Semiotic Disobedience

84 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2007 Last revised: 23 Apr 2009

See all articles by Sonia Katyal

Sonia Katyal

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law


Nearly twenty years ago, a prominent media studies professor, John Fiske, coined the term "semiotic democracy" to describe a world where audiences freely and widely engage in the use of cultural symbols in response to the forces of media. Although Fiske originally referenced the audience's power in viewing and interpreting television narratives, today, his vision of semiotic democracy has become perhaps the single most important ideal cited by scholars who imagine a utopian relationship between law, technology, and democratic culture.

In this Article, I seek to introduce another framework to supplement Fiske's important metaphor: the phenomenon of "semiotic disobedience." Three contemporary cultural moments in the world - one corporate, one academic, and one artistic - call for a new understanding of the limitations and possibilities of semiotic democracy and underline the need for a supplementary framework.

As public spaces have become converted into vehicles for corporate advertising - ads painted onto sidewalks and into buildings, schools, and other public spaces - product placement has soared to new heights of power and subtlety. And throughout, the law has generously offered near-sovereign protection to such symbolism through the ever-expanding vehicle of intellectual property protection. Equations between real property and intellectual property are ubiquitous. Underlying these themes is a powerful linkage between intellectual and tangible property: as one expands, so does the other.

Yet at the same time, there is another facet that is often left out of the picture, involving the increasing response of artists who have chosen to expand their activities past the boundaries of cultural dissent and into the boundaries of asserted illegality. For every movement toward enclosure that the law facilitates, there is an opposite, underappreciated movement toward liberation from control - a moment where social activism exposes the need for alternative political economies of information. And yet the difference between these marketplaces of speech - one protected, one prohibited - both captures and transcends the foundational differences between democracy and disobedience itself.

Just as previous discussions of civil disobedience focused on the need to challenge existing laws by using certain types of public and private property for expressive freedoms, today's generation seeks to alter existing intellectual property by interrupting, appropriating, and then replacing the passage of information from creator to consumer. This Article suggests that the phenomenon of semiotic disobedience offers a radically different vantage point than Fiske's original vision, one that underlines the importance of distributive justice in intellectual property. Thus, instead of interrogating the limits of First Amendment freedoms, as many scholars have already done, I argue that a study of semiotic disobedience reveals an even greater need to study both the core boundaries between types of properties - intellectual, real, personal - and how propertization offers a subsidy to particular types of expression over others.

This paper won an honorable mention in the annual AALS Scholarly Papers competition, and was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

Suggested Citation

Katyal, Sonia, Semiotic Disobedience. Washington University Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2006, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1015500, Available at SSRN:

Sonia Katyal (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Law Building
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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