I was watching one of my favorite shows yesterday, BBC’s Misfits, and a logical analogue with the debate surrounding SOPA and intellectual property rights came to mind. In the episode, one of the characters spontaneously acquires the ability to bring the dead to life, and immediately struggles with how to best apply his ability to his surroundings. Now, the episode in question decided against exploring this option in detail in favor of some good old-fashioned zombie mayhem (which is all well and good, mind you), but I wanted to tangentially delve into the question myself in relation to the idea of intellectual property rights and artificial scarcity.
You see, Curtis (and any society in general were it to discover this ability to raise the dead) would find itself in the inevitable dilemma of artificially creating scarcity. You can’t just raise all the dead people in the ground, or even unilaterally decided to never allow death to conquer another currently living human subject, because this would bring about a multiplicity of undesirable consequences: overpopulation, extreme rationing of food products, disease, famine, and a level of global suffering and poverty that would ironically have people clamoring for the release of death to make its prodigal return (apocalyptic dystopian novel, anyone?). This would be an ethico-political dilemma for which the categorical imperative has no answer. If you acquired this ability, would you immediately revive those to whom you feel deserve most the breath of life? Of course you would, and so would I. But can we universalize that into a maxim for all to follow? Of course not, for all the reasons listed above and many more besides.
This antinomy doesn’t destroy the foundations of ethical reasoning, nor does it necessarily lead us into the dungeons of a nihilistic anarcho-primitivism where all must be against all; rather, it simply tells us that this is an inherently political decision. Death is no longer a necessity, the power has been found to completely eradicate the scarcity of life, but unfortunately this is not a feasible option given exterior factors. What to do in this situation, in essence: how to artificially create scarcity, is a messy, complicated, thankless endeavor, but one that must still be made. And the key to understand is this: there is no natural right involved. Debate must be had, compromise must be made, and agreement must ensue, but in no way can anyone in the political process simply point to the natural right of a certain contingent outcome. That’s why we call this process political, because it must involve the grimy machinations of people coming to agreement.
This is where SOPA and intellectual property rights come into the equation. The MPAA and the RIAA and its cohorts are attempting to create artificial scarcity where it need not exist: we have the power to universally replicate anything in the digital medium in as many iterations as we please. Unfortunately, much like the above scenario, this is not an entirely desirable outcome. We want people to have some right over their creative work (I will leave aside for now the many spurious arguments used by IP advocates in this regard), so some kind of artificially instantiated scarcity is most definitely in the cards, but exactly how this is to be implemented is an unequivocally political issue.
SOPA ignores the politics of it all, it ignores due process, it fortuitously ignores the fact that there is no natural right over intellectual property, but only a battle between content producers like the music business and Hollywood who want harsh intellectual property laws on the books, and the social network industry (Google, Facebook, etc.) which depends upon the slow death of digital scarcity. The thing to keep in mind is that neither of these sides fight for us. They are the two jock douchebags who are battling over the same girl at the bar. They’re only talking to you because you’re her best friend and have power over her decision making process (“Come on baby, think about the work-a-day laborers on all those film sets!”). We need to realize that this is an issue of political economy of the highest importance, and see to it that we never allow ourselves to become the secretly despised concubines of opposing streams of capital.