Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sun 10th Jan, 2010

Capitalising on success

I watched "RiP: A Remix Manifesto" the other day on SBS - good on them for showing it on mainstream TV. I fear it won't really have reached many more than people like myself, who already know the problems and want to get to the solution, but on the other hand any activism is good in this issue, because there are a bunch of memes we're fighting against here that need taking down good and proper.

The main one that struck me now is that the underlying theme is hypocrisy. The copyright industry is hypocritical in so many ways that it just permeates the whole process. Take, as an example, Walt Disney animating the old fairy tales - Snow White, Pinnochio, Cinderella, and so on; these were stories that had no copyright attached, and then Walt Disney (by redoing them) attached a copyright to them and prevented anyone from using them. That's perhaps a broad statement, but just imagine reprinting the story of Snow White and illustrating it without being a target for lawsuits from Disney Corporation - it's basically unthinkable. That's how much Disney has appropriated an out of copyright story and put their own copyright on it. The film documents countless other examples of artists using a riff or melody from someone else who's no longer around (or large enough, or is still naive enough to think that it's OK), and then suing any further artists who try to do the same thing with the melody they've just appropriated.

Strangely, I see this hypocrisy as actually now forming the basis of the whole "intellectual property" castle in the sky. Ask yourself why we have the laws of copyright, patents and intellectual property. Well, you tell yourself, imagine I'm some inventor with a brand new gadget, or a musician with a new song, or a film-maker with a new movie. If I don't "protect" that new thing, someone's going to come along and rip it off, and all my hard work will have been wasted because the cost of duplicating my work is much less for them than for me. That's why we have "All Rights Reserved" on CDs - because the idea that someone could take your hot drum lick and make the next Amen Break out of it and become instantly famous without paying you a cent and leaving your less popular work mouldering in the dust is a harsh thought to bear.

But let's think about this for a moment. Who is actually likely to carry out this threat here? Well, it might be someone you know or someone you show your thing to, but even in the days of ubiquitous internet distribution that's still a tiny tiny fraction of the actual people around. (Remember, we're ordinary people, we're not already famous - so we're unlikely to have people targeting us specifically.) For the most part the people that actually appropriate our work are going to be people just like us - artists, inventors, photographers, sculptors, and so on - and we all know what goes around comes around, and sooner or later if I copy my next door neighbour's work she's going to find out. Likewise, they probably don't have a huge internet following or lots of money to print CDs or pictures, so their ability to actually capitalise on taking our idea is limited. So it's not likely that we are the people who will take our fellow person's intellectual property and rip it off.

The people we have to most watch out for have three basic properties. One is lots of money - it means that any costs of duplicating our ideas isn't going to be an immediate barrier. Two is lots of distribution - not just big servers or copying machines but the ability to take that idea and distribute it to lots of people to generate some sales. Three is legal untouchability - not that they might be right in taking our thing (we've already established that we're using patents or copyright or whatever to prevent that) but the ability to entangle us in legal battles far beyond our resources to fight - or even the ability to take that new spatula idea and sell two million of them in China where you never go and have no knowledge. Who has all these three properties in one?

Well, it's obviously a what: the big corporations. That's right, the same big corporations who have been telling us that copyright and patents and intellectual property is for our own good; that it protects the artists who are just like us, that it stops people doing things we don't want with our ideas, and (in the case of patents) it helps puts ideas in the public domain for everyone to use. And we know that at the same time they're telling us its for our own good they're forcing us to pay for everything and fighting against every possible fair use of their products. It's hypocrisy on such an awesome scale that it's hard to take it all in.

I mean, we know that companies like Microsoft regularly rip off everyone else's intellectual property (e.g. the i4i lawsuit) at the same time as their vigorously defending their own intellectual property (e.g. the Tomtom lawsuit). We know in the software industry that its an unwritten rule not to look at anything that even hints of anyone else's intellectual property lest you be found to be deliberately infringing (rather than just 'accidentally' coming up with the same idea). We know that our ideas down here at the bottom of the heap don't matter one whit and its only the big end of town that gets a patent on every little idea they have and enforces it. We know that that "intellectual property" is being so vigorously enforced that DVDs force you to watch their ads and CDs install root kits to prevent you copying them and other forms of massive collateral damage in the neverending hopeless quest to prevent ideas doing what they do naturally, which is spread.

And yet to sell us on the idea that it's for our own good that we submit to this kind of intellectual thuggery takes guts. Guts, I'd argue, and a complete and childlike faith that the system is right.

Because we know that "intellectual property" is really a dead end. It's a noose that the corporations have made for us, but it tightens not around our necks but theirs, slowly choking them of talent and ideas and good will until they thrash around gasping desperately for the people that will not buy their goods and will not sell their ideas to them and will not buy into the marketing. We've known this since before John Lennon wrote "Imagine", but a more forceful statement of the truth is hard to find.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one; I hope some day you will join us and the earth will live as one.

Postscript: I'm surprised that it's not made more of in the film, but the absolute key statement of the pro-copyright position is in the section where a spokesman from the RIAA talks to a bunch of schoolchildren about illegal copying. One kid asks him why they charge so much for copying each song (with the tacit comparison to the little you can pay for the same song if you'd bought it on a CD), and he goes briefly into a spiel about copyright. He posits writing a song about love, and as an aside says "Of course, I can't copyright the idea of love, boy, I'd love it if I could do that..." (emphasis, of course, mine). If they could get away with it, they would copyright the idea of love, and charge everyone who feels it in whatever form at whatever time howsoever derived. The fact that he even thinks it not only contemplatable but desirable that one person could own the idea of love and prevent others from thinking about it or feeling it shows how truly beyond rationality the intellectual property corporations are.

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