Copyfarleft & a Critique

By Stefan Meretz, 3 June 2008

In July last year Mute published Dmytri Kleiner's critique of copyright and its 'radical' copyleft alternative, presenting a reformist programme based on Ricardo's 'iron law of wages'. But Marx demolished this analysis 140 years ago, argues Stefan Meretz. Time for FLOSS to catch up?

The following critique of Dmytri Kleiner’s paper ‘Copyfarleft and Copyjustright’ (published on the Mute website,, has three parts. First I discuss the general theoretical principles, then the transformation of these principles in the field of information goods, and finally the concept of copyfarleft. A concluding critique closes this article.

1. Property as Key?

Dmytri Kleiner offers a simplistic version of a traditional Marxist approach to the question of property. Although at certain points I would defend it, overall it is incorrect. To be charitable, this simplification may result from an attempt to make himself easily understandable. Nevertheless, I have to take this rather crude argumentation as the basis of my text. Kleiner's reasoning is as follows:

– property is opposed to freedom– property is opposed to propertyless workers– property owners make the propertyless work for them– property owners only pay enough to cover the subsistence of the workers and get the rest as rent– this rent is therefore stolen from the producers– property is theft

‘Property’ here denotes private property in the form of the means of production, and it is only touched on at two places in the text. An affirmative reference to David Ricardo has to serve as proof for the assertion of an ‘iron law of wages’, however, and no further support for this is given.

Ricardo is cited to the effect that there is a ‘natural price of labour’ corresponding to the cost of paying for the subsistence of the workers as a class. The extra income going into the pocket of the ‘property owners’ is termed ‘rent’ by the author.

There is a serious lack of understanding here. I will try to explain:

There is no ‘natural price of labour’. Like Ricardo, the author has to assert the existence of such a construct in order to explain where the ‘property owner’ gets his surplus from. In reality the author does not understand the difference between labour-power and work, value and price, rent and profit. These three pairs of terms are explained as follows:

1.1. Labour-Power and Work

The ‘property owner’ buys the labour-power (the ‘doing’) and not the work (the ‘done’). Labour-power is a commodity, its value is a dimension, which is socially constructed through the exchange of commodities for money – labour-power against wage – corresponding to the re-creation costs of this commodity.

The commodity labour-power has two specific features. First, the cost of its reproduction depends on the general social-cultural level of reproduction. For example, today computer games, which did not exist a hundred years ago, are part of the costs of the reproduction of the worker. Participation in these social-cultural possibilities does not come to the seller of labour-power (i.e. the worker) automatically, but has to be enforced – often against strong resistance – economically (collective action) and politically (via organisations and institutions). Some call this fight to increase and secure the level of social reproduction the class struggle.

Second, only labour-power employed as a commodity is able to produce more goods and value than is necessary for its own re-production. This part is named surplus product, or, to put it in value terms, surplus value. Using value terms is more adequate, because sellers of labour-power do not receive the products they produce, but only the value, expressed as money, of the successfully sold products. However, it has to be emphasised once more: workers do not get paid the value of their work, but rather the value of their labour-power (the wage).

The exchange of wage against labour-power is thoroughly just. Viewed in economic terms it is an exchange of equivalents. This is always in terms of the social average valid for every commodity exchange. A critique of commodity exchange as ‘unjust’ misses the real problem. This conclusion remains valid even if one focuses on tremendously unequal distribution of resources as Dmytri Kleiner does. The scandal is not that capitalism is unjust, but that just exchange systematically produces inequality.

1.2. Value and Price

In order to understand the systematic production of inequality, one has to grasp the difference between value and price. This is not simple, because traditional economic science nearly completely ignores value and argues exclusively in terms of price. Suggestive examples such as the well known glass of water in the desert give a strong sense of plausibility to the idea that price develops from the balance of supply and demand. This is not completely false, but it is only a tiny part of the truth.

The main complication in understanding value is the fact that it is not a physical or even in any sense a material property of a commodity or its circumstances of distribution. Value is an expression of a relationship. In the elementary heuristic examples such as Marx used, the formula is ‘x commodity A = y commodity B’. The commodity A expresses its value-being in terms of commodity B. When transferring this relation to all commodities, then all commodities mutually express their value in terms of each other.

What is compared inside the equation has to be something common to all commodities. This common denominator is the labour-power required to produce the commodities. In order to simplify comparison, a special commodity emerges and now serves as a measure for all other commodities. This is money. Money itself has no intrinsic value, but can represent value. This is nice, because using money one can buy everything which has a value – or rather, which has a price.

Value as such does not exist, it is only a relationship. To express itself value needs commodities. A commodity is a good, which is produced for exchange. Value then expresses the relationship of values realised during exchange. Nonetheless, this value does not arise from exchange, but despite being only a relationship it is already ‘there’. Because what is compared here is the work or rather labour time put into the production of the commodities being exchanged. Exchange only realises what was already ‘there’. I put ‘there’ in quotes because value is not physically present except as a potential, making comparison possible during the transaction.

If the exchange does not take place, then the ‘potential value’ will not be realised and decays. Hence, in order to survive, the ‘labour time’ embodied in commodities has to be added to other products, because the value is not, in practice, only a single simple relationship such as given in the example above, but in fact a general or social relationship. In short: value is about the social average of common human work embodied by the products which are compared during exchange.

Because value expresses a social relationship, no one has ever seen or calculated the value of a transaction. In order to carry out a single transaction there must be prices. Price is the numerical expression of value, so to speak. Now, here supply and demand come into play, the circumstances of exchange. Price can differ from value, and in most cases it does. On the level of society as a whole (today: at the global level) and over the period of existence of commodity production (who knows how long this will be) this equation must be valid: sum of value = sum of prices. Ok, this can be forgotten as a concrete exercise.

The important thing is: The price must have its basis in value, it basically cannot escape from value. However, locally and over time price can partly shift away from value. This is the reason why the glass of water in the desert can be extremely expensive, while it can be obtained for free elsewhere. Therefore stock rates can rise (being options on future realisations of value), even if currently only hot air is being supplied. ‘Deflation’, a.k.a. ‘crisis’ brings value and price closer to each other again.

To solve the mystery of the unequal global distribution of wealth: this is not a result of the conditions of exchange a.k.a. ‘terms of trade’, it is also not a question of the formation of prices, not a question of injustice, not a question of global regulation, not a question of politics and also not a question of property (I will come back to this point), but rather a question of differential productivity.

Previously I have elided the factor of productivity and thus also the question, ‘how many goods are produced per hour of working time?’. In truth, during exchange working times are not compared independently of productivity. It does not apply that ‘one hour x = one hour y’, but for instance ‘one hour x = ten hours y’, whereas x and y are working times spent at different levels of productivity. If the equation ‘1 hour x = 10 hours y’ shows an average and, in value terms, equivalent therefore just exchange, then during the same time the same number of identical products will be produced (however, at different productivity levels x and y), thus the same amount of work is materialised as products. However, exchanging identical products would not make much sense. If different products are going to be exchanged, then it comes to a materially absurd, but economically just exchange relation of, say, ‘one tractor = 500 sacks of corn’ (historically, with increasing amounts of corn) – an example, which can be found in every schoolbook.

1.3. Rent and Profit

Dmytri Kleiner appears not to know any of this, or if he does, it does not interest him. For Kleiner, labour time and labour are apparently the same. Presumably he would deny that on average labour time is justly remunerated. And he does not know the term ‘surplus value’ introduced by Marx to denominate the value component of capital produced through the labour force’s expenditure of their labour-power in the production of commodities. For the sake of rehabilitating traditional Marxism, this needs to be clarified, however.

If surplus value is related to the invested capital, then this is called profit. Instead of the terms surplus value or profit, appropriated by the property owner from surplus value as income, the author is using the term ‘rent’.

‘Rent’ here means ‘economic return for allowing others to use property’. Taking this definition for the case of land, then ‘land rent’ makes sense. Taking it for the use of labour-power and assuming that ‘property’ denotes the means of production, then this definition does not make sense.

The ‘property owner’ (of means of production) is not generously allowing workers to use his property but, on the contrary, he buys the commodity labour-power in order to apply this labour-power to his means of production. Only because the means of production belong to him and not to the workers can he appropriate the value created by their labour to be realised on the market (by selling the commodities produced). The commodity labour-power is paid for (i.e. the wage) out of this realised value, and if necessary, the ‘land rent’ is paid for out of the surplus value. The revenue of the ‘property owner’ of the means of production is not ‘rent’ but ‘profit’.

Drawing on this result, we can more precisely determine the character of ‘rent’: it is payment for an expenditure of labour-power using value created elsewhere. Because in the case of land the land itself does not create value, the land owner has to be paid with value produced ‘elsewhere’, namely from the exploitation of labour-power in production.

2. Value and Information Commodities

Perhaps Dmytri Kleiner has used the term ‘rent’ in a way that does not differentiate between the different kinds of ‘income’ enjoyed by ‘property owners’ because finally the term fits relatively well when transferred to information goods. Ignoring any differentiation allows attribution of a unique cause or culprit: Property is guilty. Thus the author finds himself – despite all the foregoing theoretical quirks – in the same boat with sincere critics who argue from a traditional Marxist perspective. Let's follow his explanation:

In the case of information goods, ‘property owners’ are those who control the means of commercial utilisation – not, as in the above example, those who control the means of production. Via contracts the producers assign their exploitation rights to the ‘property owners’ (here: owners of the means of commercial utilisation), who only pay them their ‘subsistence’, i.e. the cost of reproducing their labour-power. This looks somewhat like the example discussed above, an ‘iron law’ – there are no detailed reasons given.

Before starting my critique it should be noted that this is simply empirically wrong. The majority of artists, for example, in no way receive the cost of their ‘subsistence’, but rather earn so little that it is not even enough to cover their purely physical survival. On the other hand, there is a small minority of artists who generate extremely large amounts of money despite assigning their exploitation rights to the mediating industry. There is simply no logical relation between income and reproduction costs as in case of selling labour-power. Here, no labour-power is sold, but contracts are concluded between legal entities, between corporations. The fact that the mediating industry has great power to dictate the conditions of exchange is another story – this, for instance, also applies to the relationship between Volkswagen and its suppliers. Back to Kleiner.

Since copyleft does not interfere with ‘property’ it is no better placed to change the allegedly existing ‘iron law’ of ‘unjust’ participation in wealth in the form of copyright than are ‘copyjustright’ or creative commons licences. On the contrary, since copyleft only regulates usage, ‘property owners’ can use the products.

Since the reason for this ‘injustice’ is already determined – ‘property’ – the solution suggests itself: change the structure of ownership. The workers must own the companies themselves and rule over the means of production and exploitation. Only in this way may a more just distribution be reached, since workers as owners can decide for themselves the distribution of wealth. This must also be the standard for licences, and since no existing licences affect ‘property’ and distribution of wealth, a new licence must be created.

3. Copyfarleft

A ‘left’ copyleft licence has to distinguish between two types of ‘property’: workers’ property and ‘property owners’’ property. Or re-worded: Between those who work and those who use wage labour. Kleiner:

it must be possible for workers to make money by applying their own labour to mutual property, but impossible for owners of private property to make money using wage labour.

The worker-owners should be allowed to use the commons, because they are part of the commons. The worker-owners maintain a common pool of information goods, which must be forbidden to ‘property owners’ to access using wage labour. Thus worker-owners are allowed to be ‘inside’ (‘endogenic’), while ‘property owners’ have to remain outside (‘exogenic’).

Kleiner explains:

A copyfarleft license must allow commons based commercial use while denying the ability to profit by exploiting wage labour.

This goal is not achieved by any other licence, because:

‘Non Commercial’ is not a suitable way to describe the required endogenic/exogenic boundary. Yet, no other commons license exists that provides a suitable legal framework for commons based producers to use.

Thus copyfarleft is the attempt to build two economies by law: A commons based economy and a wage labour based economy.

4. Critique

Dmytri Kleiner’s main error is failing to distinguish between labour-power and work. I am not very familiar with the history of the workers’ movement, but as far as I remember, it was Ferdinand Lassalle who, like Kleiner, demands the ‘undiminished proceeds of labour’ for the workers. As far as I know this was deconstructed by Karl Marx in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Again, the term ‘iron law of wages’ originated by Ricardo was shaped and used by Lassalle in order to demand a legal fixing of a kind of a minimum wage.

All in all, despite using some ‘left’ rhetoric, the author merely seems to be geared to a pre-Marxian and bourgeois theory of economics. Nevertheless, he puts his critique of property in a manner which was widespread in the workers’ movement and continued to be so within traditional Marxism: As soon as the means of production are in the hands of the workers, they can dispose of the value including the surplus value themselves and make sure of a just distribution.

Traditionally there were two ways of reaching the goal of workers’ distribution of the means of production and thus of the results of labour: revolution or reform. Both of them aimed at achieving state power, either by a ‘revolution’ or via elections. Kleiner proposes to propel companies gradually toward ‘workers’ property’ bound together by the commons they jointly maintain. The copyfarleft licence is intended to help by providing legal protection.

For me, it is not very interesting to argue about whether the concept of changing the structure of ownership via a licence may be naïve. But it is important to see clearly that Kleiner does not differ from other critics of property: He wants to change the distribution of property, but by no means to address the logic of producing goods in the form of commodities which operates, as it were, over and above any other property regime.

Producing goods in the form of commodities describes the ‘mechanism’ whereby separated private producers – individual or collective ones – have to bring their products to market in order to realise their value. As usual ‘production’ is viewed as something neutral, while solely the distribution of the surplus value (wrongly named ‘rent’) is considered contentious. Below the line this changes nothing.

The same applies to the so-called ‘iron law of wages’. The fact that the wage corresponds to the necessary means of reproduction does not change things. A worker-owned company still has to oversee the marketing of their products as commodities, to keep up in competition, to invest, to cooperate with partners, to outpace competitors – and it can only pay the value of labour-power. Such ‘worker owned’ high tech companies as the ‘Telekommunisten’ have always existed.

A prominent example is PSI in Berlin, one of the biggest consulting companies in Germany. Today they are no longer ‘worker-owned’ but this is where they started from. Collective control was little by little reduced to employee participation and finally abolished, leaving only an ordinary company. This was inevitable, the reasons given for the transformation such as the need for ‘effective leadership of the company’ were not simply pushed forward by individuals, but resulted directly from the logic of exploitation (‘making more money from money’) and competition.

The development whereby products of human practices ‘become independent’ as they are produced in the form of commodities, termed ‘fetishism’ by Marx, is one of the most misunderstood parts of Marxian theory. This process of ‘becoming independent’ – Marx talked about an ‘automatic subject’ when he described self-valorising value (capital) – is a paradoxical result of the production of goods as commodities. It is paradoxical because we are doing this, producing something, which then confronts us as an alien thing representing an inherent coercion.

To give a not-so-often-used quotation from Marx:

Thus the participants in capitalist production live in a bewitched world and their own relationships appear to them as properties of things, as properties of the material elements of production.

– K. Marx, ‘Theories of Surplus-Value’, Part 3, p.928; (the German version is different: participants are ‘agents’).

Using the term ‘participants’ (‘agents’) Marx wants to indicate that we are executors of a logic operating independently from us, but being produced through us. This logic has two essential opposite roles: one being the owner of the means of production a.k.a. the ‘capitalist’ and the other being free of these a.k.a. the ‘worker’. In this respect, class struggle is a fight about the distribution of surplus value. However, this does not touch on the basic principles of commodity production.

Thus Kleiner is not only far from criticising the basic principles – necessarily including exchange, market, money, state – but he rejects such considerations explicitly. When I asked him whether he wants to ‘rescue exchange value’ he answered: ‘I do not want to eliminate exchange, I want to eliminate property privilege.’ This statement corresponds to the position of the paper discussed here.

Despite all his radical rhetoric, Dmytri Kleiner doesn't want to touch the basic principles of commodity production. All he wants is a slightly more equal distribution of wealth based on commodity production. This has been the goal of many people, a lot of people have tried to realise it, and despite so many defeats many people still want it. They will not succeed. It is simply not sufficient to achieve workers’ control over the means of production if they go on being used in the same mode of operating. Production is not a neutral issue, seemingly adaptable for different purposes at will, but the production by separate private labour is necessarily commodity production, where social mediation only occurs post facto through the comparison of values – with all the consequences of this – from the market to ecological disaster.


A critique of property combined with an inadequate critique of surplus value is by definition short-sighted. Only a critique of value can put the basics of our social alienation in focus, because this is the point – it’s about producing our lives in a new way. What production beyond the logic of exploitation can mean is shown by free software. Copyleft in the current form keeps free software legally grounded – nothing more, but also nothing less.