Copyfarleft: A Response to Stefan Meretz

By Dmytri Kleiner, 1 July 2008

Thank you to Stefan Meretz for taking the time to engage at lengthwith my essay, "Copyfarleft, Copyjustright and the Iron Law ofCopyright Earnings." []

The main argument advanced in the essay is that artists can notearn a living from exclusivity of "intellectual property" and thatthat neither copyleft licenses like the GPL, nor "copyjustright"frameworks such as the creative commons, can help.

The only thing, I believe can help, is workers' selforganisation, an approach that is popular among socialistsfrom anarchist, especially syndicalist, tendencies, and is alsosupported by those who promote "Market Socialism" and"Economic Democracy."

Unfortunately, Stefan doesn't really engage in any of thearguments made in my essay directly, he is not for instancearguing that either copyleft, copyright or copyjustright doescreate the possibility for artists to make a living, thereforefrom my point of view we seem to be in agreement on the mainclaims of the essay. In fact, I could not find a single argumentin the entire "critique" that disputes my contention that onlya minute elite group of artists can make a living fromintellectual property, which is the point of the essay.

Instead of disputing my claims regarding the economic relations ofcreative production, Stefan's "critique" seems bizarrely directed atme personally, at proving that I don't "understand" or "am notinterested in" certain aspects of theory, claims which are repeatedthroughout the entire critique, and often extraneous to the pointbeing addressed.

Unsurprisingly by "understand" he means agree with certainself-congratulating and dogmatic tendencies that have longattempted to refute anarchist beliefs, and when he says my use ofcertain terminology is "wrong", what he means is that I am usinga heterodox economic language, instead of some orthodox languagehe appears to normatively regard as "correct."

Oddly, some of his claims of my "lack of understanding" includesuch common knowledge such as the distinction between use-valueand exchange-value ("value" and "price"), a distinction I actuallyemploy clearly in the essay, and also the basic distinction oflabour from labour-power ("work" and "work-force"), which heraises without any reference to where my text is ambiguous that would makehis claim applicable to something I actually argue. In other words,both these aspects of his critique are non sequiturs.

And finally, Stefan's main issue is my endorsement of workers' selforganization as a form of workers' struggle, as is typical of manyorthodox marxists, he claims that his views are categoricallycorrect, and the views of libertarian socialism are categoricallywrong, confused, "bourgeois" or "pre-Marxian."

In establishing my "not understanding", Stefan argues:

There is no »natural price of labour«. The author has to allege such a construct as Ricardo does, in order to explain, why there is a part, which can be hold by the »property owner«.

Of course this is explained in my essay, Stefan just choses toignore it. The fact is, as I claim, that "whatever wage increasesthey [workers] retain are swept away by price inflation."So long as workers sell their labour, either, by timeor based on output or "piece work," and do not actually own thefinal product of their labour, then whatever wages they have willsimply be captured by prices charged by those that do appropriatethe products of labour and thus control the circulation of theseproducts. That is, whatever portion of their wages are not alreadycaptured by location-rents on their dwellings, which would alsoincrease in response to any general increase of wages.

This is the Iron Law.

Stefan claims that:

The workers did not get the value of their work, but the value of their work force (the wage). The exchange of wage against work force is thoroughly just. Economically viewed it is an exchange of equivalents.

Here Stefan appears to have lost his command of the distinctionbetween "value" (use-value) and "price" (exchange-value). Doeshe mean that workers can capture the "use-value" of theirlabour-power ("work-force")? This would mean his claim wasself-contradictory as with equal access to productive assetsthis by definition would be the final product of theirlabour ("value of their work")?

Or is Stefan rather claiming, then, that the price oflabour-power is equal to its wage? Isn't that self-evident?"Wage" and "price of labour-power" are synonmys.Isn't the question rather that is any wage less than thefinal product's exchange value just?

Stefan has not explained why the worker would accept anythingless than the entire exchange-value of the product of theirlabour as a wage.

The answer, of course, is that the worker and employerdo not exchange as equals, as Stefan ludicrously claims, butrather that the exchange is asymmetrical, the workerdoes not have access to productive assets without beinggranted access by an owner, and thus can notindependently produce at all, and that this asymmetryis based on State granted and enforced privilege.

Marx himself understood this very well, Capitalism andwage labour could not exist before the process of"primitive accumulation," a revolution from above thatenclosed common lands with State-violence and created alandless proletariat with no means of subsistence exceptto sell their labour and that this history was written in"letters of blood and fire", in other words, expropriationby violent force.

The idea that labour and capital exchange as equals issimply false.

In any case, this dispute is far from relevant to my article,but rather a common dispute among heterodox libertariansocialists and those that espouse authoritarian dogmas,a dispute that has gone on for well over a century,therefore I do not feel any need to further refute thisin the context of Copyfarleft, rather for those interested,I recemond Kevin Carson's critique of Anti-Dühring by FreddyEngels in his excellent Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.

Later on Stefan argues:

To solve the mystery of worldwide unequal distribution of wealth: the unequal distribution is not an result of the exchange circumstances aka »terms of trade«, it is also not a question of formation of prices, no question of in/justice, not a question of global regulation, no question of politics and also no question of property it is a question of different productivity.

This is what Kevin Carson calls a "sort of variation on thefable of the ant and the grasshopper", Carson quotes Marx inrejecting this edifying myth, I will quote the same passage.

Marx writes:

In times long gone by there were two sorts of people: one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal élite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living.... Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property.... In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly, force, play the great part. -- Capital vol. 1

Perhaps I misunderstand Stefan, and he is not making an argumentthat richer economic polities are richer as a result of greaterproductivity, and not, as Marx puts it, as a result of "conquest,enslavement, robbery, murder," etc, but if this is not hispoint, then it is not clear to me what is.

Stefan claims:

Presumably he would deny, that in average working time is justly payed. And he does not know the term surplus value being the value part of those products, which are produced by work force extending the value of this work force.

Here Stefan seems to again conflate price (exchange-value) and value(use-value), and labour and labour-power. For "average working time"(labour-power) to be "justly" paid (pay=price) it would need tocapture the price of its product, it is the difference between theexchange value of the product and the wage that is surplus value,which refers to "exchange value", therefore price.

What Marx considered "just" was a lack of exploitation, which meansthat the workers should retain the full product of their labour.

Therefore, claiming that "traditional Marxism" considers wages just issimply absurd.

If the surplus value is related to the invested capital, then this is called profit. Instead of the term surplus value or profit, appropriated by the property owner from surplus value as income, the author is using the term »rent« (here I was quite uncertain of the translation of »rent«, which literally means »lease« of a flat etc.).

In my opinion, Rent is the correct term, see "Economic Rent,""Rentier Class," "Rent-seeking behaviour," etc.

"Surplus Value" simply describes that a surplus exists in production,it does not explain who's income that surplus becomes, incomes aredivided into Wages, Interest and Rent.

"Profit" is an accounting term.

"Lease of a flat" is a colloquial, not economic, usage of the termrent, in actual economic fact the proceeds of the "lease of a flat"also represent wages (i.e. paying the hausmeister), interest (thebuilding itself), and economic rent (the location), the last obviouslybeing the most significant as any real-estate agent will tell you:"location, location, location."

While misunderstanding at first, Stefan appears to come around:

Using this result »rent« can be determined more precisely: It is the payment of an effort from value created elsewhere. Because in the case of land the land itself does not create [exchange] value, but the land owner has to be payed from »elsewhere« produced value, namely from the exploitation of work force in production.

What can I say, I agree 100% with what Stefan says here.

Well, despite Stefan's strange desire to attack my knowledge of basictheory, while agreeing (or at least not disputing) the basic arguments Ipresent, we get into the core of the dispute when it comes to myCopyfarleft proposal, which most directly highlights our different pointsof view.

Stefan argues:

Before starting my critique below, this have to be noted: This is simply empirically wrong. The oversized number say of artists get in no way their »subsistence«, but they earn so few, that it is even not enough for pure physical survival.

Here Stefan proves I am empirically "wrong" by repeating my exact argument,Which is that artists //can not// earn even their subsistence fromintellectual property.

He goes on:

On the other hand there is a small artist group generating extremely high amounts of money despite assigning their exploitation rights to the mediating industry.

"small group of artists" being the operative words, a group so small thatyou have to take the percentage to many decimal places to avoid roundingdownto zero.

And even still their total earnings represent a tiny portion of the overallexchange value captured by the mediating industry.

And even still the total earnings of the media industry represent a tinyportion of the overall value of the "audience power" delivered to buyersof behavioural control, i.e, the "Consciousness Industry" that is the realbasis of economic value in media. But that is for another essay.

Stefan then claims:

There is simply no logical reference between income and reproduction costs as in case of selling work force. Here, no work force is sold, but contracts are concluded between legal entities

My argument is that artists as a group can capture no _more_ thantheir reproduction costs.

Are the numbers in "contracts between legal entities" pulled from thin airor are they also influenced by economic considerations regarding incomesand derived from wages, interest and rent?

Stefan seems confused by a limited interpretation of labour-power("work force"), and misses the fact that when the media industry ownthe media product, meaning that they exclusively control the circulation,they capture all the surplus value, regardless of the formal terms of thecontract, whether it is based on time, output, whatever, since they captureall the surplus value, this leaves nothing more than reproduction costsleft for the artist to capture, and no guarantee they can even capturethat.

That is what I call "The Iron Law of Copyright Earnings," and this iron lawis worse than the Iron Law of Wages exactly because it does not evenguarantee subsistance.

Stefan now goes deeper into his critique of copyfarleft.

He claims that my complaint is:

since copyleft is only regulating usage, »property owners« can use the products.

However, the issue is not that property owners can use the products,for instance in the case of software I explain how free softwareproduction can exist within both capitalist and socialist modes, howeverbecause in the case of media properties, such as movies, music, etc,using means not simply "employing in production" as is often the case ofsoftware, but "controlling the circulation of" which means capturingthe surplus value.

If commons-based artistic producers allow media institutions free accessto commons media assets, then these capital financed institutions cantake advantage of the great inequality in access to productive assets andcrowd out commons-based producers. What's more, these media institutionsneither want nor expect free access, so why should we grant it? Why notreserve the possibility to negotiate non-free access or to deny accessat all depending on the interests of the commons-based producers?

Why insist that we grant free access to commons assets to groups whodon't themselves engage in peer production in each and every case,even in cases, such as artistic media, where economic relationshipsare demonstrably different?

Now, after flirting with various trifles, trying to find technical"errors" in my position, we approach the crux of our dispute, Stefan'sdenouncement of heterodox views as categorically wrong simply becausethey vary from his chosen orthodoxy.

Stefan states:

Since the reason of this »unjustness« is already determined—the »property«—the solution suggests itself: changing of ownership structure. The workers have to own the companies themselves and rule over the means of production and exploitation.

Exactly, only mutual property can defeat private property. Or as I oftendo, let me quote from the preamble to the constition from the IndustrialWorkers of World:


It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

Organizing industrially to build the new society in the shell of theold requires that we recognize that there are two different types ofcirculation. The endogenic circulation among peer producers, and theexogenic circulation between the p2p mesoeconomy and the mixedmacroeconomy, dominated by captialist production. And that each ofthese circulation paths have different economic relationships that cannot be collapsed into one set of terms, such as copyleft orcopyjustright attempts.

So here is why Stefan disputes this reasoning:

The main fault of Dmytri Kleiner is not to distinguish between work force and work.

One, I misunderstand labour and labour power, which is false, Stefanmisunderstands the implications of labor power supposing that iflabour-time is not specifically the term of the employment contract thatsurplus value is somehow not extracted despite the fact that theemployer appopriates the product and therfore controls itscirculation, thus capturing whatever surplus value is available.

He continues:

I am not very familiar with the history of workers movement, butas far as I remember, it was Ferdinand Lassalle who similarily as the author demands an »undiminished proceeds of labor«. This was—again as far as I know—deconstructed by Karl Marx in his »Critique of the Gotha.

Two, something I said reminds him of something Lassalle may have saidwhich may have been refuted by Marx.

Umm, except for the nice combination of both the guilt byassociation and appeal to authority fallacies, I see nothingcomplelling in this point either.


All in all despite using some »left« rhetorics the author merely seems to be geared to pre-marxian and bourgois theory of economics.

Third, "merely" implies that my "bourgeois" heterdox economics iscategorically inferior, and somehow out-of-date, "pre-marxian."

This is not a logical argument, but rather simply a categoricaldismissal.

I refer Stefan to the many post-Marx theorists who continue torefer to the same model of income (rent, wages, interest), andfactors of production (land, labour, capital) that I employ, suchas Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson to illustrate that while he iswelcome to disagree with any argument presented, there isnothing "pre" anything about it.

Now, having named a troika of fallacies a "critique," hepresents his orothodox beliefs as victorious arguments:


Traditionally there were two ways reaching the goal of disposition of the means of production and thus of the labour results: revolution or reform.

All hail the false dilemma! Ever the favourite of dogmaticarguments. There is only revolution or reform! You are eitherwith us or against us!

Other options such as Trotskyist "entryism", DeLeonian "dual power,"and Anarchist "Syndicalism" are simply not included, and thuscategorically "reformist," which is especially odd as syndicalismis exactly the strategy endorced, therefore why not avoid discussingit by simply leaving it off the "possible ways" list.

Having established only two possible ways. Stefan continues:

For me it is less interesting, whether a concept of changing of the ownership structure via a license could be named »naive«.

Stefan builds a strawman here, the point of my argument is exactlythat as a result of the Iron Law of Copyright Earnings,"intellectual property" of any kind can not change the ownershipstructure, only peer production can.

I do not and have never presented "copyfarleft" as an ultimate goalor sole solution to anything, I have argued that to the degree thata license can be useful at all it must take into account mode ofproduction as its basis.

It is not the license that will change the ownershipstructure, but workers' self-organisation, in other wordsthe ownership structure will change when people produce andshare in new ways.

The license is merely an instrument of tradethat is required only due to the nature of the external economicenvironment. As the capitalist economy of the media industry neitherwants nor expects free access to a commons of media assets, I hardlyexpect them to object to such a license.

After attempting to replace my argument with a strawman,Stefan continues:

It is more important to see clearly, that the author does not differ from other critics of property: He wants to change property disposition, but in no case the logic of producing goods in form of commodities operating on top of any property regime.

Here Stefan attempts to portray the objective facts of actuallyexisting reality as simply something I "want". This is simplyan irrational desire, and not logically argued choice.

Today, peer producers must engage in exchange relations toacquire material subsistance and to fund any mutual accumulation.

Both venture communism and copyfarleft employ the same logic ofproposing ways that operate within the existing reality, thusmaking it possible to "create a new society in the shell of the old."

I want to change property relations so that economic actors can employwhatever modes of producing and sharing work for them, rather thanhaving owners of property appropriate the product and thus controlthe circulation.

Personally, I favour more communal modes, but that only matters to thedegree that I have a choice over the kinds of circulation and sharingI engage in. Building the possibility of choice requires the formationof mutual property, which we can only currently accomplish by engagingin exchange.

I wonder what, besides waiting for the pseudo-messionic "revolution,"Stefan proposes?

Stefan continues:

Also a workers owned company has look for the marketing of their products being commodities, has to keep up in competition, has to invest, has to cooperate with partners, has to outpace competitors—and can only pay the value of the work force.

Having considered the issues faced by any enterprise, his conclusion is,curiously, that profit does not exist at all!

Aparently, once a workers-owned company pays for its costs of doingbusiness, all that is left is the reproduction costs of the workers,regardless of what the costs are or what the exchange value of theproduct is!

If that is the case, how do owners accumulate wealth? Why exactly dothe rich, in actually existing reality, get richer?

Why does Stefan believe that owners are able to accumulate wealth byprivately owning productive assets, while workers can not accumulatewealth with mutual ownership?

Having played a strange shell game and attempting to hide profit underthe table, Stefan now descends into abject banality.

Such »workers owned« high tech companies as the »Telekommunisten«have always existed.

The "it hasn't happened yet, therefore it can never happen" fallacy.Many flying machines existed before any took flight. And yes,demutualization is oneof many problems faced by mutual organisation, but that doesn't mean thata solution will never be found.

He goes on:

This was the goal of many people, a lot of people tried to realize this goal, and despite of so many defeats many people already want it: They will not succeed.

In other words, give up, that has been tried. A funny argument coming fromsomebody promoting a version of orthodox marxism, so I guess Stefanbelievesthat people who share his wants and goals have never faced any defeats.

Now, Stefan, seems to imagine that Free Software somehow embodiesliberation.

It is about a new way of producing our lives. What a production beyond the logics of exploitation can mean, is shown by the freesoftware.

Free software, being almost entirely created by wage labour, and capturingexchange value only for owners of capital, now shows us what productioncan be beyond the logic of exploitation.

Stefan has now completely lost the plot of both his own arguments and mine.

The bulk of Free Software is created by employees whose wages are directlyorindirecly paid by Capitalist organisation, they fund it because, like themetric system and standardized nuts and bolts, it is a common input tofurtherproduction, and thus having this free-stock of information assets does notprevent them from controlling physical productive assets and thecirculationof actual goods.

What is it about this Stefan thinks challanges exploitation?

Stefan closes with:

Copyleft exactly in the current form keeps free software legally grounded—nothing more, but also nothing less.

I quote this only because this statement was apparently enough for MichelBauwens to conclude that "Stefan Meretz gives us a renewed insight intothe genius of the existing copyleft/free software license"

I don't see it. Do you? Perhaps if I repeat it as a mantra often thegenius and insight will one day enlighten me.

But so far, as a free software developer, I know that most of us are stillpunching the clock and working for the man.