Intellectual Property in the Age of Digital Reproduction

by David Sandoval

Eye Beam Resident Artists Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) visited San Jose State University recently, with their anarchy-lined message of future-hope through open source code.  The aspirations of Graffiti Research Lab attempt to combat the proliferation of corporate media and advertisements across the urban landscape, and promote social change. They do this through advancing Graffiti technologies and by providing a forum for everyone to make use of such technologies through open source. The founders of GRL, James Powderly and Evan Roth, go as far as signing an agreement which bans either of them from benefiting monetarily from these technologies created in their lab.

Their works consist of technologies that enhance the ability to highlight the effect of graffiti art, often through complex arrangements of LED’s and software. Their most successful piece was a based around a technology called Laser T.A.G. which enables writers to display their graffiti projected across buildings using a powerful laser and projector. Graffiti serves as the ideal medium to combat mass advertisements of consumerism, because it generally shares and competes for space on the urban landscape. The unlawful nature of graffiti art allows it to serve as an amazing tool to capture the very oppositional nature of subverted countercultures, being a subversive itself.

The problem is that GRL’s use of open source as a forum for distributing these powerful technologies is that they are often undermined. The complexities of code are often inaccessible to those most able to benefit from these tools, while accessible to seemingly nefarious corporations willingly take these technologies and use them as tools for advertising and commerce. But most importantly, the obtuse language used to define digital technology creates an environment impossible to control these new mediums. As result, projects like LED throwies, which were initially made to challenge advertising space, were subverted by advertising companies and to be used as forms of commercial promotion for the likes of Coke and Turner Broadcasting. This is a great concern because the work and ideals of GRL seems to be negated by these issues.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie advertising campaign run amuck.
Creative Commons (CC) Licenses should be a simple and effective way to address GRL’s issues of the malign copying of their product by corporations; as such licenses can serve to filter to allow for some to make use of their product, and others, such as corporations from not using their product. CC licenses seem to be working so far for websites like Wikipedia, but CC licenses are very limiting in that they follow the archaic models of laws and languages that seem to be plaguing contemporary distribution of media.

Currently there are many legal challenges to this outdated system, such as the case against Jamie Thomas, a single mother of two was found liable of copyright infringement in the nation’s first file-sharing case to go before a jury. The Writers Guild of America are currently on strike over wages concerning their intellectual property being distributed over the internet and the British rock band Radiohead released their latest album  In Rainbows, to the public for a donation fee of one’s choosing. These examples not only represent a tide of change concerning the role digital media as a commodity but for the archaic modes for the current structure of laws that serve to organize the use of digital properties.

These current events of confusion concerning digital ownership can be ascribed as the result of this current age of digitalization. The World Wide Web has increased the accessibility of this so-defined “intellectual property”. Most of these products are property owned by individuals or companies that given the accessibility of reproducing digital have found it impossible to prevent the fast illegal reproduction of digital material. This is further worsened by archaic laws and language that serve to control and define these new commodities.

This new digital age of reproduction is a throwback to the introduction of the printing press in 1430, which allowed for the mass production of images to free images and art from wealthy ultimately, altering the aura and power of the image.  The current rapid growth of the digitalization of information is further changing the role of more complex media within our society. Now that such media are able to be copied and reproduced, it is important to discuss the changing role of the artist in society with regards to the reproducibility of these digital mediums especially concerning the recent controversies with the reproduction and redistribution of digital content.

Let us consider the difference between watching a celluloid film and a digitalized version of the same film. The celluloid film is traditionally projected into a large darkened room, and there is little room for interpretation regarding the focus of reality created through such exhibition practices. With this, is hundred year old traditions of exhibition and group ritual practices that have become engrained in Americana are altered. Once that image is digitalized, as has become the practice for DVD and iPod distribution, the version of the same film is no longer bound to this particular viewing environment. It can be played via an iPod while on a train, or in class on a laptop. Through the same means of distribution, free albeit pirated software is readily available for quickly reediting or manipulating these mediums. And most importantly they can be copied and downloaded, and often times distributed before the film is theatrically released. This is similar compared to the relationship to printing press and the photograph as limned by Walter Benjamin. Film, like the painting is no longer specifically controlled or limited to the wealthy or the distribution companies and altered the resulting aura and power of the medium.

Creative Commons is right now a relatively effective tool for dealing with these new changes, but it does have its limitations.  The Creative Commons model, especially that of the non-commercial license is especially problematic given the many uses of commercialism and its hybrid interdependence with non-commercial works. This is best demonstrated in the highly commercialized contemporary Art world. The non-commercial creative commons specifically forbids the intermingling between commercial and non-commercial which has prevented many from making use of this copyright. The digitalization of media has created derivatives that are outside these models of commercial and non-commercial. Given new auras and relationships of words, their understandings and meanings have become nebulous. Therefore, definitions need to be reevaluated in terms that consider the present and future of digital technologies. CC licenses exist best as a temporary fix, to an increasingly problematic issue concerning the state of digitalization within our culture.

The digitalization of media has entered new uncharted ground which needs to be addressed. Creative Commons licenses are a good quick fix to these issues, especially with regard to artists trying to make their product “free” but not to corporations which do not align with their message. But with regard to this impossible ebb and flow of digital commodities, language and laws need to be reoriented and addressed. Words like “intellectual properties”, “commons”, “commercial” and even the term “digital” need to be reconfigured and redefined, and we need to stop looking at this digitalized commerce as it was, before being digitalized.

Works Cited

Associated Press, et. al.How to Make Them Talk About You.  25 Februrary 2007.   


Creative Commons. December 2007

Benjamin, Walter (1955), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn 1968. New York:Shocken Books, 1969. 155-200

Berry, D. M. & Moss, G. (2005). On the “Creative Commons”: a critique of the commons without commonality. Free Software Magazine. No. 5.

Kim, M. (2007). The Creative Commons and copyright protection in the digital era: Uses of Creative Commons licenses. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 10.

Lessig, L. (2004). The Creative Commons. Montana Law Review, 65.

Möller, Erik (2006). The Case for Free Use: Reasons Not to Use a Creative Commons NC License. Open Source Jahrbuch 2006.

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