Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> P is for Property
McKenzie Wark on Sat, 18 Aug 2001 16:44:00 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> P is for Property


P is for Property...
McKenzie Wark

Two stories on the front page of today's New York Times point plain and
simple to where the real action is in the 'new new economy'. as in the
old economy -- its about property.

After President Bush announced his bzyantine rules for government
funding of stem cell research, it turns out that one single foundation
may own the patent to that precious cell. Stem cell research is a
promising field for possible cures for a wide range of illnesses, from
diabetes to Parkinson's disease. Stem cells extracted from human embryos
could be cultured to produce insulin or new nerve cells.

According to US Patent 6,200,806 the Wisconsin Alumni Research
Foundation (WARF) owns both the method of isolating the cells and the
cells themselves. The foundation has already granted rights to a biotech
company called Geron Corporation, which provided funding for the research.

The patent is open to legal challenge, but if it holds up, researchers
using stem cell lines that match the patent must do so under terms set
by the patent's owners. Researchers may purchase the stem cell line from
an outfit set up by WARF, but must agree to restrictions that pander to
Geron's interests.

No one is sure yet whether stem cell research will provide the cures
touted, but already the research agenda is being twisted towards the
commodification of any possible benefits. The 'new, new economy' is not
about information or the internet or connectivity or content or any of
the other standard industry blather, it is about property, as it always
is in a class society.

The story about the stem cell cash-in ran right next to one announcing
that five major movie studios have agreed to a joint venture to profit
from the downloading of movies from the internet. Fearful of a repeat of
the Napster situation, where millions of music lovers freely exchanged
music files as a gift to each other, the studios are moving to rope off
the movie download future as a pure for-profit operation.

The scheme has been much delayed, as one would expect, by the pissing
contest between studio honchos of MGM, Paramount, Sony, Warners and
Universal. Disney and 20th Century Fox say they plan their own
proprietary systems, just to mess things up further.

While not agreed on the price, the deal from all these schemes will
likely be much the same. You can download a movie, but you can only keep
it on your hard drive for 30 days. The copy of 'Mission Impossible 13'
you paid for will self destruct within 24 hours of its first viewing.
You will also have to wait weeks, maybe months after the film's
theatrical release for the pleasure.

So what does this have to do with stem cells? Stem cells that may save
lives and action films about taking them are both forms of 'intellectual
property', and the privatisation of property is the engine of
commodified development. If you will pardon a giant leap from the
particular to the general, I would argue that these stories are straws
in the wind of a new development in class society -- the rise of what I
would call a vectoralist class.

What distinguishes the vectoralist class is its seizure of information
as a form of property. Amid all of the noise and blather of internet
'tulipmania', a much more significant development was gathering pace.
The cornering of the market for knowledge and culture as intellectual
property. The means by which it is stored or distributed are largely

The movie studios really don't care if you buy a DVD or download, so
long as they preserve their margin. What matters to the vectoralist
class is cutting off access to any vector along which information might
be stored or transmitted that might dare to assert its autonomy from the
'business model'.

As stem cell scientists have already discovered, intellectual property
can be a huge barrier to the free creation that is at the heart of
science (or for that matter, art and culture.) Just as the capitalist
class privatised the agricultural commons three centuries ago, the
vectorialist class is privatising the information commons.

The privatisation of information puts the question of class back on the
map, but through the development of new class antagonisms. The old
economy of capital and labour, landlords and farmers did not evaporate
in a puff of information age smoke, but it may well be the case that new
class forces have superimposed themselves on the old class order, with
different agendas and different interests.

For a more comprehensive exposition of this new theory of class, check
out A Hacker Manifesto, at the url below. Or just keep reading the news
feeds, and checking for clues.


Sheryl Gay Stolberg, 'Patent on Human Stem Cell Puts US Officials in
Bind'; and Rick Lyman, 'Hollywood, an Eye on Piracy, Plans Movies for a
Fee', New York Times, !7th August, 2001

McKenzie Wark, Brooklyn, NY, mw35 {AT} nyu.edu

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net