The Greater Danger of Bad IP Laws

There is a side effect of bad IP laws which is just now coming to light. It has to do with the perception of law in general and the governments which create and enforce those laws.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the writing of St Augustine: “an unjust law is no law at all”. This phrase has been the bases for justification of civil disobedience sense it was first promulgated. The reason for this is that it strikes a cord within most people. I feel that each of us has an internal sense of what is right and what is wrong. While this sense can mostly be attributed to cultural norms, I think there is also a part that has it’s roots in the “do unto others as you have them do until you” realization of self. When we encounter a law that runs country to our own sense of right and wrong, then I think most humans have an instinctual rebellion to that law. St Augustine’s quote is the most direct expression of that ideal.

We have MANY bad IP laws in the US. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, The DMCA, and the much feared ACTA agreement. Most Americans have never heard of these laws. Yet as we move deeper into the digital age, these laws and many other flawed peaces of legislation are having greater effluence over our everyday lives.

Even when a supporter of bad IP laws try explains them, the average person is appalled at the unfairness and this unfairness triggers that “unjust law” response in people. It only get worse when you realize that these laws are created by a government who’s multi-billion dollar election campaigns are financed largely by the Big Media corporation who benefit the most from these laws. This realization extends this unjust feeling to law makers, who are increasingly seen as being corrupt.

The reason why Big Media has and continues to push for these laws comes out of their own fears of irrelevancy. When knowledge and entertainment had to be imparted on physical things delivered by trucks, it took a large infrastructure to facilitate that industry. Consolidation was the key to maximizing profits and as a resulted smaller media companies combined or were bought out until five or six giant companies controlled 90% of all media. Even those half dozen colluded with themselves and the remaining smaller companies to form cartels like the MPAA and RIAA so as to maximize their control on the market.

For half a century Big Media force feed the world a diet of knowledge and entertainment that had the most marketable appeal and in may ways controlled how we saw ourselves and our culture.

When knowledge and entertainment stopped having to be delivered via large infrastructures, and nearly free and instantaneous dissemination of knowledge and entertainment from one person to the whole world was possible, the need for having big media companies stopped. However half a century of being the primary providers of knowledge and entertainment have allowed big media companies to create a massive portfolio of Intellectual Property. In a bid to maintain relevance in the digital age they are moving from being the creators of new media to being the property holders of culture and are creating a new revenue model based on “licensing” our culture back to us.

This is why laws like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act are so unjust. The ideal of Copyright is to give incentive to a creator by giving them a monopoly over their own work. But when you extend “existing” copyrights as was done with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, you are not creating an additional incentive to create, you are only giving a greater monopoly to companies. Extending the copyrights of Walter Elias Disney or George Gershwin will not  incentivize these men to create new works.

All new culture is build on the foundation of pervious culture. In the past we saw this with companies like Disney “re-imagining” Grimms-Brothers tails, or the never ending remakes of movies from classic novels. Today this same notion is call “remixing” or “sampling”. Rather than a multi-million dollar publicly traded company doing this on a lot in Hollywood, it’s being done by kids in basements with home computers. These bits of new culture are being distributed and disseminated at a rate that far exceeds anything possible in Walt Disney’s lifetime, and are being done under a completely different motivation and economical model. As the claimed owner of all culture, Big Media as balked at the use of their IP in the creation of these new ideals, and have launched tireless campaigns to extinguish their dissemination, even when no money has been transfered.

However the tools to create these new bit of culture and the methods to  disseminate them cannot be stopped, no more than George Wallace could stop desecration in Alabama. People will continue to create new culture from bits of old culture. Laws which aim to stop this or to extend the monopoly Big media wants over culture will only be seen as “unjust” and their only effect will be to drive the practice underground.

That is the worst side effect of bad IP laws. These only serve to erode what public trust is left in governments. When a society becomes accustom to disregarding laws, then the system of law itself breaks down. That is a legacy that we are teaching our children, to create new culture one must either be extorted by “licensing” the foundation on which to build it, or one must flout the law. Because the very nature of the law in unjust, our children will increasingly chose the latter. As a result they will not only learn to build new culture, but also learn to disrespect law in general.

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