Richard Stallman, you light-hearted optimist you!

Folklore has it that politicians are completely in the pockets of Big Copyright. That is of course nonsense. Just because a couple of politicos happily and loudly parrot Big Copyright’s party line, does not mean they’re being paid to do so—let alone that all representatives are.

What is true, though, is that Big Copyright wants to own the law makers. This is not, perhaps, the desire of anyone in particular within the cartel. But of its hivemind? Definitely!

And Big Copyright is lucky in this respect, because unlike most copyfighters it has the ear of the politicians. They nibble, but do not binge. They nudge a bit here, nudge a bit there.

There are a few arguments that almost all politicians are sensitive to: “For the children”, “For the poor starving artist”, “For the public good”, “For the almost extinguished animal/plant”.

And suddenly what you end up with is the following: you have a law that forbids copying of any kind, and it basically lasts forever. However, you need to enforce that law, but law enforcement is a governmental monopoly.

So instead of calling in the cops after the fact, you try to make the copying impossible beforehand. Here’s what you do:

You make a storage format, one that is significantly better than what went beforehand. You trademark the logo, you patent the technology, you copyright the keys. You then vest all these rights in a rights controlling organisation.

So far, politicians love this stuff. Self regulation, yeah! Power to the people, yeah!

Then, you nudge and you nibble, and you get a tiny law passed that says people may not break locks. “For the poor starving artist,” you explain to your representatives. You make sure you appear serious about this to them, you put on your best puppy eyes, and honestly, who is it going to hurt if you outlaw something that clearly can only be used for illegal purposes?

So now you have a lock that may not be broken, and a key that is copyrighted, and anyone who wants to use your significantly better medium will have to play by your rules. Contract law makes sure of that. Even if copyright law is not as ‘strong’ in some countries, you bind the producers by contract to your rules.

Here’s the beauty of that tiny law: you can make the lock as weak as you want. The law does not care about the strength of the lock, you’re still not allowed to break it.

You can repeat the process ad infinitum with any old significantly better medium that comes by.

The content production is now in your iron grip, but it had already been mostly under your control. Now you need to catch the bad guys, the criminals, the terrorists: your customers, the general public.

It takes a pretty smart guy to figure out all these sneaky movements towards complete annihilation of your freedom of speech (because that is what this is about, in the end, even if it’s not the purpose of this scheme); I must admit it wasn’t me. In 2001 I heard Tomas Vogt give a speech at the HAL computer security conference that outlined the above.

As he notes, Richard Stallman was an optimist when he wrote The Right to Read, an essay that paints a very bleak picture of what the publishing industry will allow us to do with our computers in the future. (Richard Stallman is the inventor of copyleft, a method of trying to restore the imbalance of modern copyright law.)

The ‘funny’ thing is, when I discussed this method on Usenet two or three years ago, people laughed at me: “These laws are just to deter the big pirates; the publishers will never go after regular people. You can still say and write what you want, and if you share mp3s, you can do so without worries.”

That was then, and now is now.

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