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Of pirates in digital India

Social capital may provide a more relevant framework in which to understand intellectual property theft
by Apoorva Tadepalli

Francis Fukuyama, in his essay on social capital and civil society, describes social capital as “an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals.” Social capital is described as dependent on ‘traditional’ values such as honesty and cooperation.

Fukuyama clarifies the relevance of social capital even in free markets. Though “the literature of development has not, as a general rule, found social capital in this form to be an asset” and “economic modernization was seen as antithetical to traditional culture or social organisations”, social capital represents an innately human way of achieving productivity by operating around constructs like bureaucracy and formal contracts. In this way, it escapes the culture that centres around consumerism, content, and individualism. It is in many ways particularly significant in Indian society, which has a history of relying on community relations and the influence of the collective imagination. Fukuyama says that these values on which social capital is based, in many ways improve functioning of organisations.

In this context, it is worthwhile to reframe the idea of “intellectual property theft” – with specific reference to art, media and software – and position it in a space that acknowledges the influence of these community relations. The most simplified and common argument against intellectual property rights is that it belongs to a framework which assumes that the development and spread of all ideas has monetary goals, which is not the case. Networks of sharing like the free software movement and thepiratebay.com do not operate with monetary incentives. In such systems, every player is both a producer and a consumer, and belongs to a culture with high social capital and a drive for growth and access, not profit. Such cultures offer not monetary value but knowledge. This is possible because in not operating with what Fukuyama calls contracts and formalities – in this case intellectual property laws – there is a new space offered to them.

These cultures of sharing are located in the history of the gift economy. In this context, the cost of helping someone or providing a “product” is very low. Fukuyama identifies that social capital often arises from the situation of the prisoner’s dilemma, where mutual cooperation produces the greatest benefit for all parties. This idea is the basis for the copyleft movement, which aims to provide a public domain for free softwares to be updated and shared. Because of the high social capital in such settings, there is an inherent trust that the spread of knowledge will benefit everyone, and that every actor in the community will contribute their knowledge. Open sources of free art or software offer minimal costs to the ‘producers’, while at the same time achieving the largest reach.

This practice can have significance to corporates also. This can be seen in the way Microsoft accepts the use of pirated Windows softwares on finding that it improves user awareness of Windows and turns them into potential customers. As the benefits – both to the users and to Microsoft – of the maximum number of people knowing how to operate on Windows outweighs the costs to Microsoft alone, the ratio of positive to negative externalities of this display of social capital is very high.

The term “intellectual property theft” places piracy in a purely legal framework rather than a partially cultural one, and also identifies art as content rather than culture. This term is a product of the American individualist culture. Succeeding a history of folk telling, oral tradition and the encouraging of translations and variations, this model is perhaps out of place. The contemporary application of these traditional practices can be seen with the omnipresence of the internet. Fukuyama’s concept of “radius of trust” is relevant here because in the information age, constant interaction is a natural state of being. It enables fluidity of knowledge and information, the exchange of which builds Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities: they comprise individuals who identify with, act for, and trust each other without knowing of each other’s specific existence. The social capital in these communities is in many ways stronger than the individualist sentiment on which the concept of intellectual property is based.

These communities are important because, especially in the case of ‘pirates’, they include people to whom the legal framework of the state has denied a space. As “criminals”, they cannot be true members of the nation-state but they are members of their own, equally valid and highly influential communities. These communities, like the ones on thepiratebay.com, are vast and tight-knit and they exhibit many of the ‘traditional’ values like honesty and cooperation that depict social capital. This is because they display several “radii of trust” or a large network of people whom they are willing to cooperate with (upload for) and trust (download from).

Fukuyama says that social capital is a cultural factor that is defined by inherent practices within communities. It in turn influences a lot of economic and industrial activity. It would therefore be misguided to place economic policy on communities without acknowledging these cultural factors. Perhaps this implies that it is worth rethinking “intellectual property theft” using a holistic context, and providing a discursive if not legal space for such practices.

Apoorva Tadepalli is a Communications Associate at the Takshashila Institution.


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