Like almost everyone on the Internet, I seem to have been advocating against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. It may have done some good against SOPA, but my passionate letter to my local MP about the earlier Digital Economy Act (a mini-SOPA) drew a patronising response that preventing “these people’s illegal acts” was far more important than civil liberties, freedom of speech, due process or any of the cornerstones of a legal system fit for purpose in a democracy. Of course, we now have a SOPA-style law that the UK parliament can’t seem to wait to start wielding against the common horde. But I digress (although I will point out that if you live in York Outer, well, you now know which way to vote.)
As David Malki has so eloquently pointed out, copyright was once considered harmful to business (excuse my paraphrasing of Edsger Dijkstra there). Of course, that was only copyright of foreigners, not of local authors – a kind of reverse tariff making local products more expensive than imports. That situation wasn’t allowed to last too long, and so in the end politicians did get their heads together and implement a copyright system.
The problem with the copyright systems worldwide is that they are now run by vested interests. Disney have spent lots of time and money extending the lifespan of copyrights in the US to ensure Mickey Mouse doesn’t go out of copyright – and not just recently, 1998 was the earliest I could find online. It’s not just the US – b-list warbler Sir Cliff Richard lobbied for the same, successfully in terms of sound recordings.
Now I don’t doubt that it’s a good idea that artists continue to earn money from their works while they live (and I actually think the sound recordings one is a case that shouldn’t be a fixed term anyway, but rather a system similar to authorship where copyright persists until a set time after death). But this approach also creates problems.
For example, TCM estimates that only 4.8% of the films ever made are currently available. OK, some of these may be technical issues, such as the degradation of film stock, for example. The similarity to the burning of the Library of Alexandria should be noted here – while perhaps not so dramatic or sudden an event, the loss of cultural artifacts is just as real.
But shutting down websites due to copyright infringement isn’t the answer, otherwise we’d lose The New York Times, among others. Let’s face it, Warner Brothers has admitted gaming the system to send takedown notices for files it hasn’t seen and doesn’t own – and claiming this isn’t a felony even though the DMCA says it is. In fact, even reporting on these things can get you shut down.
If ever anyone doubts SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, the Digital Economy Act and the DMCA will be used to censor legitimate, democratic process, don’t. It’s already happening.
George Orwell would be saying “I told you so”.