On Copyright, Politicians Just Don’t Understand

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    Concern about copyright laws have led to Pirate Party members being elected in Spain, Austria, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and especially Germany in recent years. The movement’s founder weighs in on the latest rounds of attempts to fix copyright and why they’ve sparked protests around the world.

    Widespread protests in support of a free internet began in 2000, in response to the shutdown of Napster, a music-focused file-sharing service that was accused of copyright infringement. Since that time, such protests have been growing – and growing significantly – with every iteration.

    Each new wave of protest against clueless politicians who give our freedoms of speech to corporate sponsors completely eclipses the previous one, and this year, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act) prompted the biggest demonstrations yet, as North Americans and Europeans stood up for their digital rights.

    With every new wave, more people become aware of the real issues at hand – that the battle is over our fundamental civil liberties and not over some dinosaur industry’s imaginary right to profit.

    I’m already looking forward to the next protest, which will be bigger than the Jan. 18 SOPA/PIPA blackout. In its wake, copyright-industry lobbyists will walk about confused, wondering what has happened.

    And let there be no doubt – following the next big protest, there will be new misguided attempts at legislation, and equally powerful responses from the citizenry.

    This is because the people writing the legislation represent the copyright industry, and hand ready-made drafts to the actual legislators. Those lobbyists understand exactly what the internet is and how they need to recentralize the permission to communicate in order for the copyright industry to stay relevant.

    That this comes at the cost of our civil liberties is of no consequence to these people. “That’s not my department,” they say.

    The people actually voting yea or nay on those drafted laws, however, understand the net very poorly. This could be a function of their age, or because they don’t take the internet and its users seriously. And so our civil liberties have taken a back seat to corporations’ imagined rights to profit.

    So, how can we draft policies that put citizens’ rights first? And, perhaps more importantly, should we even bother?

    The ACTA treaty aims to have as many countries as possible following the same rigid guidelines. But it is imperative that nations have different laws and different rule sets. Without institutional competition, society’s development will stop dead in its tracks: If no country is allowed to be different from any other, that also means no country is allowed to experiment with how to become better than any other.

    But I prefer to see it more in terms of equality. The copyright industry has long been forum shopping for the easiest way to push new repressive laws. This activity – the ability to select the laws that apply to you – has traditionally been the privilege of the elite of the elite.

    Today, however, everybody who wants to publish an idea or a song to the world, or, for that matter, uncover corruption, has a similar choice. Individuals have the ability to choose which jurisdiction’s copyright laws shall apply to them, simply by choosing where the servers hosting the material are located. This is fundamentally a very positive development, as it means that these monopolies are no stronger than their weakest link, and therefore cannot survive beyond the very short term.

    Establishing good internet and copyright policy is not rocket science. It’s only a matter of applying the same laws online that already apply offline.

    We have secrecy of correspondence, preventing government officials or other third parties from opening letters in the mail. We have the right to talk without showing ID to authorities. We have the right to not be tracked as we move about our daily lives. Now, all we have to do is preserve these very basic rights as we move online. The laws are there already.

    In the end, people who understand the net will come into power and tell the copyright industry to take a hike. We need to make sure that our civil liberties survive the 20 to 30 years until that point in time.

    Rick Falkvinge is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a campaigner for next-generation civil liberties and sensible information policy.

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