No Safe Harbor: History of Copyright
In this essay, I will look at the history of copyright from 1350 until present day. The story of the history books differs quite strongly from what you usually hear from the copyright industry.
We’re starting with the advent of the Black Death in Western Europe in the 1350s. Like all other places, Europe was hit hard: people fled westward from the Byzantine Empire and brought with them both the plague and scientific writings. It would take Europe 150 years to recover politically, economically, and socially.
The religious institutions were the ones to recover the slowest. Not only were they hit hard because of the dense congregation of monks and nuns, but they were also the last to be repopulated, as parents needed every available child in the family’s economy, agriculture, et cetera, in the decades following the Plague.
This is relevant because monks and nuns were the ones making books in this time. When you wanted a book copied, you would go to a scribe at a monastery, and they would copy it for you. By hand. No copy would be perfect; every scribe would fix spelling and grammatical errors while making the copy, as well as introduce some new ones.
Also, since all scribes were employed (read controlled) by the Catholic Church, there was quite some limitation to what books would be produced. Not only was the monetary cost of a single book astronomical - one copy of The Bible required 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins (!!) - but there was also a limit to what teachings would be reproduced by a person of the clergy. Nothing contradicting the Vatican was even remotely conceivable.
By 1450, the monasteries were still not repopulated, and the major cost of having a book copied was the services of the scribe, an under-supplied craft still in high demand. This puts things in proportion, given the astronomical cost of the raw materials and that they were a minor cost in ordering a book. In 1451, Gutenberg perfected the combination of the squeeze press, metal movable type, oil based print inks and block printing. At the same time, a new type of paper had been copied from the Chinese, a paper which was cheap to make and plentiful. This made scribecraft obsolete more or less overnight.
The printing press revolutionized society by creating the ability to spread information cheaply, quickly, and accurately.
The Catholic Church, which had previously controlled all information (and particularly held a cornered market on the scarcity of information), went on a rampage. They could no longer control what information would be reproduced, could no longer control what people knew, and lobbied kings across Europe for a ban on this technology which wrestled control of the populace from them.
Many arguments were used to justify this effort, trying to win the hearts of the people for going back to the old order. One notable argument was, “How will the monks get paid?”
The Catholic Church would eventually fail in this endeavor, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Protestant movement, but not before much blood had been spilled in trying to prevent the accurate, cheap and quick distribution of ideas, knowledge, and culture.
This attempt culminated in France on January 13, 1535, when a law was enacted at the request of the Catholic Church, a law which forced the closure of all bookshops and stipulated death penalty by hanging for anybody using a printing press.
This law was utterly ineffective. Pirate print shops lined the country’s borders like a pearl necklace and pirate literature poured into France through contraband distribution channels built by ordinary people hungry for more things to read.
On May 23, 1533, Mary was formally declared a bastard by the archbishop. Her mother, Catherine, who was a catholic and the Pope’s protegé, had been thrown out of the family by her father Henry, who had turned protestant just to get rid of Catherine. This was an injustice Mary would attempt to correct all her life.
King Henry VIII wanted a son to inherit the Throne of England for the Tudor dynasty, but his marriage was a disappointment. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, had only borne him a daughter, Mary. Worse still, the Pope would not let him divorce Catherine in the hope of finding someone else to bear him a son.
Henry’s solution was quite drastic, effective, and novel. He converted all of England into Protestantism, founding the Church of England, in order to deny the Pope any influence over his marriage. Henry then had his marriage with Catherine of Aragon declared void on May 23, 1533, after which he went on to marry several other women in sequence. He had a second daughter with his second wife, and finally a son with his third wife. Unlike the bastard child Mary, her younger half-siblings - Elizabeth and Edward - were protestants.
Edward succeeded Henry VIII on the throne in 1547, at the age of nine. He died before reaching adult age. Mary was next in the line of succession, despite having been declared a bastard. Thus, the outcast ascended to the Throne of England with a vengeance as Mary I in 1553.
She had not spoken to her father for years and years. Rather, hers was the mission to undo her father’s wrongdoings to the Faith, to England, and to her mother, and to turn England back into Catholicism. She persecuted protestants relentlessly, publicly executing several hundred, earning her the nickname Bloody Mary.
She shared the concern of the Catholic Church over the printing press. The public’s ability to quickly distribute information en masse was dangerous to her ambitions to restore Catholicism, in particular their ability to distribute heretic material. (Political material, in this day and age, was not distinguishable from religious material.) Seeing how France had failed miserably in banning the printing press, even under threat of hanging, she realized another solution was needed. One that involved the printing industry in a way that would benefit them as well.
She devised a monopoly where the London printing guild would get a complete monopoly on all printing in England, in exchange for her censors determining what was fit to print beforehand. It was a very lucrative monopoly for the guild, who would be working hard to maintain the monopoly and the favor of the Queen’s censors. This merger of corporate and governmental powers turned out to be effective in suppressing free speech and political-religious dissent.
The monopoly was awarded to the London Company of Stationers on May 4, 1557. It was called copyright.
It was widely successful as a censorship instrument. Working with the industry to suppress free speech worked, in contrast to the French attempt in the earlier 1500s to ban all printing by decree. The Stationers worked as a private censorship bureau, burning unlicensed books, impounding or destroying monopoly-infringing printing presses, and denying politically unsuitable material the light of day. Only in doubtful cases did they care to consult the Queen’s censors for advice on what was allowed and what was not. Mostly, it was quite apparent after a few initial consultations.
There was obviously a lust for reading, and the monopoly was very lucrative for the Stationers. As long as nothing politically destabilizing was in circulation, the common people were allowed their entertainment. It was a win-win for the repressive Queen and for the Stationers with a lucrative monopoly on their hands.
Mary I died just one year later, on November 17, 1558. She was succeeded by her protestant half-sister Elizabeth, who went on to become Elizabeth I and one of the highest-regarded regents of England ever. Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism to England had failed. Her invention of copyright, however, survives to this day.
After Bloody Mary had enacted the copyright censorship monopoly in 1557, neither the profitable industry guild nor the censoring Crown had any desire to abolish it. It would stand uninterrupted for 138 years.
As we have seen, the copyright monopoly was instituted as a censorship mechanism by Mary I in 1557 to prevent people from discussing or disseminating Protestant material. Her successor, Elizabeth I, was just as happy to keep the monopoly after Mary’s death in 1558 to prevent people from discussing or disseminating Catholic material.
During the 1600s, Parliament gradually tried to wrestle control of the censorship from the Crown. In 1641, Parliament abolished the court where copyright cases had been tried, the infamous Star Chamber. In effect, this turned violation of the monopoly into a sentence-less crime, much like jaywalking in Sweden today: While it was still technically a crime, and technically illegal, you could not be tried for it and there was no punishment. As a result, creativity in Britain soared into the stratosphere.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t what Parliament had had in mind at all.
In 1643, the copyright censorship monopoly was re-instituted with a vengeance. It included demands for pre-registrations of author, printer and publisher with the London Company of Stationers, a requirement for publication license before publishing anything, the right for the Stationers to impound, burn and destroy unlicensed equipment and books, and arrests and harsh punishments for anybody violating the copyright censorship.
Fast forwarding a bit, there was something called the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and Parliament’s composition changed radically to mostly people who had previously been at the business end of censorship and weren’t all too keen for that to continue. Therefore, the Stationers’ monopoly was made to expire in 1695.
So from 1695 onward, there was no copyright. None. Creativity soared - again - and historians claim that many of the documents that eventually led to the founding of the United States of America were written in this time.
Unfortunately, the London Company of Stationers were not happy at all with the new order where they had lost their lucrative monopoly. They gathered their families on the stairs of Parliament and begged for the monopoly to be reinstated.
It is noteworthy that authors did not ask for the copyright monopoly: the printers and distributors did. There was never an argument along the lines that nothing would be written without copyright; the argument was that nothing would be printed without copyright. This is something else entirely.
Parliament, having just abolished censorship, was keen on not re-instituting a central point of control with a possible abuse potential. The Stationers’ responded by suggesting that writers should “own” their works. In doing so, they killed three birds with one stone. One, Parliament would be assured that there was no central point of control which could be used to censor. Two, the publishers would retain a monopoly for all intents and purposes, as the writers would have nobody to sell their works to but the publishing industry. Three, and perhaps most importantly, the monopoly would be legally classified as Anglo-Saxon Common Law rather than the weaker Case Law, and therefore given much stronger legal protection.
The publishing lobby got as they wanted, and the new copyright monopoly was re-enacted in 1709, taking effect on April 10, 1710. This was the copyright lobby’s first major victory.
What we see at this point in history is copyright in its unspun form: a monopoly with heritage from censorship where artists and authors were not even considered, but where it was always for the publishers’ profit.
Also, the Stationers would continue to impound, destroy and burn others’ printing presses for a long time, despite not having the right any longer. Abuse of power came immediately, and would last until the pivotal Entick vs. Carrington case in 1765, when yet another of these raids for “unlicensed” (read unwanted) authors had taken place. In the verdict of this court case in 1765, it was firmly established that no right may be denied to any citizen if not expressly forbidden by law, and that no authority may take itself any right not explicitly given by law.
Thus, the very first foundations of modern democracy and civil liberties were won in the battle against the copyright monopoly. There is nothing new under the sun.
When the United States was founded, the concept of monopolies on ideas was carried to the New World and debated intensely. Thomas Jefferson was a fierce opponent to the monster of monopolies on ideas. A compromise was reached.
Copyright didn’t originate in the United States, as we have seen. The idea had been there beforehand and the Founding Fathers carried the laws with them into their new country. The topic of monopolies on ideas, however, was a topic not easily settled. Jefferson wrote:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them … incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.
In the end, the United States Constitution was the first one to specify the reason for copyrights (and patents!) to be granted. It is very clear and straightforward in its justification for the existence of copyright in United States law: “...to promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts...”
It is particularly notable that the purpose of the monopoly was not for any profession to make money, neither writer nor printer nor distributor. Instead, the purpose is exemplary in its clarity: the only justification for the monopoly is if it maximizes the culture and knowledge available to society.
Thus, copyright (in the US, and therefore predominantly today) is a balance between the public’s access to culture and the same public’s interest of having new culture created. This is tremendously important. In particular, note here that the public is the only legitimate stakeholder in the wording and evolution of copyright law: the monopoly holders, while certainly being benefactors of the monopoly, are not legitimate stakeholders and should have no say in its wording, just like a regiment town should have no say in whether that regiment is actually needed for national security.
It is useful to point at the wording of the US Constitution when people falsely believe that the copyright monopoly exists so that artists can make money. It never did, not in any country.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom
In the meantime in the United Kingdom, books were still quite expensive, mostly because of the copyright monopoly. Book collections were only seen in rich men’s homes, and some started benevolently to lend books to the common people.
The publishers went mad about this, and lobbied Parliament to outlaw the reading of a book without first paying for their own copy. They tried to outlaw the public library before the library had even been invented. “Reading without paying first? That’s stealing from the authors! Taking the bread right out of their childrens’ mouths!”
But Parliament took a different stance, seeing the positive impact of reading on society. The problem perceived by Parliament was not the self-described eternal plight of the copyright monopolists, but the problem that rich men in society dictated who would read and who wouldn’t. It seemed beneficial to society to level the playing field: to create public libraries, accessible to poor and rich alike.
The copyright monopolists went absolutely ballistic when they heard about this idea. “You can’t let anybody read any book for free! Not a single book will be sold ever again! Nobody will be able to live off their writing! No author will write a single book ever again if you pass this law!”
Parliament in the 1800s was much wiser than today, however, and saw the copyright monopolists’ tantrum for what it was. Parliament took a strong stance that public access to knowledge and culture had a larger benefit to society than the copyright monopoly, and so in 1849, the law instituting public libraries in the UK was passed. The first public library opened in 1850.
And as we know, not a single book has been written ever since. Either that, or the copyright monopolists’ rant about nothing being created without a strong monopoly was as false then as it is when repeated today.
(Note: in some European countries, authors and translators get some pennies for every book lent from a library. It should be strongly noted that this is not a compensation for an imaginary loss of income, as if every reduction in the monopoly required compensation, but a national cultural grant which happens to measure popularity and therefore suitability for that grant using statistics from libraries. Besides, the grant appeared in the early 1900s, long after libraries.)
Meanwhile in Germany
Germany had no copyright monopoly during this time. Several historians argue that this led to the rapid proliferation of knowledge that enabled Germany to take the industrial lead over the United Kingdom - knowledge could be spread cheaply and efficiently. So in a way, Germany’s leapfrogging of the United Kingdom proved British Parliament right: the national interest of access to culture and knowledge does supersede the monopoly interest of the publishers.
In the late 1800s, the publishers’ ever-strengthening copyright monopoly had lopsided the creators’ chances of making any revenue off of their works. Basically, all the money went to publishers and distributors, and creators were left starving, due to the copyright monopoly. (Just like today.)
A person in France named Victor Hugo would take the initiative to try to level the playing field by internationalizing a French tradition known as droit d’auteur, “writer’s right,” into the copyright monopoly. Also, he would try to make the copyright monopoly international: until now, it had just been a national monopoly. A French writer could sell his monopoly to a French publisher, and the publisher would enjoy monopoly powers in France, but not in Germany or the United Kingdom. Hugo sought to change this.
Paradoxically, the copyright and patent monopolies were forgotten when free market laws were enacted across Europe in the mid-1800s. Patent law still talks about “prevention of disloyal competition” as justification for its existence, which is a remnant from when guilds dictated products, craftsmen, and prices; if a business practices loyal competition in their industry segment today, we raid them at dawn and haul their ass to court. The copyright monopoly is a similar remnant from the printing guild of London.
Victor Hugo would try to balance the immense powers of the publishers by giving creators some rights under the copyright monopoly as well, unfortunately impoverishing the public further. (It is important here to remember that there are three parties to the copyright conflict: creators, publishers, and the public. Ironically, the public is the only legitimate stakeholder in the monopoly’s design.)
While Hugo didn’t live to see the fruition of his initiative, the Berne Convention was signed in 1886. It said that countries should respect the copyrights of other countries, and an agency - BIRPI - was set up as watchdog. This agency has mutated, grown and swelled and is today WIPO, which still oversees the Berne Convention, which has also swelled, mutated and been hijacked twice. (More on this shortly.)
So, at this point, there are four aspects of the copyright monopoly, which have more differences between them than similarities:
One, the commercial monopoly to fixations of a work. This is the original monopoly granted to London’s printing guild in exchange for censorship. Two, the commercial monopoly to performances of a work. If somebody performs a work publicly on a for-profit stage, the monopoly holder has a right to demand money. Three, the droit moral to be acknowledged as creator. The right for an author or artist to be acknowledged as creator of his or her work, acting as protection against counterfeiting and against plagiarism. Four, the droit moral to veto an improper performance of the work. If an artist feels that a performance slights the work or the name of the artist, they have the right to deny that performance the light of day.
The droits morals are very different in nature from the commercial monopolies in that they cannot be sold or transferred. This sets them sharply apart from the justification that convinced British Parliament to re-enact the copyright monopoly in 1709.
It is also noteworthy how often these four aspects are deliberately confused to defend the most controversial and damaging of the monopolies, the commercial monopoly on fixations (and later duplication). You will often hear people from the copyright industry defending the monopoly by asking “would you want somebody else to take your work and claim it was theirs?”. However, this is the quite uncontroversial third part, the droit moral of attribution and credit, which cannot honestly be used to defend any of the two commercial monopolies.
The United States didn’t like moral rights, by the way, so they stayed outside of the Berne Convention until they could use it for leverage against Toyota a hundred years later. We’ll return to that soon.
During most of the 20th century, a battle of prominence raged between performing musicians and the record industry. For most of the century, musicians were regarded as the important party in law and in common sense. However, the record industry would rather see music corporatized. Active intervention by the self-declared fascist regime in Italy tipped the scales in this direction.
Copyright in the 20th century was not characterized by books, but by music. The 1930s saw two major developments that affected musicians: the Great Depression, which caused many musicians to lose their jobs, and movies with sound, which caused most of the rest of musicians to lose their jobs.
In this environment, two initiatives were taken in parallel. Musician’s unions tried to guarantee income and sustenance to the people who were now jobless, made redundant as we say today in executive-speak. Unions all over the West were concerned about the spread of “mechanized music”: any music that isn’t performed live and therefore didn’t need performing musicians. They wanted some power over the speaker technology, and the question was raised through the International Labour Organization (a predecessor to the UN agency with the same name).
At the same time, the record industry tried to exert the exact same power over speakers, radio and musicians. However, the entire political and business world at that time regarded them as a service contractor to the musicians. They could go about running their business if they were service-minded enough, or go bankrupt trying, and weren’t worth diddlysquat more than that to anyone. Anyone, with just one exception:
Fascist Italy. (This word, fascist, is loaded with emotion today. Italy’s regime at this time were self-declared fascists. I’m using the word to describe them exactly as they described themselves.)
In 1933, the phonographic industry was invited to Rome by Confederazione Generale Fascista dell’Industria Italiana and under the protection of same. At this conference, held on November 10-14, an international federation of the phonographic industry was formed. It would later be more known under its acronym, IFPI. It was agreed that IFPI would try to work within the Berne Convention to establish producers’ rights similar to those of the musicians and artists (which were always sold to publishers).
IFPI continued to meet in countries which welcomed their corporatist agenda, so they met in Italy the next year too, in Stresa. 1935 and onwards proved a bit turbulent for the world at large, but Italy still enacted corporatist rights of the record industry in 1937.
Negotiations for a copyright-like monopoly, attached to Berne and therefore international, was still too tempting for the record industry to resist. So after the war, IFPI reconvened in para-fascist Portugal in 1950. Italy wasn’t suitable anymore, and the conference readied a draft text that would give them copyright-identical monopolies, so-called “neighboring rights,” for producing and printing creative works such as music. This monopoly would be practically identical to the commercial copyright monopoly for fixations of a creative work.
The neighboring rights were ratified by BIRPI (today WIPO) in 1961 in the so-called Rome Convention, giving the record industry copyright-identical monopolies. At the same time, ILO’s attempt to give musicians similar rights had flopped, waned, and failed.
Since 1961, the record industry has feverishly defended copyright, despite the fact that it doesn’t enjoy any copyright monopoly, only the copyright-identical monopoly known as “neighboring rights.”
One needs to remember two things at this point:
First, the record industry is confusing all these monopolies on purpose. It keeps defending “its copyright,” which it doesn’t have, and talks nostalgically about how this copyright monopoly was created in great wisdom during the dawn of the Enlightenment [insert sunset and kittens here], referring to the Statute of Anne in 1709, which wasn't the first copyright anyway. In reality, the neighboring-rights monopolies were created in fascist countries (literally!) in a sunder-militarized recent Europe as late as 1961. These monopolies have been controversial and questioned from day one in 1961, and were certainly not the product of any Enlightenment wisdom.
Second, we were but a hair’s breadth from still regarding the record labels as service bureaus for musicians, had ILO not failed, instead of the chokehold on musicians that they have been for the past decades. This would have been the case if it had not been for two intervening fascist governments - fascist in the literal sense of the word - supporting the record industry in corporatizing society and becoming the copyright industry.
Siege of the Middlemen
Throughout the 20th century, people involved with the copyright monopoly as middlemen rather than artists fought tooth and nail against every new development of technology and culture alike. The current claims against people sharing on the net should be seen in the light of this history.
Earlier, we looked at how the record industry middlemen did a successful regulatory capture in putting themselves in the middle of the economy. As we learn from history, this has been the norm with the middlemen's behavior rather than the exception, but the last century has really seen this accelerate.
It started around 1905, when the self-playing piano was becoming popular. Sellers of note sheet music proclaimed that this would be the end of artistry if they couldn't make a living off of being middlemen between composers and the public, so they called for a ban on the player piano.
In the 1920s, as broadcast radio started appearing, another copyright industry was demanding its ban because it cut into profits. This time, it was the business of pay telephone numbers that played music over the phone. "If people can listen to music for free with this radio thing, artists will starve!" This argument was re-used through most of the century, with the word "radio" replaced by the most recent technology.
In the 1930s, silent movies were phased out by movies with audio tracks. Every theater had previously employed an orchestra that played music to accompany the silent movies, and now, these were out of a job. It is quite conceivable that this is the single worst technical development for professional performers. Their unions demanded guaranteed jobs for these performers in varying propositions.
In the 1960s, the copyright industry was fretting over people taping music off of radio, and tried to have the practice banned. The debate died off about the same time it was pointed out that this ban was technically impossible with anything less than installing cameras in people's living rooms.
The 1970s saw the advent of the cassette tape, which is when the copyright industry really went all-out in proclaiming their entitlement. Ads saying "Home taping is killing music!" were everywhere. One band responded by subtly changing the message by changing "music" to "music industry," and "We left this side [of their tape] blank, so you can help." It saw many other parodies, too; regardless, the copyright industry were acting very seriously on the message.
The 1970s also saw another significant shift, where DJs started taking the place of live dance music. Musicians' unions and the copyright industry went ballistic over this, and suggested a "disco fee" that would be charged at locations playing disco (recorded) music, to be collected by private organizations under governmental mandate and redistributed to live bands. This produces heartly laughter today, but that laughter stops sharp with the realization that the disco fee was actually introduced, and still exists.
The 1980s is a special chapter with the advent of video recording. The copyright industry's famous quote when testifying before the US Congress - where the film lobby's highest representative said that "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone" -- is the stuff of legend today. Still, it bears reminding that the Betamax Case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and that the VCR was as near as could be to being killed by the copyright industry: The Betamax team won the case by 5-4 in votes at the United States Supreme Court.
Also in the late 1980s, we saw the complete flop of the Digital Audio Tape (DAT). A lot of this can be ascribed to the fact that the copyright industry had been allowed to put its politics into the design: The cassette, although technically superior to the analog Compact Cassette, was so deliberately unusable for copying music that people rejected it flat outright. This is an example of a technology that the copyright industry succeeded in killing, even though I doubt it was intentional: They just got their wishes as to how it should work to not disrupt the status quo.
In 1994, the Fraunhofer Institute published a prototype implementation of its digital coding technique that would revolutionize digital audio. It allowed CD-quality audio to take one-tenth of the disk space, which was very valuable in this time, when a typical hard drive would be just a couple of gigabytes. Technically known as MPEG-1 Audio Layer III, it was quickly shortened to "MP3" in everyday speak. The copyright industry screamed again, calling it a technology that only can be used for criminal activity. The first successful MP3 player, the Diamond Rio, saw the light in 1998. It had 32 megabytes of memory. Despite good sales, the copyright industry sued its maker, Diamond Multimedia, into oblivion: While the lawsuit was eventually struck down, the company did not recover from the burden of defending. The monopoly middlemen tried aggressively to have MP3 players banned, just like every previous piece of new technology.
The century ended with the copyright middlemen pushing through a new law in the United States called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For the first time, the copyright industry managed to introduce intermediary liability -- as in making people liable in a court of law for merely carrying a signal which is broadcast by somebody else. Just like if you put up a public wall, and would become responsible for posters that other people put up on it: Not sane anywhere, but this isn't about sanity, it is about regulatory captures and enshrining the continued profit of monopolists into books of law.
The century also ended on a positive note, as Napster hit the light of day in 1999. Deservingly, the middlemen's handling of Napster is described as as a textbook example of an industry business failure in a delusion of entitlement. In the final section, we'll take a look at how all the monopoly industries joined together to hold the entire economy for ransom.
Toyota struck at the heart of the American soul in the 1970s, and all her politicians started carrying mental “The End Is Nigh” signs. The most American things of all - cars! The American Cars! - weren’t good enough for the American people. They all bought Toyota instead. This was an apocalypse-grade sign that United States was approaching its end as an industrial nation, unable to compete with Asia.
The period of 1960 to 2010 is marked by two things: one, the record-label-driven creepage of the copyright monopoly into the noncommercial, private domain where it was always a commercial-only monopoly before (“home taping is illegal” and such nonsense) and the monopoly therefore threatening fundamental human rights, and two, the corporate political expansion of the copyright monopoly and other monopolies.
When it was clear to politicians that the United States would no longer be able to maintain its economic dominance by producing anything industrially valuable or viable, many committees were formed and tasked with coming up with the answer to one crucial question: How can the US maintain its global dominance if (or when) it is not producing anything competitively valuable?
The response came from an unexpected direction: Pfizer.
The president of Pfizer, Edmund Pratt, had a furious op-ed piece in a New York Times on July 9, 1982 titled “Stealing from the Mind.” It fumed about how third world countries were stealing from them. (By this, he referred to making medicine from their own raw materials with their own factories using their own knowledge in their own time for their own people, who were frequently dying from horrible but curable third-world conditions.) Major policymakers saw a glimpse of an answer in Pfizer’s and Pratt’s thinking, and turned to Pratt’s involvement in another committee directly under the President. This committee was the magic ACTN: Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations.
What the ACTN recommended, following Pfizer’s lead, was so daring and provocative that nobody was really sure whether to try it out: The US would try linking its trade negotiations and foreign policy. Any country who didn’t sign lopsided “free trade” deals that heavily redefined value would be branded in a myriad of bad ways, the most notable being the “Special 301 watchlist.” This list is supposed to be a list of nations not respecting copyright enough. A majority of the world’s population is on it, among them Canada.
So the solution to not producing anything of value in international trade was to redefine “producing,” “anything,” and “value” in an international political context, and to do so by bullying. It worked. The ACTN blueprints were set in motion by US Trade Representatives, using unilateral bullying to push foreign governments into enacting legislation that favored American industry interests, bilateral “free trade” agreements that did the same, and multilateral agreements that raised the bar worldwide in protection of American interests.
In this way, the United States was able to create an exchange of values where they would rent out blueprints and get finished products from those blueprints in return. This would be considered as a fair deal under the “free trade” agreements which redefined value artificially.
The entire US monopolized industry was behind this push: The copyright industries, the patent industries, all of them. They went forum shopping and tried to go to WIPO - repeating the hijack of the record industry in 1961 - to seek legitimacy and hostship for a new trade agreement that would be marketed as “Berne Plus”.
At this point, it became politically necessary for the US to join the Berne Convention for credibility reasons, as WIPO is the overseer of Berne.
However, WIPO saw right through this scheme and more or less kicked them right out the door. WIPO was not created to give any country that kind of advantage over the rest of the world. They were outraged at the shameless attempt to hijack the copyright and patent monopolies.
So, another forum was needed. The US monopoly industry consortium approached GATT - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - and managed to get influence there. A major process was initiated whereby about half of the participating countries in GATT were tricked, coerced or bullied into agreeing with a new agreement under GATT, an agreement which would lock in the Berne Convention and strengthen the US industry considerably on top of that by redefining “producing,” “thing,” and “value.” This agreement was called TRIPs. Upon ratification of the TRIPs agreement, the GATT body was renamed WTO, the World Trade Organization. The 52 GATT countries choosing to stay out of the WTO would soon find themselves in an economic position where it became economically impossible to not sign the colonializing terms. Only one country out of the original 129 has not rejoined.
TRIPs has been under considerable fire for how it is constructed to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor, and when they can’t pay with money, they pay with their health and sometimes their lives. It forbids third world countries from making medicine in their own factories from their own raw materials with their own knowledge to their own people. After several near-revolts, some concessions were made in TRIPs to “allow” for this.
But perhaps the most telling story of how important the artificial monopolies are to the United States’ dominance came when Russia sought admission into the WTO (for incomprehensible reasons). To allow Russia admission, the United States demanded that the Russia-legal music shop AllofMP3 should be closed. This shop sold copies of MP3 files and was classified as a radio station in Russia, paying appropriate license fees and was fully legal.
Now, let’s go back a bit to review what was going on. This was the United States and Russia sitting at the negotiating table. Former enemies who kept each other at nuclear gunpoint 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through sandstorm and blizzard. The United States could have demanded and gotten anything. Absolutely anything.
So what did the United States demand?
It asked for Russia to close a bloody record store.
That’s when you realize how much there is to these monopolies.
File sharing is not just a private matter. It’s a matter of global economic dominance, and always has been. Let’s keep sharing and move that power from the monopolists to the people. Teach everybody to share culture, and the people will win against the constrainers of liberties, just as happened at the start of this essay, when people learned to read for themselves and toppled the Catholic Church.
(Lately, the copyright and patent industries have sought to repeat the TRIPs trick with ACTA, which they now call “Trips Plus.” This is not finished yet as the last word hasn’t been said.)
This concludes the history of the copyright monopoly as of 2011. Let’s make sure we can write another chapter in ten years and are freer than ever to publish, share and spread it.
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS A SEVEN-PART SERIES ON THE AUTHOR'S WEBSITE, http://falkvinge.net