07 07 2006
'Don't Copy that Floppy!': The Propaganda of Digital Protectionism
by Jamie King (UK)
Intellectual Property (IP) has gone from being a 'dry' topic to a 'hot' one (or should that be 'wet'?) these last few years. One reason for this is the unholy conjunction of the network form and the digital file format: taken together, these give all sorts of media - including those that copyright owners would rather keep under their control - the capacity to propagate and self-distribute rapidly and endlessly.
This creates problems for the entire category of IP: a legal system that holds 'Thou Shalt Not Copy' at its very juridical heart now faces the social-technological fact that copying is as easy and natural - for those with a computer at their disposal - as breathing, eating or walking.
Three options offer themselves to copyright holders looking to lock things down. One: More Law. There have been unprecedented extensions to copyright terms in many western countries recently - extensions that mean both that owners' copyright persists for longer, and that it is more illegal to copy and share media. Two: Technological Protection-schemes like Trusted Computing provide an infrastructure that can be used to limit the inherent capacity of your computer to copy files although it is far from clear that such schemes can work reliably.
The third option is propaganda - make people believe that copying is a sin by insisting on the point at every available opportunity. This article briefly reviews some of the more egregious examples of pro-copyright propaganda that have been circulating recently.
The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN cathedral whose priests worship at the feet of the mightiest copyright gods, produces some astonishing propaganda in its own right, reminiscent of the worst propaganda excesses of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. In the asinine form of a series of pedagogic comics, WIPO promulgates the 'self-evident truths' of IP:
A few people at Bangalore's own Alternative Law Forum have worked up an amusing response to these comics (see http://www.altlawforum.org/lawmedia/CC.pdf),
a socially necessary undertaking given the comics' mind bending mendacity (any lawyer knows the representation of the 'facts' of IP presented here, to children, is flagrantly insufficient) and cultural insensitivity (the 'pirates' of the piece are, inevitably, non-white.)
In 2003/04 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) spent more than $200,000 on an 'educational' course for schoolchildren, bizarrely entitled 'What's the Diff? A Guide to Digital Citizenship'. This was nothing more than a lesson in IP dogma. 'If you haven't paid for it, you've stolen it,' students were told - eliding fair use, public domain works, Free Software, and alternative licensing in one sweep of the revisionist hand. Teachers worked from a 25-page classroom guide, explaining that the use of a computer to download files was 'morally and ethically wrong.' Students played roles such as 'The Film Producer' and 'The Starving Artist'; at the end of one session, according to an article in the Boston Globe, a teacher asked a boy: ''Will you stop copying music online and download the right way?' 'Yes,' he answered. 'I'll go to the music store and buy more CDs.' Alongside the propaganda comes bribery: for writing essays about why file sharing is bad, students are offered incentives such as free DVD players and DVDs (first one's free, but they're hooked forever), movie tickets and trips to Hollywood.
The States isn't the only place to attempt brainwashing children on the merits of strong IP. The Hong Kong chapter of the Scouting Association started offering an MPA (its own local Motion Picture group) intellectual property merit badge earlier this year. The 'badge of honour' is conditional on successfully completing a series of seminars and workshops on the importance of protecting and respecting intellectual property rights. Badge wearers also have to join the 'I Pledge' Scheme and work to promoting the good message. Baden Powell's legacy was never a particularly clean one.
Microsoft entered the fracas this year with a contest in which malleable teens are supposed to create a video about the adverse effects of IP theft on society. (The finished work can't use any third party intellectual property, and if you win, Microsoft claims complete ownership over your work.) This is particularly ironic given that Bill Gates' first operating system, Altair Basic, was itself a proprietary incorporation of community developed software. Microsoft's behaviour specifies very well the tendency of the victors to cast others as pirates once they have looted enough resources to have obtained a solid commercial advantage. Not only are Robber-Barons not gracious to those they have looted; often as not, they pursue them with the full force of their newly-purchased law.
There is no shame for hyperbole amongst the IP Barons, the most obvious example of which being the utterly unsubstantiated 'piracy funds terror' tale. Even amongst the main promulgators of the story there is little consistency here: Jack Valenti, head of MPAA, has publicly linked piracy and terrorism, claiming that funds generated from pirated films support terrorist activity. But at a 2003 hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committees on the links between terrorism and the illegal trading of copyrighted material, at which Valenti was present, neither he nor any other of the industry witnesses felt moved to make any such bold claim. Instead, there were the usual complaints about college students using peer-to-peer networks and other governments sanctioning copyright violations.
Of course, the small matter of fact doesn't prevent the industry propaganda machine from associating itself with good fight of the War on Terror. A 2004 Federation Against Copyright Theft advert seen in cinemas in the UK shoved a hot branding iron in viewers' faces while brazenly declaring that 'piracy funds terrorism' and that 'piracy will destroy our society.' Many viewers complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), who upheld the statements. Next up: Guantanamo Bay for pirates.
You don't have to search hard to find stories and materials like these: IP propaganda is rife. An online archive at www.shiversofsharing.org/propaganda/ is currently being created for people to upload any examples they find. The undisputed classic of the genre is 'Don't Copy That Floppy' (1992) by the Software Publishers Association, which is archived at the Internet Archive, in which MC DP (that's Disk Protector) declares the 'End of the Computer Age' if kids don't stop sharing pirated software. Almost fifteen years after the film predicted digital Armageddon, the computer industry is still going strong. What might not please the Disk Protector (where is he now?) is that it's going strongest precisely in the areas in which traditional property rights don't pertain: Free/ Libre and Open Source Software. How do you like them apples, DP?
Jamie King (email@example.com) is a Contributing Editor at Mute Magazine (www.metamute.com) and the founder of Pretext (www.pretext.org), the first free/libre literary publisher. Jamie lives in Hackney, London, in what could fairly be described as the last bastion of disorganised resistance.