Sunday, July 08, 2012

Left losing its mind about brain-work

In recent years, an unconfident left has watched shiny new bandwagons passing by and it has sometimes jumped upon them in hope.

A few years ago, Islamism looked oddly attractive to some. Today, its 'copyleft'.

For some reason, there seems to be a view that support for copyright infringement is popular (this report - pdf -comprehensively demonstrates it isn't).

Opposing the enforcement of intellectual property laws also looks like quite a radical cause. You get to stick it to the man - especially when the man is the MPAA - Universal, Disney or (history fans) EMI (who?)

And then there's something of a mystical pseudo-rationalist view that the internet offers unlimited quantities of magic dust that multiply knowledge and - on some utilitarian calculation - make copyright infringement a small crime that has a large benefit to mankind and the commons. 

There's a ton of bad science behind that one. There's no reason it has to be an either/or question. We are told that the very mild measures outlined in the UK Digital Economy Act or the French Hadopi law designed to reduce file-sharing are somehow 'censorship'. That these measures, and those around Sopa/Pipa in the US would somehow 'break the internet' if they were ever passed.

Then there's what Andrew Orlowski of The Register refers to as the Pseudo Masochism of self-styled civil liberties campaigners who claim any enforcement of IP law is a form of censorship. Take the celebrated Newport State of Mind parody -  it was totally censored as you can see here, here, here and lots of other places.

And the closer you look into it, the more you find that it's more of an issue for corporate monopolies, the very-very right wing and even the fascist and neo-nazi far-right.

In the last few weeks, evidence of Google dog-whistling up campaigns from supposedly liberal organisations has happened at the same time as a surprisingly slick campaign at EU level against the global anti-counterfeiting treaty, ACTA.

Thing is, the music / film / TV industries that lose so much from having their work nicked like this are mostly populated by small independent producers, small labels and freelancers who have to invest in their own kit, skills and training. Many have spent a great deal longer learning their craft than the over-paid professions that they compete with.

Journalists, bafflingly, have bought the liberality of this argument hook line and sinker - none more than The Guardian - a newspaper group whose business model could be summed up as Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. (another h/t to Andrew Orlowski for that one). Meanwhile, as a profession that has dedicated itself to openness, local newspapers everywhere have died on their arse. The writing is on the wall, but can you find any journalists who are prepared to read it?

They pay taxes at decent rates (unlike the ISPs, search engine(s) and hardware manufacturers who benefit from copyright violation). And creative work has a great multiplier effect on the UK economy.

When the DVD market is hit by piracy, it still hurts. Badly.

If you want a good - if long - outline of why this is an essential issue for anyone who has ever believed that people should be paid and not exploited for this work, this open letter to Emily White is worth a read. But more to the point, creators rights are basic human rights. Why have we decided to forget this?

Next time you speak to the opponent of copyright enforcement measures, ask them...
  1. Do you think copyright should just be abolished and that music/film/TV work should just be appropriated with no compensation to creators (usual answer: No)
  2. What effective enforcement measures would you support (usual answer; Er..... waffle waffle whataboutery - usually something about how totally unfair some pricing models for music were in the past)
  3. OK. Now answer that first question again (usual answer as above)
The whole debate is being distorted by a false flag campaign that actually wants to abolish copyright altogether. The Pirates make no bones about it. The words are more weasely from the Open Rights GroupWhich brings me to the final argument: That the music and film biz totally missed the boat and should have adapted earlier. That they should have adapted. 'Home taping didn't kill music' we're told. Because knocking up a few mixtapes for your mates is exactly the same thing as pulling down entire record collections and movie catalogues off a torrent, innit?

Google and Apple don't get their copyright breached because they would have your bollocks in their pockets 30 seconds after you did it. Musicians, on the other hand, can't enforce their rights, so they've kinda got it coming to them.

It's feudalism - pure and simple. And, apparently, it's a liberal cause as well.


Churm Rincewind said...

No, creators rights are not "a basic human right".

Human rights are, for example, inalienable. I can't sell my human rights to someone else. Yet creators' rights - "copyright" - are freely traded in the Anglo-Saxon world, under a system you appear to approve.

Also, human rights expire with the death of the individual. I can't bequeath my human rights to my children. Yet under present legislation copyright does not expire with the death of the creator, but continues to exist for many years.

So creators rights are not a human right. Do they then perhaps comprise intellectual "property", as they seem to be tradeable and inheritable like any other kind of property? Well, no, they're not like other forms of property, such as money, say, or land, as copyright miraculously ceases to exist after a set period of time.

It seems clear to me that the present system of copyright is not fit for purpose. And its lack of intellectual coherence and plain commonsense are a primary reason it's so widely disregarded. That, and of course the advent of new technologies.

Nor is it true to say that "piracy" always works against the interests of the creative community. For example, it could be argued that the present system allows corporations to initially underpay creative artists, on the basis that there will be further rights payments down the line - jam tomorrow.

Personally I applaud organisations like the Open Rights Group, which are at least trying to precipitate a debate on the subject.

Paulie said...

Yes, creators rights are a basic human right.

'Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.'

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 27 (2)

You are wrong to conclude that "...creators' rights - "copyright" - are freely traded in the Anglo-Saxon world, under a system you appear to approve."

And while I'm largely disinterested in some exercise in which I'm not able to assert a worker's right to exploit his or her work unless I can come up with a perfect mathematical forumula that we can all apply, an aspiration for a more Napoleonic model in which one can't 'disinherit ones heirs' would be preferential to me in principle. I hope that answers your main point?

Copyright law will never be perfect and enforcement will never be even. As far as I can see, the current settlement is less worse than any of the alternatives on offer and it's about time governments stepped up to the mark and offered a reasonable level of protection for it in the way that they would protect any other property right.

I really don't care if piracy (why the scare quotes around that word?) sometimes benefits the creative community. It doesn't most of the time. The creative unions have always campaigned against the exploitation of its workers by the corporations that dominate that industry, and piracy is making this extraordinarily easy. Apple, Google, Samsung, ISPs and a host of other tech companies are monetising the work of musicians and film-makers to their hearts content without paying them a penny a lot of the time.

As The Trichordist put it recently, 'meet the new boss, worse than the old boss':

Applaud the Open Rights Group all you like. If you want to cheer on false flag lobbyists, I don't suppose I can stop you.

Churm Rincewind said...

'Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.' United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 27 (2).

Alas, assertion does not make it so. And the particular problem with this claim is that it conflicts with other human rights such as freedom of expression (article 19), and other values which most of us hold dear, such as popular will and distributional fairness. Let me try to illustrate that by two examples, one hypothetical and one real

Suppose that a scientist creates a brand new drug, previously unknown in theory or in nature, that cures AIDS. Under the “basic human right” argument, he is the exclusive owner of the resulting moral and material interests in that “scientific…production”. Now let’s suppose that he’s a religious fundamentalist, and chooses to exercise his human right to “manifest his religion or belief…in practice…and observance” (Article 18) by denying the drug to homosexuals, of whom he virulently disapproves, or perhaps to anyone who doesn’t share his religious beliefs. I think there are few in the world who would nod sagely and say “Well, he’s just exercising his Human Rights under the UN Declaration so we support his stance”.

My second example comes closer to home. In your post of 8 April, you copied a section from an article by Julie Burchill. I assume that you obtained her specific permission in advance. Otherwise, of course, you would not only have breached her human rights (according to your interpretation) but also broken UK copyright law by way of unauthorized copying of another’s work, and be open to further legal action should she claim that you have transgressed her moral rights (see the Berne Convention). This is an example only - given your commitment to copyright enforcement, I’m confident that you did indeed seek her advance approval. If not, then your position would be entirely hypocritical.

(Incidentally, I don’t understand your comment that I was wrong to conclude that creators’ rights are not freely traded in the Anglo-Saxon world – under present copyright laws they are; that’s just a fact. Or maybe you object to my suggestion that you are in favour of the present legal arrangements, at least on a least-worst principle, though you seem to contradict this position elsewhere?)

Paulie said...

You're mixing me up with someone who wants to play some intellectual parlour game where everything gets reduced to a formula. Because one human right can cut across another doesn't mean that you have to abandon it for good.

I don't see what your AIDS-curing scientist has got to do with the piracy for films, books, journalism or music. I'm quite happy to accept that creators rights have to pass a wider public interest tests and that it should be enforced pragmatically and proportionately. Being a socialist, I'm going to be less bothered about individual rights either.

I'm not calling for every example of the breach of current copyright laws to be subject to legal sanction, especially where no harm is done, and my failure to rigidly comply with every law is hardly grounds on which to call me a hypocrite for calling for one law to be enforced under certain circumstances (the Digital Economy Act, for example, doesn't propose to punish every example of copyright-breach - just egregious ones, following a series of warnings).

For example, I don't think people should be prosecuted for making private copies of TV programmes using a Sky+ box or similar, even though it isn't legal. I never bought the line that 'home taping is killing music' either. I DO think that the UK should do what most other EU Countries do and introduce a copy-levy to compensate for the economic harm that results from private copying.

My comment about you being wrong was that you were wrong to conclude that I approve of copyright being freely traded. My preference, generally, would be for those rights not to be traceable, but in all things, I'm pragmatic and mainly focussed upon the need for people who produce creative works to be able to have more control over how they are distributed, and for them to be able to get a fair share of the revenues that are generated using those works. At the moment, this is not the case, and there are very large and rapidly growing businesses that are making $billions from appropriating content that they don't have a licence to appropriate in this way.

One last thing - I've made the mistake of getting into debates with anonymous silhouettes in the past - it never ends well. I'd like a link to something that tells me a bit more about who you are and what your angle is if you're going to comment again please?

Paulie said...

Sorry - for "traceable" read "tradeable".

Churm Rincewind said...

Thank you for taking the time to reply. To start with your last point first, my “angle” is that I, too, work in the media industry and have become increasingly convinced that the present copyright regime is woefully inadequate. As a result I applaud all attempts to open up an honest debate on the subject. (Incidentally, and for the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe in the abolition of copyright; rather, I think it’s an invaluable tool of social policy.) However, I do think that the debate is too often hijacked by vested interests. There are good reasons why the Copyright Extension Act in the US is generally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, following intensive lobbying by the Walt Disney Company.

I don’t see why my “AIDS-curing scientist” is different from any other rights creator. In my example, he or she has assembled an innovative combination of known constituents into a new artefact, in exactly the same way that a musician re-assembles the notes of the scale into a new tune, or a writer re-assembles existing words into something fresh and new. This seems to me to be an uncontentious principle, and indeed the UN Declaration of Human Rights specifies “scientific” creation as being equivalent to “”literary or artistic” innovation. New drugs are regularly “pirated” and I can’t see why you consider that to be different from the “piracy” of “films, books, journalism, or music”.

My problem is that “basic human rights” must surely exist over and above common law and statute. No judge in the world can (in my view) declare slavery legally acceptable. Or at least they can, but (again in my view) basic human rights trump legislation. Enslavement is not subject to “wider public interest tests” and be “enforced pragmatically and proportionately”. But copyright is, and should be. I am in complete agreement with you there. Where we differ is that I think that’s exactly the reason why copyright should not be considered a “basic human right”.

You raise several other interesting points, in particular the idea that creators’ rights should not be freely tradeable (which would seem to me to put the mockers on the creative industries – should J.K.Rowling, for example, have not been allowed to sell her film rights in the Harry Potter books?) but I’m aware that although these points interest me – and I’m happy to debate them - they are, most likely, uninteresting to others.

So I’ll end here. I would only add that I regret my previous suggestion of hypocrisy. That was inappropriate and uncalled for, and I hope you will accept my apologies.

Paulie said...


Sorry - I've only just seen your reply - god knows how I missed it. Been busy.

Thanks for your last point. On the others.... too much to do into. People can and do make films in countries where writers are unable to relinquish their rights. I don't get the JK Rowling point.

On the musician point, to say that music is just a rearrangement of already-invented notes and is therefore not creativity - is this what you're saying? (I may be misreading you here). I may have got that wrong, but either way, surely you can see the difference between 'pirating' something where there is a massive human interest in doing it, and making and sharing copies of a flim or a piece of music? It's a 'reductio ad absurdum' argument to come up with an instance in which copy-protection is not in the public interest and then to apply it to all copy-protection issues....

... but as I say, this is a hasty and overdue response, so I've probably not fully grasped the arguments you're making.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. As you say – too much to go into. But here are a few brief points.

No, I wasn’t saying that music is not a creative activity. It is. I was saying that science is as well, yet we seem to apply different rules (why?).

I come from a straightforward position that copyrights and patents stifle innovation, progress, and free expression, by their very nature. For an overview of their damaging effects see, for example,

This doesn’t mean to say that I’m against all copyrights and patents in principle. I’m not, and as I’ve noted previously, they can be a valuable tool of social policy. But they are not natural rights. They are in fact institutionalized monopolies, the enemies of freedom, and should be applied pragmatically, with caution, and only when there’s clear evidence of benefit to society at large.

Copyright extension, however, is merely rent-seeking. See here - - which coincidentally gives copyright extension as a typical example. The Left in general, and Socialists in particular, are generally opposed to rent-seeking behaviour. That may help to answer the question in your original post as to why the Left has been so vocal on the issue

Anonymous said...

Well said. This is just rent-seeking by the Googles of this world.

(I load music to youtube if it's not there already and I think it needs wider exposure. But I load a low-fi version, and point a link to where you can buy the original, if it's still for sale. So far it seems to be OK with the holders)