[Guest Post] Message To The Messengers

Words by Seungyong Moon

Copyright and intellectual property are sensitive issues among designers. If someone infringes or rips off their work or style, fundamental questions of intellectual property tend to be raised. While other realms of art, interlinked with democratized technology, focus on sharing their culture and information with the public, designers are concerned about building boundaries — Nobody can achieve their unique identities.

However, more and more, while designers see copyright and intellectual property as a vital issue, they also need to see where they have been in the commons. With this query, my essay will examine how we can build the commons together especially in the digital era focusing on the ideas of autonomy and multitude which go beyond the simple notion of the private space and the public space.

It seems designers can’t get out of the notion that designing is a creative and individual task. Because of its strong obsession for visual effects, the complexity of its production and distribution in design also seems slimmed down into only its skin. As Jan van Toorn once elaborated, is it because the misconception of designer’s position in a market economy leads them to discomfort whenever they need to be brought up to critical parts? [1] Or is it because of the tendency which designers tend to be their own best audiences? Susan Buck-Morss once pointed out that our individual successes to have privileges as educational and cultural producers feeds the privileged ideology. [2]

With the advent of the internet, the digital age has changed people’s minds. Our notion of what a creator is has also shifted to the idea that creativity not only occurs alone, but it is produced when we communicate with each other. Today, people generate new meanings by using and sharing other people’s works and the information which circulates on the internet. These acts question the concept of common, which goes beyond the stale boundary of intellectual property. Conversely, some corporations and companies — those which monopolize the mass media — have choked people to control due to its attribute of the difficulty of controlling. Naturally, with this phenomenon, we wonder where designers position themselves.

Democratization in the Digital Era and Privatization

“I think this model of suing people for intellectual property is really old world.”
– Ryder Ripps

Ryder Ripps, whose own website Dump.fm is an invitation-only GIF gallery of sorts, describes the GIF as a “visual soundbite,” allowing someone to take a piece of pop culture and make it one’s own. John Kelly goes even further to describe both memes and GIFs as “pockets of avant-garde cultural creation,” whose power resides in the fact that they can be accessed by anyone. [3]

Cory Arcangel is also one of the artists who takes appropriations of popular culture for his work. ‘Super Mario Movie’ made in 2002 and ‘Japanese Driving Game’ made in 2004 are his famous outcomes produced by hacking and re-using existing games creatively. His work has been exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. However, because of his strategy of appropriating, he has consistently perpetuated controversy over intellectual property right.

Here, as Ripps demonstrates, so-called ‘democratic attitude’, is generating the new language of images by using other people’s materials. Internet artist, programmer, filmmaker, musician, artist and internet users are building an unconventional commons together based on swarm intelligence. The distinction between creator and consumer has broken down and become gradually ambiguous. However, when this notion crosses over to the design domain, it seems there is a tendency in which designers are stuck in the extremely conservative realm in terms of their authorship and ownership. Is it because designers have decided to be personalized for creating their values in the paradigm of the client? Perhaps designers are still stuck in the conception of the highbrow?

Designers, especially Graphic Designers use typefaces and images generated by others. However, under the guise of creativity, whenever we express our thoughts by using someone’s images without permission for non commercial purposes, it leads to issues of piracy. During the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, non commercial publishing and transforming were not regulated. However, since the advent of the digital technology and because of its difficulty to monitor usage, almost every realm has been controlled under the copyright law. One interesting thing is that internet users (including designers) who use new technologies often do not realize that they are pirating.

No scarcity. Rent and Exploitation

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have one idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Material property, such as land or a house cannot coexist if someone owns one of these properties. However, can immaterial property be considered property in the same notion as material property? Information, ideas and images are the things which can be reproduced infinitely, and these immaterial productions don’t operate on a sense of scarcity and they can be everywhere at once. Designs which we have produced on our computers can also be copied endlessly with no loss to anybody.

According to the analysis of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Immaterial production such as knowledge, information and service etc, itself tends to produce the means of interaction, communication, and cooperation for production directly. All thought is produced in collaboration with the past and present thought of others– also each new idea and image invites and opens new collaborations. From this point of view, the right of property in the entire field of immaterial production is undermined by the same logic that supports it because the labor that creates property cannot be identified with any individual or even group of individuals [4]. Furthermore, they emphasize the importance of cognitive labor, immaterial labor, creative labor and affective labor are at the core of contemporary modes of production. So to speak, the principal labor and production are occurred from the common, and the paradigm of the contemporary labor tends to expand to the entire time of life. An idea or inspiration comes to you not only in the office but also when you communicate with people or even take a shower at home. However, we need to take a closer look at how copyright and intellectual property have become the strategic evolution of rent to expropriate the commons and reintroduce artificial scarcity, as the media theorist Matteo Pasquinelli mentions. [5]

Without forcing those who put productive assets with their labor into the property, the property owners can’t earn anything and the property itself is nearly nothing. [6] But in order to get means from this property, they need to force other persons to share the product of their labor and with this notion we can also apply the idea of property to the artificial property of intellectual property. In 2009, the radical publisher ‘Verso’ which has published Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou, etc. threatened legal action against ‘AAAARG.org’ to prevent people from accessing PDFs of their copyrighted material. AAAARG was a sort of pirate platform that includes a vast online library with full texts on media theory, philosophy, art, politics. Although against the philosophies of it’s writers, the property owner such as Verso has the rights to the content it holds.

In the same context, there is the clearly same the phenomenon in design total. For instance, when graphic designers are hired by someone to develop a work for corporations, the copyright may be owned by the hiring companies or employers. And if they sell their companies to others, the profits will transfer to them because of their working assets, but designer’s labor would be easily dismissed and they will receive no profit.

Towards the Autonomous Commons

“If there is an act of genius, it is the genius of the multitude.”
– Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt

As we have seen, now we are not only easily able to figure out who made the commons and produce the commons, but also we can readily grasp that we are more intelligent together than any one of us is alone. Unfortunately, however, while we have been arguing and trying to build boundaries in terms of intellectual property in the same network or class, lots of companies and corporations have exploited our assets invading our commons. We must now wonder which alternatives we need to examine and take.

There are many alternatives against the copyright law for so called ‘Free culture’. But there is only one tempting alternative, ‘Copyfarleft’ which concerns multitudes more than corporations and its exploitations.

In ‘The Telekommunist Manifesto’ by Dmytri Kleinter, he elaborates that the system of private control justifies its unfair distribution of wealth. While property owners acquire most of means from their properties, creative workers who don’t have proper properties can earn no more than their subsistence. And this tragedy eventually leads: 10 per cent of the world population owns 85 per cent of global assets against a multitude of people who own barely anything [7]. Whether you are a musician, designer, artist etc, if you make a contract with large corporations, it means, on the one hand, you somewhat contribute the privileged system and give up your copyrights. However, seen from the context we could imagine: If we are the real producers of properties, we could also decide to stop offering our labor to the property owners.

Naturally, he suggests a license of Copyfarleft which cannot have a single set of terms for all users, but rather must have different rules for different classes. In this model, those who exploit wage labour and private property on a large scale cannot use copyfarleft materials, but normal workers and producers can freely share and profit by applying their own labour to mutual property. By doing so, he strongly believes that this license will redistribute the wealth and close a gap of the class division and, by extension, Dymitri and his co-worker, Matteo Pasquinelli, indicate problems of Copyleft and Creative Commons by insisting, and borrowing the idea of Florian Cramer.

“Copyleft, as developed by the free software community, is thus not a viable option for most artists. Even for software developers, the iron law of wages applies, they may be able to earn a living, but nothing more, owners of property will still capture the full value of the product of their labour. Copyleft is thus not able to ‘make society better’ in any material sense, because not only is it not viable for many kinds of workers, but the majority of the extra exchange value created by producers of copyleft information is in every case captured by owners of material property.” [8]

“To say that something is available under a CC license is meaningless in
practice. . . . The objections are substantial and boil down to the following points: that the Creative Commons licenses are fragmented, do not define a common minimum standard of freedoms and rights granted to users or even fail to meet the criteria of free licenses altogether, and that unlike the Free Software and Open Source movements, they follow a philosophy of reserving rights of copyright owners rather than granting them to audiences.” [9]

So to speak, under the license of CC, the freedom of user rights is limited and vague.

Who produced the commons? Who makes the commons? We need to rethink the definition of our communal commons together as designers and artists, rather than making artificial boundaries. What if we give the public abstract signifiers which they can freely access, reproduce and regenerate different meanings from its origins? As Mark Owens once stated in his essay, Graphics Incognito, the graphic abstraction will give the much richer future with its unauthorized sharing. And beyond a renewed professionalism or the market value of ‘the designer as author’ in design total, he assumes that Graphics Incognito might offer new, undisciplined, and as-yet-imagined ways forward to us. [10]

  • [1] Jan van Toorn, Design Beyond Design: Critical Reflection and the Practice of Visual Communication. Jan Van Eyck Akademie, 1998.
  • [2] Susan Buck-Morss, Design Beyond Design: Critical Reflection and the Practice of Visual Communication. Jan Van Eyck Akademie, 1998.
  • [3] “The Mystique Of Online Viral Imagery”, http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/the-mystique-of-online-viral-imagery-video
  • [4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. Penguin, 2005.
  • [5] Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers / Institute of Network Cultures, 2008.
  • [6] Dmytri Kleiner, The Telekommunist Manifesto. Institute of Network Cultures, 2010
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] ibid.
  • [9] Florian Cramer, ‘www.generation-online.org/c/fc_rent4.pdf
  • [10] Mark Owens, ‘Graphics Incognito.’ in DDD12, edited by Stuart Bailey, Peter Bilak, and David Reinfurt, Dot Dot Dot Magazine, 2006.
About the Author

Seungyong Moon is a graphic designer and researcher based in Malmö and Seoul.
He works on self-initiated and commissioned projects that reflect cultural and social issues.

seungyongmoon [at] protonmail.com

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