“Intellectual Property” is Slavery


“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”
John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government

“Most thinkers…hold that you own your own life, and it follows that you must own the products of that life, and that those products can be traded in free exchange with others,” claims Wikipedia’s latest entry on property. “Every man has a property in his own person,” says John Locke. Ayn Rand (who I generally can’t stand, but who I’m happy to quote as a passionate defender of the sanctity of property) wrote, “Just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which means: the right of property.”

You also have a property in your own MIND. That which lives in your mind, is your property. And everyone deserves Rand’s “right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results” – in other words to freely think, express, and own the contents of their own mind. That is what “intellectual property” should (but doesn’t) mean: everyone’s right to their own mind.

Instead, legally defined “Intellectual Property” means exactly the opposite: it transfers ownership of the contents of your mind to others. It alienates the ideas in your mind, from you. Is there a song running through your mind right now? It doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to Warner-Chappell. You are forbidden to express it; “performance” requires permission. “To think, to work” – interpret – “and keep the results” – record and sell copies of –  the song in your mind, are illegal.

Thus Intellectual Property gives alien, private owners title to our minds. We may think culture (songs, text, images) only in secret; any expressions of cultural thought belong not to the thinker, but to the IP owner. Your thoughts are “derivative works”; someone else has title to them. You may have “Porgy and Bess” in your mind, but interpreting or singing it out loud is forbidden. That part of your mind belongs to Gershwin’s heirs and their lackeys.

Wikipedia’s entry on Chattel Slavery states: “The living human body is, in most modern societies, considered something which cannot be the property of anyone but the person whose body it is.” The living human mind should be the same. Legally defined “Intellectual Property” is, quite simply, someone else’s ownership of your mind. If they own the right to express what lives in your mind, the right “to think, to work and keep the results,” then they own your mind; they own you. What can we call that, except slavery?


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

10 thoughts on ““Intellectual Property” is Slavery”

  1. but you agree that what we create is undoubtably formed by the culture that we absorb. it is simply impossible to claim full ownership of what we create, even who we are.
    how is the anxiety of influence taken into account? we choose consciously who we see as our intellectual ancestors, but what if we are giving short shrift to something that irreversibly altered who i am and what i can produce?

  2. how is the anxiety of influence taken into account?

    Easy: attribution. You can’t own culture, but you can contribute to it; you can author it. Authorship is not ownership. Of course we can’t attribute all influences, any more than we can name all our ancestors down to fishes and mitochondria. But most people are glad to cite obvious ancestors, as an expression of gratitude, respect, and civic responsibility. Those who don’t cite (within reason) lose social status. The worst offenders are called plagiarists, and are shunned.

  3. Dear Nina,
    thanks to your free culture activism, people like us living in third world countries can have access to wonderful masterpieces like Sita Sings the blues. Since the day I watched Sita at the internet archive website, I became fan of your work and fan of Annette Hanshaw’s beautiful music. Thank you so much for generously sharing with us your amazing and wonderful work.
    With love from Casablanca.

  4. I love Fetch! A man owns his dog and his ball, but the moment the tosses his ball for his dog to fetch, the familiar context goes haywire as his intellectual property (ball) is chased by his audience (dog) into, around, and through an unexpectable universe, with increasingly harrowing consequences — until the man’s apprehension of the universe changes permitting THE audience and THE ball to return to him of their own volition.
    That’s my reading of this particular gift you’ve given to our collective context. The presumption of private ownership is the engine that drives confusion. In other words, Rand be damned!

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