These are wise words but if you’re short of money or lack the power to change your life then they are harder to find meaning in. If the product of your labours is stolen by someone else, you’re going to resent it. The capitalist exploits the worker for profit and so it is natural for workers to combine in trades unions to fight that power. The political power of trades unions is now severely restricted in the UK because the labour movement has lost its balls. We now live in consumer culture. Combinations of consumers often appear to have some power to change politics but this can only affect one particular market at a time and doesn’t impact the public sector. Time and again we are thrown against the mercy of incompetent politicians who have never done any real work in their lives. There is a real crisis of political debate in the UK: there is no meaningful debate at all. Only the Green Party proffers a meaningful alternative to the managerial arguments of the other parties. With only one MP and only one council in its grasp, the Green Party desperately needs more disenfranchised activists to join it. They are in the best position to promote alternate visions for society but sadly the people they would seek to represent are too busy downloading music and films and joining in with futile political gesturing, such as Occupy.
The biggest international political debate right now is piracy. Piracy is said to theft. This isn’t quite true because stolen goods are removed from their owners, whereas pirated music or films are just copied. Whether artists lose money as a result of piracy is unclear; various studies give various results. Many artists at the start of their careers are happy for people to distribute their work without permission. This seems to be more true for musicians than it is for film makers but even the latter are more keen for the recognition than the money. The campaign against piracy is not led by established artists either, who mostly make enough money, but by those who own the work involved. Time for song.
The fellow who wrote and composed this song is now dead. I’m the same age as he was when he died. I’m not sure who owns his work. A note on YouTube suggested that a Creative Commons licence is in place. Certainly some companies use algorithms to search YouTube for soundtracks they own. A few years ago a friend of mine made a video about a holiday in Norfolk. It was an amusing skit on Apocalypse Now and used bits of the film’s soundtrack. I uploaded the film to YouTube. Sony contacted me to point out that I didn’t have permission to upload the soundtrack but that I could leave it be until such time as they claimed otherwise. In many countries you are allowed to copy and redistribute reasonable portions of somebody else’s work without breaching copyright, for example for educational reasons.
The fact is that most of the arguments raised against piracy are promoted by those who own the work, not those who create it. The owners of films are mostly the studios whose investment created the film. The owners of music are mostly the record labels. These organisations claim that pirating the products they own harms their industry but whether there is actually any evidence which supports that claim is another matter altogether. Plenty of people download films but would prefer to go to the cinema more often, if they could afford it. Most people prefer to go shopping and buy music than to just obtain it illegally. They download music because they cannot afford to buy it. As soon as Apple’s Itunes store made downloading music affordable, it took off. The legislation being promoted in the US – SOPA and PIPA – by the industrial behemoths of the creative industries takes hold of this problem and strangles those without power. If that legislation is passed it will be abused by those with plenty wealth and power already to crush those without any. That’s you, me and plenty of new businesses. Litigation is used as a commercial weapon by giant corporations to crush competitors. Very often the likely outcome of the legal struggle is irrelevant because their opponents cannot afford to do battle with them at all. Whatever the solution to the perceived problem, the legislation now being debated is going to harm the creative industries rather than help them. Time for another song.
Gangstarr is also dead. In fact, he was the same person as Guru. He makes a neat point about the adverse effects of socially disruptive behaviour and a plea to his apparent fans to stop engaging in it. The giant corporations which would control the creative industries claim that the new found ability to copy and freely redistribute their titles is another kind of social chaos. It isn’t anything of the sort. Copyright laws exist to lock down creative talents. Their primary purpose is to protect profit margins and nothing else. Historically, music has always flourished and taken exciting new directions when it copyright laws have been weak or big business hasn’t been in charge of it. Essentially, the debate is being framed by a camouflaged argument. Time for a final song.
Europe has its own version of SOPA and PIPA. Unfortunately, it goes much much further. It is called ACTA. The campaign against it is just getting started. For many years netizens have been preparing for this moment. The internet and its amazing capabilities is regarded as belonging to the people who built it, rather than those who own the cables and servers which constitute it. Certainly without our creative juices, very little of what we now regard as standard technological fare would have got off the ground. Last week, the first early salvoes in the war for internet freedom and were fired. The US government took down an obvious target, MegaUploads. The hactivists predictably responded by temporarily removing hundreds of websites belonging to those promoting the new legislation and various government agencies. For the first time, they properly enlisted mass support. Instead of relying on their secretive software systems, they persuaded hundreds of thousands of regular internet users to assist with the largest scale distributed denial of service attacks ever. Other actions included the mass blackout of much the most useful part of the web on 18th January 2011.
Whatever the legal outcome of the political battle now being fought out, it is clear that the warring factions are prepared to fight on for many years to come. The stakes will become increasingly serious for all concerned. The powers that be should be aware that this struggle cannot be completed without serious consequences. Without a political class able or willing to fight the population’s corner for it, popular heroes will emerge. Many people will aspire to be one of these heroes or to play a similar role. The giant corporations which want to control all forms of creative expression and, if ACTA is anything to go by, prevent cheap medicines from reaching the world’s poor have failed to learn a basic lesson of human history: you cannot kill an idea. Once the concept of copying has been established, it cannot be got rid of.
The time has come for the debate to become more sophisticated. Instead of it being painted as a rather tedious black and white picture, politicians need to start showing their own creative juices still flow. There are always more than two solutions to any problem. Clearly there can be a problem with people or companies being unable to protect their work but there is also a problem with companies protecting their profit margins and intellectual property portfolios no matter what the cost to the rest of us. Instead of having either no law or a ridiculously stringent law, a durable solution could be found in a more flexible approach. That was the intention behind the current American law, allowing for copying reasonable portions. That approach may have become archaic in the digital world. Whatever is agreed, needs to be agreed internationally. Otherwise the richest countries will oppress the talents of the people living elsewhere. Civil litigation will replace more traditionally aggressive approaches to international politicking. The idea that the rich countries of the world can put trade delegates into private meetings and invent secret deals which exclude most of the people they affect is deeply offensive and anti-democratic. All African nations must be included in all future copyright treaties. The west has many blessings already – it doesn’t need more and it certainly doesn’t need more than the developing world. What is music to the ears of a rich western pharmaceutical executive is too often the death rattle for children half a world away.