Learning to love Big Brother
There have been startling developments in the field of online copyright in the first few weeks of 2012.
Yesterday saw the European Parliament’s rapporteur, Kader Arif, hand back the dossier on the controversial Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta). Arif’s job was to shepherd it through parliament so that member states can get on with enacting it.
Arif said he was no longer prepared to be part of the “masquerade”, and denounced the process that had brought Acta to the point where yesterday 22 countries signed up to it.
This followed less than a week after the US Congress withdrew two bills to clamp down on online copyright infringement, and the FBI shut down MegaUpload, a website that allegedly traded or pointed to infringing copyright material.
In the past week, the music industry produced figures that showed that while sales of CDs were down, legal digital downloads were at record levels.
Meanwhile, the UK government has asked former Ofcom boss Richard Hooper to look into the feasibility of setting up a digital copyright exchange, where creators can license their work to others who want to reproduce or reuse and distribute it.
All this follows the abortive eG8 meeting last year, where “new media” representatives crossed swords with advocates for harsh penalties for copyright infringers.
The copyright issue is simply this: people who were prepared to invest bought the right to copy and distribute the original work from the creators. The machinery, materials and transport were relatively expensive, too much so for most individual creators. But thereafter the rightsholders enjoyed an effective monopoly on sales of the work, and made a lot of money from it. The internet threatens that monopoly because digital content is easy and cheap to copy and distribute by anyone with a computer and internet access.
This is not a new problem. The music industry in particular has gone a long way to coming to terms with it, even if it doesn’t like giving 30% of the sale price to Apple for stuff sold through iTunes. So the question is why it is suddenly big news?
Deep in the heart of the debate is the issue of control of the internet.
The concerns of the rightsholders are valid, but they are a sideshow. Much more important, in some circles, is to legitimise the power to censor content on the internet and to monitor troublemakers.
There can be few governments that looked on the Arab Spring, and not shiver at how fast legitimacy can wash away. Wikileaks’ release of official video footage that showed the apparent murder of civilians by US armed forces shocked millions. Wikileaks’ subsequent release of embarrassing diplomatic cables, and the reaction to it, showed how potent the net is in helping to shape public opinion. For most governments, it is simply too dangerous for the internet to be left uncontrolled.
So governments are content to let or even encourage the music and film industries to make the running for the legislation to shut down offending content and websites. The faceless MEPs in Brussels offer a convenient mask, as Arif says.
Forget about copyright piracy – it is a red herring. This is really about political control of the net. No doubt, like Winston Smith, we may all have learn to love Big Brother.