© Karl Marx

For academics, copyright can be a tricky issue. Much like non-academic authors, musicians, and artists, control of the copyright of their completed works is their only tangible symbol of possession of the product which they have been laboring to produce. Distressingly, publication typically results in the author losing control over the work, who must cede the publication rights to a publisher. Similarly, a graduate student or doctoral candidate might find themselves actually paying the publisher, simply to allow their work to be accessed without subscriptions to electronic journals.

Competing narratives surround the introduction of copyright into society, but it is certainly an invention of modernity, introduced approximately a century before Marx’s lifetime. To the best of my knowledge, Marx didn’t specifically write on intellectual property (though volumes have probably been written on it in the Marxist tradition since his lifetime), but the establishment of copyright laws does offer compelling examples of the essential elements of Marx’s arguments about the nature of capitalism. The introduction of copyright allows for the commodification of an essential element of human life, artistic and scholarly expression, and this commodification services a structural necessity for the propagation of an economic system that can only exist in states of expansion or crisis. After purchasing the publishing rights from the author, the capitalist replicates and sells the product through various, largely worthless mediums, such as bound paper, plastic discs or the transmission of data packets over the Internet, beautifully illustrating the differences between use-value and exchange-value. Consider the example of the modern textbook – why, other than the value of the information in the textbook to a particular individual, would an individual pay $200 for an object that costs less than $5 to produce? Minus the $5 of production costs and a 10% royalty ($20), the publishers (who are increasingly trying to sell to students directly) walks away with $175, or 87.5% of the profit. The value of the book, which is access to the ideas within it, is entirely supplied by the author, but when the capitalist reconstitutes these ideas in combination with near-worthless commodities, the capitalist is able to lay claim to almost nine times more profit than the author, which illustrates the surplus value of labor and exploitation of labor.

Even more shocking than the exploitation inherent in this system is the legitimacy that we provide it, with thoughts such as “publication is an inherently risky business, therefore it makes sense that publishers should assume more of the profits because they assume more of the risks.” Similarly, copyright enforcers such as the RIAA and MPAA produce narratives in which people who are not authorized to receive a commodified artistic/intellectual expression are guilty of theft, as if passing by an individual playing Rihanna on a cell phone in a public space without the express and written consent of Rihanna’s label is enough to make that individual into some type of anti-social deviant. Online, the present refrain goes something like “if we don’t pay content-producers to produce content, content-producers will stop producing content because they won’t be able to support themselves,” as if the very act of installing an ad-blocking plugin in your browser or opting not to drop your personal debit card numbers into a paywall will somehow lead to no new movies, news articles or paintings ever being produced again, and the destruction of a tradition of the free exchange of ideas that stretches back millennia before the capitalist paradigm even emerged. In short, catering to these types of capitalist ideologies, explicitly constructed to suppress free and creative production, is a defining characteristic of living in a state of false consciousness.


This article, which is admittedly a couple of years old at this point, focuses on a conflict over the publication rights of a translation of Marx’s writings (Marx’s copyright is expired, and his work is in the public domain, but the translation is a distinct work that belongs to the translators). My point in bringing this cultural artifact into the discussion isn’t to mediate a specific conflict between radical publishing houses using Marxist thought (after all, both belligerents in this conflict are probably a lot more experienced in this school of thought than I, and this is presumably old enough that the conflict is probably over), but rather to illustrate the immense difficulty of transitioning from a state of false consciousness to the state that Marx termed as class consciousness. Institutional pressures demand some form of revenue in order for the institution to survive in a capitalist system, even from charities, nonprofits, and radical publishing houses – the very institutions that are devoted to the overthrow of capitalism are structurally required to actively participate in it, if such institutions want to last. Knowledge isn’t enough – one cannot enter into a state of class consciousness by simply reading the Communist Manifesto, by obsessing over it and memorizing the text verbatim, or even devoting one’s life to Marxism. Only when an entire class begins to understand the nature of capitalism does it begin to achieve the power to not participate in it – cooperation and solidarity are prerequisite needs to the dismantlement of this system.

A couple of research questions that emerge from these examples:

RQ1: What are the different ways in which societies have typically viewed the concept of authorship?

RQ2: Do individuals purchasing online access to intellectual property perceive themselves as purchasing a commodity – or, in other words, do individuals view the purchase of social, immaterial objects as analogous to the purchase of physical commodities?


Peter Jameson


One thought on “© Karl Marx

  1. I really like your focus on copyrights. I am not sure the simple existence of copyright is an example of commodification or value extraction. I can imagine a copyright being used to protect artistic or creative expression of the ‘little person’. However, there are great examples of using copyrights to extract value from the human body, i.e. DNA/breast cancer. Do some research on the company that discovered the breast cancer gene and how it has used its discovery to extract a profit. Finding examples is a way to refine and specify your research questions. Your questions are focused on individual feelings rather than types of copyrights. Keep an eye on level of analysis; Marx is macro–feelings are micro. 🙂

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