less miraculous.

Take, for example, any of the following:

The extent to which the Knowledge Economy can still be considered simply as ideology is debatable. While it is entirely ideological in character, it is certainly more a material fact in 2005, than it was in 2001 when I was drafting the chapter on Think Tank Aesthetics.

Whether its enaction is a 'good thing' or not, and whether it has been enacted in an economically efficient and ethically defensible way, is open to critical analysis. The material realities of the knowledge economy should not blind us to its theoretical and ideological basis. Not least because its obvious and clumsy enactment betrays its proponents claim that it is a 'natural' development of an underlying "evolutionary economic order".

Areas Not Covered by AIPKE: Why No FLOSS/Enclosed Commons/Copyleft?

When addressing the issue of intellectual property today, it is almost impossible not to address the debates around free and open software, the concept of the commons and various copyleft initiatives.

I am old enough to have witnessed the debate about what would happen 'if' the free and open character of the net was destroyed by the application of copyrights in cyberspace. It seems like a millennia ago. By the mid 90s it was underway, and by 1998, I was still just interested enough, to chair (very unsuccessfully I thought) a web cast discussion on digital copyright for a project called TorkRadio.

Back in 1997, I took a decision to not go down the digital route. Despite the resistance by some in my own department to the whole intellectual property issue, I was aware of colleagues elsewhere in my college who were researching the developing digital debate.

Firstly, I had no desire to compete with, or replicate, what others were doing. Secondly, given my relative technological incompetence, it seemed logical to leave those debates to those who were more competent to deal with them.

I was then, and am still, interested in those debates. But, it seemed then, as now, that the questions of creativity, intellectual property and political economy cannot simply be confined to a digital discussion. More importantly, that broader discussion should not be artificially confined by the metaphors and structural characteristics of that debate.

Then, as now, the way digital debate falls across a series of oppositional, binary pairings was very striking. Think of any of the following:

Given that we often draw metaphors from experience that is close at hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that 'coding' informs the binaries digital debate. We don't need a Derridian deconstruction of the linguistic tropes to see that such oppositions are obscuring vastly more complex issues. Presented in the social world, such binaries always imply a dialectical and moralistic order — the structure of presentation forces a reading on the issues represented. Thesis and anti-thesis invite us to take sides, and, frequently to 'get on side' with 'progress'.

Given the vicious history of the 20th century, it is facile to present a pairing such as individualism and collaboration in such moral and dialectical terms.

AIPKE does indeed look at the rub between two dominant descriptions of creativity in the 20th century — the 'rhetorical' and 'semiotic/network' modes of creativity — that correlate roughly to individualism and collaboration. However, the ethical implications of such descriptions can only be examined at a practical level. Every example of collaborative enterprise we may wish to applaud — the social, technological and economic of FOSS for example — can be countered with a negative. As the discussion of DMC v Brown demonstrates, the description of creativity-as-collaboration can just as easily be deployed to strip rights from an increasingly deregulated workforce.

Areas Not Covered by AIPKE (II): Legislative History 16th to 19th Century

The other 'missing' area in AIPKE is the legislative history that leads from the early Florentine and Venetian printing privileges into modern Intellectual Property law. AIPKE is not a good guide for anyone coming to intellectual property issues for the first time.

The reasons for not attempting a schematised legislative history were two fold. Firstly, and obviously, this immensely complex history is dealt with a growing number of academic texts. There was little point in replicating that research. Secondly, and more importantly, the aim of the thesis is to understand the tension in current Intellectual Property law as it is articulated across the two dominant modes of creative theory — the rhetorical and the semiotic/network modes. As far as legislative history is concerned, all I wanted to show was how, and when, one could first see the rhetorical mode of creative labour at work in the intellectual property system.

Cutting out that legislative history means neglecting some very interesting material — on one hand, from the perspective of social history and comparative law and on the other, from creative and cultural history.

From the perspective of 2005, there are two issues from that intervening legislative development that are worth flagging up.

Firstly, it is often forgotten that legislators sometimes deployed authorial rights in a redistributive manner, in order to break up the monopolies accumulating in the hands of publishers. I don't deal with this in the text, but, in the current intellectual property context, it is worth remembering that granting rights in order to make the creative economy more granular has been a successful anti-monopoly strategy in the past.

Secondly, it is a mistake to imagine that there was once an Arcadian age of free and open creativity in Europe that was suddenly adumbrated by the advent of copyright laws. (We have McLuhan riffing wildly on Harold Innes to thank for this nonsense.)

The organisation of creative labour under the guild system was far more restrictive than it became in later centuries as copyrights and patents gradually took over some of their regulatory functions. We tend to forget that, as far as creativity is concerned, the general flow has been towards greater freedom. It is equally forgotten (particularly by those on the left) that, by and large, the freeing up of the cultural market has generally had a liberating effect on creative autonomy. A full account of the legislative history and its interaction with creative practice and the broader economy is a vast undertaking, and was well outside the scope of AIPKE.

On both these points, we shouldn't get carried away; more recent history bucks the general trend.

In the last thirty years, developments in intellectual property law have not made the distribution of rights more granular. The opposite has happened. In the last thirty years, the general flow towards creative freedom has stalled, and, perhaps, has begun to reverse as intellectual property legislation has increasingly moved towards the privatisation of assets rather than encouraging creative activity. But, that's another story.

The Return of the Real…Economy

In September 2001, I was about ready to begin 'writing up'. In a meeting with Howard Caygill in November we discussed the relevance of Knowledge Economy/globalisation theory in the 'post 9/11', Bush era.

My sceptical view of globalisation and knowledge economy ideology was reinforced by the martial clatter of Bush's War on Terror. Nationhood was rife in political discourse again. Big government, tax and spend, and some stripe of Keynesianism, are necessary for war. The limits of the 'free market' were never more clearly exposed than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

The sense that the Knowledge Economy was somehow 'still born' dominated the writing up of the thesis. The depiction of it as recent history in the text was conscious.

From the perspective of 2005, it is obvious that the traditional fight to control scare material resources never went away. That was obvious in 2001, but it was a lot harder to make the facts register amongst the excited chatter of the 'creative economy'.

The Knowledge Economy as it has been enacted, has not filled a 'political vacuum', but rather it rubs shoulders with that older, rougher political economy it supposedly replaced. The brutality of the oil and fossil fuel economy, always present but often taken for granted, has returned to the centre of the political stage under the Bush administrations.

The central riffs of knowledge economics — creativity, dematerialised and infinitely reproducible products, the limitlessness of frontiers — have come head-to-head with finite material realities. Whether it is the vast material resources consumed to power the web, or the battle to control the source of that energy, the hidden costs that were left out of the numerous PowerPoint presentations are now obvious.

The repercussions of Knowledge Economy policy are now equally obvious. Who, when selling the high concept to Western governments, thought through the longer term effects? Who would have thought that China, once forced to sign-up to TRIPs, would develop with such rapidity that it became a major competitor in the battle to control material resources, or that it would seek to develop its own forms of innovation competition? The answer is anyone who thought further than the bullet points at the PowerPoint presentation.

From the perspective of August 2005, the Knowledge Economy is both more real and less relevant than it was in 2001/2002. Resource wars, the search for an ideological (terrorist) 'other' and an uneasy realisation of the facts of global warming, are the current locus of political energy.

Nevertheless, and for better or worse, Knowledge Economy ideology has shaped practice. So many practical measures have been taken to make concept reality that, in some measure, its existence cannot be denied. Yet, in the UK at the present time, government ministers speak of "returning" to the agenda as set out in the 1990s, aware perhaps that reality has not matched the rhetoric.

How far that yearning for a clean-cut ideology can subdue political and economic complexity is an open question. But, in conclusion, it is worth repeating the final, and I think rather understated, line that concludes Art, Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy:

"The difference between the production of creative rhetoric and creative production is often marked".