Saturday, 5 May 2012

Stuck In The Middle Ages: The Case For IP Law Reform

day against drmToday is the International Day Against DRM, when we protest the use of software that restricts the way we use and experience content such as ebooks, DVDs, etc. The monopoly advantages it provides to the legacy content providers only benefits them. If they can't compete any more because of technological developments, surely they should just quit instead of going all medieval on us. If only!

How did copyright get started in the first place?

1500s: Bloody Mary Invents Copyright

Mary "Bloody Mary" Tudor became Queen of England in 1553. She persecuted Protestants relentlessly, and burned many of them at the stake. To further her desire to suppress "the heretics" and restore Catholicism, she decided on a plan to suppress Protestant propaganda by devising a monopoly whereby the London printers' guild would control all printing in England in exchange for accepting control by her censors on what was or wasn't suitable for publication. This incredibly successful endeavour worked because the printers were happy to work with the Crown to preserve their hold on printing revenues, and the suppression of dissent and free speech continued for many years after Mary died. The monopoly was awarded to the London Company of Stationers on May 4, 1557. It was called copyright. Rick Falkvinge and Christian Engstrom have written an important position paper about it that explains the matter in full. Click here to read it.

The idea, then, that copyright ever had the purpose of providing authors with a revenue stream is a nonsense. In fact, authors have always received less than publishers do unless they pay the publishing costs. Now add the specious arguments of the MPAA and RIAA about the loss of revenues to creatives, and the truth is laid bare: the monopoly over who owns the content and how it is experienced belongs to the publishers and distributors, not the artists and creatives.

Okay, if that's true, why do artists buy into it?

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt are among the tools being deployed by those organisations that apparently represent their interests. They actually don't. If they did, they'd challenge the work for hire deals the recording companies provide and force Sony, Universal, et al, to pay a fair share of royalties. Like that's gonna happen! The other reason is, many artists see copyright royalties as an income stream and have a proprietary attitude towards their work. They don't want to lose control of it once it's been produced. It's the bizarre idea that they continue to own the cultural product once it's been created that causes all the problems.

England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices. –Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 13 August 1813

Jefferson is speaking of patents here, but the laws he's referring to are those about copyright. And here he states that America was basically built on copyright violations, that is, he told England where to get off when it came to intellectual property infringement complaints. What's happening today is that creators are counting on royalties and license fees for an income, and that's why they're so much against copying or unauthorized distribution.

But they have to make a living!

So do I, but I'm not running a protection racket called "speculative invoicing" to do it. If you're a musician and think that peer-to-peer sharing is thievery, try this:

Creative Commons for Musicians

New Ways Musicians Can Earn Money in 2012

You can also bear in mind that the advertising provided by file-sharing usually leads to sales of physical copies and revenues from merchandising and ticket sales from live performances.

So where does the government come into this?

In a bizarre story torn from the pages of the Onion, the RIAA claimed that listening to the radio was "piracy." That claim led to Congress authoring the Performance Rights Act, a legally-mandated, additional  royalty fee for radio stations that will likely destroy indie music on the radio.

This shows just how much the government is in the RIAA's pocket. In fact, under the Obama administration, the Justice Department is becoming more and more infiltrated by former RIAA and MPAA lawyers. Not that it doesn't go both ways: RIAA CEO Mitch Bainwol is the former chief of staff to cat-killer Bill Frist and Mary "Wife of Sony" Bono, both Republicans.

It was a largely bipartisan vote that created the PRO-IP Act of 2007, signed into law by George Bush in 2008. In addition to raising the (already severe) fines for infringement, it also allowed the government to seize computers, and created the office of the "Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator" (aka "Copyright Czar"). This is a totally new White House cabinet position, currently headed by Victoria Espinel.

But by far the worst big-media politician is our current Vice President, Joe Biden, who has a long and sordid history of bad technology law. His anti-privacy stance is so extreme that his legislation spurred the creation of PGP. - KHNoise: Why Musicians and Labels Should Embrace Filesharing

Biden in bed with DoddIt doesn't stop there. ACTA, TPP, and other trade agreements are all about extending and enforcing intellectual property rights in increasingly draconian ways. More legislation in the form of surveillance bills are being brought in. If you thought CISPA was bad, try this for size:

Jason Weinstein, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's criminal division, told a panel at the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee's "State of the Mobile Net" conference yesterday that requiring a search warrant to obtain location tracking information from cell phones  would "cripple" prosecutors and law enforcement officials. We couldn't disagree more. - Electronic Frontier Foundation

If this guy could be trusted to do his job properly, I wouldn't be so chary, but these are the folks behind the Megaupload and seizures, and both of those cases are bogus. In fact, I doubt that any of the surveillance laws being brought in are about anything but intellectual property law enforcement. And they're sacrificing our privacy rights to do it. This is what happens when the government goes to bed with big business even though some governments are aware of how destructive the current system is.

Can't big business adapt?

old-fashionedEvidently not. The trouble with those pesky copyright and patent monopolies is that, no matter what sort of business you're in, if you have a way of stopping other people from using your ideas without paying you for the privilege, you can rest on your laurels and stop others from innovating. This is what's happened to Yahoo and Microsoft. Apple has been getting the blame for driving its rivals out of business because they innovated. It doesn't help that government policy is so geared towards indulging them despite their childish bickering that it's impossible to change the situation without overhauling the laws that keep it in place. Until the connection between big business and the state machinery is disentangled, the situation will not only continue, it will almost certainly get worse. The good news is that the internet has woken up and we're fighting back. Our successes against PIPA and SOPA have made the government aware that we know what they're up to and we're having none of it. Even the big tech companies are beginning to come out on our side.

What can we do?

Activism works. Although CISPA got through Congress, it won't become law and chances are it'll die in the Senate. The White House has promised to veto it. A disturbing trend has come to light while researching this post, though: the government seem to think of its own citizens as enemies or in need of control. This can only be due to the influence of big business. Here's a choice quote from Politico:

Some companies say they fear that having the online activists turn against them may have a chilling effect on their legislative work. “It’s an online version of what happened in the summer of 2009, when town halls across the country … were derailed by protesters on the health care reform debate,” the tech company insider said. “All debate shut down and that was detrimental to the policy debate, ultimately.” ...But whether it’s the Internet masses forcing the Susan G. Komen Foundation to change its mind about plans to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood or forcing ALEC to back off “stand your ground” laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, Internet activists are unlikely to give up.

This is a repeat of the "anti-democratic" cant we had about the opposition to ACTA: they don't include us in their notion of democracy. We're the object of the excercise, after all.

Dear Americans, this is an election year. Please, for the love of all decency, vote out the politicians who legislate against the internet. Vote for the Pirate Party or the Greens because they haven't got big-money sponsors. Just get better people in there, okay?


The Internet.

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