The Intellectual Property Wage Slave



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Common programmers may expect to earn at least $60,000/year but it is rare for even superstar programmers to command above $150,000, excepting very specialized markets like kernel driver development.

If we are to assume that companies would not generally hire employees

not worth their keep, the talents of the most elite of programmers are

going almost wholly unrewarded. The first lesson from this is that

companies should seek the brightest programmers as the brighter the

programmer, the more efficient the returns. Put another way, it is

well worth a company’s money to pay 30% more annually for an engineer

who will accomplish many times more work. A secondary discovery is

noting that, if all this is true, outsourcing to lesser-skilled

programmers as a small cost savings is a foolish conservancy and must

only be a short-lived fad.

As a programmer, however, the most powerful corollary is that wage

labor for my skills is insensible. The advantage of software is its

easy replication: once formed, a service or product may be readily

resold without further expense. The financial success of my labors is

scarce limited by anything but the quality of the marketing

performed. Consequently, for most markets we find software development

has almost infinite leverage – in exchange for a fixed amount of

labor, there is a nearly unlimited upside. The programmer who accepts

a salary for his endeavors sacrifices the leverage of his own work for

the comfort and security of a regular check, which as already noted

must but for the lowest-skilled far underestimate the value provided.

In a small sense this is allayed by stock options and the like, but

these are principally to give the appearance of offering the

wage laborer a slice of the success of his efforts; after the first

dozen employees, it is rare to find an engineer not a VP or CTO to be

in possession of anything but the shyest portion of a company. The

feeling of ownership, however false, usually suffices to content the

laborer that he is being treated justly.

Much of the preservation of the status quo in intellectual property is

owed to the mild complacency that accompanies a reasonably safe and

secure existence. In truth, while the expert engineer may only be

seeing a small portion of the value he creates, he does not find

his station unbearable. With six-figure salaries, stock options, large

bonuses, retirement plans, and rich benefits, few luxuires of modern

life evade his grasp. It is therefore only the most greedy or

adventurous that care to break these golden shackles, taking in their

place the gritty tackle of a life of uncertainty and profligate


But in taking the full risk and reward of the enterprise upon himself,

the programmer who is not sorely wanting in skills of business

or marketing must soon find himself enjoying the fruits of

his labors, albeit many times only after years of difficult and

uncertain unpaid labor. A quick look at many of the most successful

entrepreneurs shows this model to be practically the norm.

The discovery of wealth is thus to be found at the temporary expense

of comfort and security. But, while there may be intervening poverty

while the entrepreneur’s first efforts are underway, with success is

found the ultimate in job security – the freedom to survive without a

wage. The freedom enjoyed by the wealthy and self-sufficient in this

world is equalled only by the fierceness of the slavery forged by

debt. For while there exist industries around multiplying the fortunes

of the rich, many more exist to multiply the debts of the poor and

those impatient of luxury. Wages and debt go hand in hand – for

creditors only make loans which can be repaid regularly. Consequently, the

singular most important question they ask when ascertaining credit is

one’s present wages. The consumer is then set in a delicate balance of

monthly income to monthly expense. Such a balance can ill afford the

years of poverty required by independent enterprise, especially when

the financial burdens of family and higher education enter in. The

wage slavery of intellectual property workers therefore has as much to

do with the requisites of servicing debt as it does the soft comfort

of a regular paycheck.

It is a bittersweet tale of modern capitalism that so many should,

under pressures of debt, dispose of their freedom and leverage, so

sacrificing the gains of their labors almost entirely to one, who

through prudence or happy circumstance, finds himself to have the time

and disposition to form a new endeavor. The further gains of this

cycle repeat themselves, excepting a few choice workers who themselves

through chance or talent came early to join an endeavor and partook,

by way of stock, of a not inconsiderable portion of a success. It is

this fleeting and elusive happenstance, not entirely unlike a lottery,

to which graduating and aspiring engineers are exhorted, though the

chances of anything but modest gains are slim.

To my fellow programmers and knowledge workers, I beg of you to then:

It is terrifying and gratifying to live off of the fruits of your labors alone, not coddled or ruled by another.

This, truly, is the American dream. For engineers, there has been no other time better to seize upon the travails and rewards of entrepreneurship than the present.

Go get ’em!