During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, for example, leaked documents exposed that state and federal military forces were working alongside a private military contractor, TigerSwan, hired by owners of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners. Working with police in at least five states to attack the Indigenous-led movement Water Protector, TigerSwan was using military-style counterterrorism measures and digital surveillance to monitor protesters’ movements, including a live video feed from a private Dakota Access security helicopter.
Here is where intellectual property comes in. What if we legally protect the creativity inherent in protest as copyrightable performance art? Protests routinely incorporate performative innovations into their repertoire, from Standing Rock to Mexico to Iraq to the United Kingdom. We know that for communities in resistance, ‘the rituals, dances, protocols and songs that characterise these struggles are not merely the cultural ephemera of activism; they are an intimate and constitutive part of Indigenous world-making, a means to coordinate and align the collective imagination so as to facilitate and enrich the cooperation of those involved’. Scholars have long recognised the performativity of protest, studying the use of visualisation and space or arguing that ‘choreography, movement and gesture are not peripheral but central to the politics of protest’. What if protestors acknowledge that these key features of protest also have legal rights that can help them challenge the prison-industrial complex?
Imagine if protestors wore the © ‘all rights reserved’ on their bodies or adorned themselves in barcodes that linked to their copyright terms and conditions, specifying that images and audio could not be used for commercial use, including privately contracted surveillance. Imagine if protesters then demanded in court to know how private security forces were using any recording of their art, visual or audio? Imagine if legal discovery (the pre-trial procedure in which each party can obtain evidence from the other party through requests for documents) then revealed the secret commercial interests between police departments and private security companies, or between a private mercenary firm and its employer, an oil company. Imagine if these companies then had to compensate protesters for copyright violation, or if courts threw out evidence because companies had obtained it unlawfully with copyright infringement. Copyright law is not going to get protestors out of jail for criminal charges, but it can help to ensure that the prison-industrial complex cannot profit from policing.
How would the creators of a copyright-protected performance by Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, BP or not BP, #NoDAPL, and countless other fearless activists want to condition the use of their performance? What kinds of legally enforceable exclusions would further the goals of their direct action or community response? Should protestors allow police departments (and the private security companies they increasingly work with) to use video and sound recordings of a scripted performance (i.e. a protest) or of visual art such as graffiti – and any other copyrightable material – without any conditions? What should anyone who seizes or destroys an encampment-as-art installation have to pay in reparations?
We inhabit systems that afford more legal protection to performing outrage at injustice than to claiming justice as a right; systems that value the sanctity of property more than the sanctity of Black and Indigenous lives, more than protecting biodiversity. There is no reliably enforceable international human rights regime, but there is a powerful international legal regime associated with intellectual property. We can radically repurpose this power. We can jailbreak the codes and the legal technology of IP from its intended use.
The possibilities are intriguing. Might we be better able to occupy physical property by occupying intellectual property, refashioning the absurd powers given to intangible property into furthering our ability to hold physical space? Can copyright protection complicate how digital power increasingly oppresses protest or acts of preservation, whether they be about environmental issues or dignified living?
Anyone can participate. Every protestor is a performance artist. For those who already identify as socially engaged artists or artivists, here is an opportunity to rethink the political agency of your art. Can a work of art have direct political agency, not through debates over the righteousness of its political aesthetic or content, but through artists occupying the legal and economic scaffolding that surround it?
Plot#2: Occupy employment contracts with IP morals clauses
Employment contracts are where we, as IP producers, most often hand over our rights. We cede to corporations what legally belongs to us through the IP assignment clause: a contract term that gives our employers full ownership and control to use and commercialise our IP. Given the enormous value of IP to a corporation’s bottom line, it is no surprise that corporations have tried to make their claims to employee creativity as broad as possible.
Laws governing employee IP assignment clauses vary by jurisdiction, but common terms require employees to relinquish all moral rights: legal rights that empower creators to object to uses of their work that harm their honour or reputation. Other common terms grant employers ownership of any idea recorded on any piece of corporate property, including an employee’s idea for a personal project if they happened to record it on a work laptop.
What would happen if we occupied our IP assignment clauses? What if we organised collectively as IP producers and put conditions on our employers’ rights to our IP? One existing legal technology we can use is the morals clause: a contractual term that gives one the right to terminate a contract, or take other remedial action, if the breaching party engages in immoral behaviour. What might co-created abolitionist IP morals clauses stipulate?
What if our employers were no longer able to use our IP in supply chains with forced labour and ecological devastation, or in service to militaries, surveillance, and policing?
IP has tremendous power to disrupt an entire supply chain. An IP dispute has the power to stop goods at the border. If IP producers in one part of the supply chain were to use morals clauses, they could trigger an IP dispute whenever these morals are infringed anywhere across a supply chain in which the IP is used.
Here is an example from Big Tech, whose supply chains have insatiable appetites for cobalt. Cobalt mining is notorious for its human rights abuses, corruption, environmental destruction, and child labour. An IP morals clause used by IP producers across these supply chains – say by the Tech Workers Coalition – could be used to implement proposals made by human rights activists, that ‘any company sourcing cobalt from DRC must establish an independent, third-party system of verification that all mineral supply chains are cleansed of exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labour. They must invest whatever is needed to ensure decent pay, safe and dignified working conditions, healthcare, education and general wellbeing of the people whose cheap labour they rely on’. If such conditions were embedded into an IP morals clause – capable of crippling cobalt-dependent supply chains by triggering an IP dispute when violated – the entire market power of IP could be used as a carrot and a stick to implement such proposals.
Academics, journalists, artists, and musicians can wield powerful IP morals clauses, too. Publishers depend on paper, ink, and glue, or computers, software, Google, and Amazon to disseminate their copyright-protected works. However, the ‘pulp and paper’ industry continues to profit from deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, ink manufacturers violate labour rights and dump hazardous waste, and book bindings are not recyclable. Digital publishing, meanwhile, fuels supply chains that routinely dump electronics waste across the Global South. Copyright producers can use IP morals clauses to condition the publication and commercialisation of their works on a publisher’s commitment to use state-of-the-art, labour-and-environmental-friendly supply chains. Such conditions can exist alongside open-access licensing terms that enable anyone to freely access copyrighted content, while still prohibiting publishers from delivering open-access content through unethical supply chains.
Through IP morals clauses, can we put ideas about abolition, sustainability, or human rights into practice across the supply chains in which these ideas are commercialised. We can also harness the power of IP to deepen worker solidarity across supply chains. In the process, we can experiment with IP not as an exclusive individual right but as a collective tool. Can we imagine IP unions organised around collective IP morals?