Patent trolls have been getting a lot of attention the past few years and the topic seems to be cropping up even more, recently. See this episode of “This American Life” from 2011 and this follow-up from last week, as well as this article from Extreme Tech which gives an overview on the Obama administration’s plan to crack down on patent trolling.
A lot of the focus, however, has been on how patent trolling has been throttling the economy or technological development. But, as Benjamin argues, quoting nineteenth- and twentieth-century art collector and historian Eduard Fuchs, technological development is the impetus for the development of the art and culture of the proletariat.1 Technology does not just benefit the well-being (i.e. financial stability, health and general quality of life) of the people but also their ability to create, distribute and access cultural productions. The internet is an extreme and the most recent example of the same type of development that Benjamin saw with the development of film cameras and the advent of photography and cinema as art forms, beginning with daguerreotypes and nickelodeons in French arcades. Eduard Fuchs also notes the development of caricature as an art form owing much to the development and sophistication of technology.
There are myriad examples of art forms that are only possible through technology. Early examples are pottery and sculpture. I make an argument in my Master’s thesis that remixing is an important form of folk cultural production that is only possible because of the development of recent technologies and that the cultural impact is made greater by the networked technologies available to artists and creative people today. My conception of remixing does not refer only to musical remixes of existing songs but extends to mixed media, YouTube videos that use clips of other media, meme generation, fan art/fan fiction or any other type of media that is created by utilizing existing media or intellectual property, be it public domain or copyrighted.
Remix is arguably one of the most dominant forms of folk cultural production today because it is incredibly far-reaching in terms of audience because of the distribution power of the internet and is one of the most accessible forms of media production available to the common person. The proletarian community (by this I mean the common non-professional media producer, such as a hobbyist, not proletarian in the sense Benjamin and Fuchs used, though there are some important similarities due to the separation of non-professional and professional culture producers today) is able to access, produce, remix and distribute media ONLY because of the power that is given to them by the access that they have to modern technology, in particular the powerful personal computers, easy-to-use software and the internet.
Remixing does not just rehash old ideas, however. There are some incredible technological and cultural developments and innovations that come out of remixing. If you take access and/or technological power from anyone, the entire culture suffers, such is our dependency on our technologically networked cultural infrastructure. More on this in later posts.
Since our culture is tied so intricately to the technology that is available to us, we can assume that the development of new technologies will also determine the advancement of new art and forms of cultural production and dissemination. Patent trolling does not just limit our economy and technology from growing, but it also stymies our cultural growth. We are moving closer and closer to singularity not just in terms of our intellectual and physical evolutionary growth but also in terms of our cultural growth. Technology is culture in this day and age. Patent trolling allows the technological and intellectual (as in Intellectual Property) bourgeoisie to control and profit off of technological and cultural innovators. This is not just a free enterprise issue but a free speech issue as well.