A Brief History of Copyright

Yeah, sorry to be returning to this topic yet again, I am perfectly aware that I am probably going to be repeating an awful lot of stuff that either a) I’ve said already or b) you already know. Nonetheless, having spent a frustrating amount of time in recent weeks getting very annoyed at clever people saying stupid things, I feel the need to inform the world if only to satisfy my own simmering anger at something really not worth getting angry about. So:

Over the past year or so, the rise of a whole host of FLLAs (Four Letter Legal Acronyms) from SOPA to ACTA has, as I have previously documented, sent the internet and the world at large in to paroxysms of mayhem at the very idea that Google might break and/or they would have to pay to watch the latest Marvel film. Naturally, they also provoked a lot of debate, ranging in intelligence from intellectual to average denizen of the web, on the subject of copyright and copyright law. I personally think that the best way to understand anything is to try and understand exactly why and how stuff came to exist in the first place, so today I present a historical analysis of copyright law and how it came into being.

Let us travel back in time, back to our stereotypical club-wielding tribe of stone age human. Back then, the leader not only controlled and lead the tribe, but ensured that every facet of it worked to increase his and everyone else’s chance of survival, and chance of ensuring that the next meal would be coming along. In short, what was good for the tribe was good for the people in it. If anyone came up with a new idea or technological innovation, such as a shield for example, this design would also be appropriated and used for the good of the tribe. You worked for the tribe, and in return the tribe gave you protection, help gathering food and such and, through your collective efforts, you stayed alive. Everybody wins.

However, over time the tribes began to get bigger. One tribe would conquer their neighbours, gaining more power and thus enabling them to take on bigger, larger, more powerful tribes and absorb them too. Gradually, territories, nations and empires form, and what was once a small group in which everyone knew everyone else became a far larger organisation. The problem as things get bigger is that what’s good for a country starts to not necessarily become as good for the individual. As a tribe gets larger, the individual becomes more independent of the motions of his leader, to the point at which the knowledge that you have helped the security of your tribe does not bear a direct connection to the availability of your next meal- especially if the tribe adopts a capitalist model of ‘get yer own food’ (as opposed to a more communist one of ‘hunters pool your resources and share between everyone’ as is common in a very small-scale situation when it is easy to organise). In this scenario, sharing an innovation for ‘the good of the tribe’ has far less of a tangible benefit for the individual.

Historically, this rarely proved to be much of a problem- the only people with the time and resources to invest in discovering or producing something new were the church, who generally shared between themselves knowledge that would have been useless to the illiterate majority anyway, and those working for the monarchy or nobility, who were the bosses anyway. However, with the invention of the printing press around the start of the 16th century, this all changed. Public literacy was on the up and the press now meant that anyone (well, anyone rich enough to afford the printers’ fees)  could publish books and information on a grand scale. Whilst previously the copying of a book required many man-hours of labour from a skilled scribe, who were rare, expensive and carefully controlled, now the process was quick, easy and available. The impact of the printing press was made all the greater by the social change of the few hundred years between the Renaissance and today, as the establishment of a less feudal and more merit-based social system, with proper professions springing up as opposed to general peasantry, meaning that more people had the money to afford such publishing, preventing the use of the press being restricted solely to the nobility.

What all this meant was that more and more normal (at least, relatively normal) people could begin contributing ideas to society- but they weren’t about to give them up to their ruler ‘for the good of the tribe’. They wanted payment, compensation for their work, a financial acknowledgement of the hours they’d put in to try and make the world a better place and an encouragement for others to follow in their footsteps. So they sold their work, as was their due. However, selling a book, which basically only contains information, is not like selling something physical, like food. All the value is contained in the words, not the paper, meaning that somebody else with access to a printing press could also make money from the work you put in by running of copies of your book on their machine, meaning they were profiting from your work. This can significantly cut or even (if the other salesman is rich and can afford to undercut your prices) nullify any profits you stand to make from the publication of your work, discouraging you from putting the work in in the first place.

Now, even the most draconian of governments can recognise that your citizens producing material that could not only benefit your nation’s happiness but also potentially have great material use is a valuable potential resource, and that they should be doing what they can to promote the production of that material, if only to save having to put in the large investment of time and resources themselves. So, it makes sense to encourage the production of this material, by ensuring that people have a financial incentive to do it. This must involve protecting them from touts attempting to copy their work, and hence we arrive at the principle of copyright: that a person responsible for the creation of a work of art, literature, film or music, or who is responsible for some form of technological innovation, should have legal control over the release & sale of that work for at least a set period of time. And here, as I will explain next time, things start to get complicated…

Web vs. Money

Twice now, this blog has strayed onto the subject of legal bills attempting to in some way regulate the internet, based on the idea that it violates certain copyright restrictions, and everything suggests that SOPA, PIPA and ACTA will not be the last of such attempts (unless ACTA is so successful that it not only gets ratified, but also renders the internet functionally brain-dead). However, a while ago I caught myself wondering exactly why the internet gets targeted with these bills at all. There are two angles to take with regards to this problem; why there is any cause for the internet to be targeted with these bills, and why this particular problem has bills dedicated to it, rather than simply being left alone.

To begin with the second one of these- why the web? Copyright violation most definitely existed before the internet’s invention, and many a pirate business even nowadays may be run without even venturing online. All that’s required is a copy of whatever you’re pirating, some cheap software, and a lot of blank discs (or USB’s or hard drives or whatever). However, such operations tended to be necessarily small-scale in order to avoid detection, and because the market really isn’t large enough to sustain a larger-scale operation. It’s rather off-putting actually acquiring pirated stuff in real life, as it feels slightly wrong- on the web, however, it’s far easier and more relaxed. Thus, rather than a small, fairly meaningless operation, on the internet (which is, remember a throbbing network with literally billions of users) piracy is huge- exactly how big is hard to tell, but it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s bigger than a few blokes flogging ripped off DVD’s out of the boot of a car. This therefore presents a far more significant loss of potential earnings than the more traditional market, and is subsequently a bigger issue.

However, perhaps more important than the scale of the operation is that it’s actually a fairly easy one to target. Modern police will struggle to catch massive-scale drugs lords or crime barons, because the real world is one in which it’s very easy to hide, sneak, bury information and bribe. It can be impossible to find the spider at the centre of the web, and even if he can be found, harder still to pin anything on him. Online however is a different story- sites violating the law are easy to find for anyone with a web connection, and their IP address is basically put on display as a massive ‘LOOK HERE’ notice, making potential criminals easy to find and locate. The web is a collective entity, the virtual equivalent of a large and fairly open ghetto- it’s very easy to collectively target and wrap up the whole shabang. Put simply, dealing with the internet, if a bill were to get through, would be very, very easy

But… why the cause for dispute in the first place? It’s an interesting quandary, because the web doesn’t consider what it’s doing to be wrong anyway. This is partly because much of what a corporation might consider piracy online isn’t technically illegal- as long as nothing gets downloaded or made a hard copy of, streaming a video isn’t against the law. It’s the virtual equivalent of inviting your mates round to watch a film (although technically, since a lot of commercial DVD’s are ‘NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’, this is strictly speaking illegal too- not so online as there is no way to prove it’s not from a public performance copy). Downloading copyrighted content is illegal and is punishable by existing law, but this currently often goes unregulated because the problem is so widespread and the punishment for the crimes so small that it is simply too much bother for effective regulation. The only reason Napster got hit so hard when it was offering free downloads is because it was shifting stuff by the millions, and because it was the only one out there. One of the great benefits that bills like SOPA offered to big corporations was a quick, easy solution to crack down on copyright violators, and which didn’t entail lengthy, costly and inconvenient court proceedings.

However, downloading is a far smaller ‘problem’ than people streaming stuff from Megavideo and YouTube, which happens on a gigantic scale- think how many views the last music video you saw on YouTube had. This is what corporations are attempting to stop- the mass distribution of their content via free sharing of it online, which to them represents a potentially huge loss in income. To what extent it does cost them money, and to what extent it actually gets them more publicity is somewhat up for debate, but in the minds of corporations its enough of a problem to try and force through SOPA and PIPA.

This, really is the nub of the matter- the web and the world of business have a different definition of what constitutes violation of copyrighted content. To the internet, all the streaming and similar is simply sharing, and this is a reflection of the internet’s overarching philosophy- that everything should be free and open to everyone, without corporate influence (a principle which is astoundingly not adhered to when one thinks of the level of control exerted by Facebook and Google, but that’s another story in itself). To a corporation however, streaming on the huge scale of the web is stealing- simple as that. And it is this difference of opinion that has led to such controversy surrounding web-controlling bills.

If the next bill proposed to combat online piracy were simply one that increased the powers corporations could take the prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted content, I don’t think anyone could really complain- it’s already definitely illegal, those doing it know that they really shouldn’t and if anyone wants to grumble then they can probably stream it anyway. The contentious part of all the bills thus far have been those which attempt to restrict the streaming and sharing of such content online- and this is one battle that is not going to go away. At the moment, the law is on the side of the web. Whether that will stay the case remains to be seen…

Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.