When I was giving a presentation in Lisbon, Portugal this week, I called the copyright monopoly worship we see around us a “mass psychosis” and a “race to the bottom”. My opponents from WIPO and the Motion Picture Association were not amused. Still, it’s an accurate picture, if history is a judge.
I have written before on TorrentFreak about the Red Flag Act of 1865 in the United Kingdom.
As the automobile industry gained steam there, lobbyists spoke out and pretended to embrace the automobile, while in reality acting to kill its utility value to the benefit of the previous generation of industries.
More specifically, the Red Flag Act stipulated that any car in the United Kingdom must have a “crew” of three people: the driver, a stoker (essentially a mechanic), and a man walking in front of the car waving a red flag. Yes, you read that right.
In this way, the car could be used to safely (and slowly) transport people and cargo to the incumbent transport industries of the day: the stagecoach and railroad stations, while at the same time preventing the car from replacing the stagecoach and railroad. Unsurprisingly, it turned out later that these same industries – the stagecoach and railroad industries – had been behind the lobbying that led to the law that killed the disruptive innovation against their industries.
As a result, the German automobile industry got a head start of several decades against the British, which still – 150 years later – is clearly visible in market share and engineering know-how. That’s how damaging it is to let an incumbent industry set the terms for the disruptive upstarts.
These days, we can observe three industries trying to pull a Red Flag Act trick on the Internet. Apart from the copyright industry, which is completely obsolete and literally fighting for its life, we can also trivially observe that the telco and cable TV industries are pretending to embrace the net, while actually trying to prevent its utility value for as long and as much as possible (as the net will disintegrate both of those industries, too).
But the real interesting thing happens when the described mass psychosis sets in, and legislators in several countries perceive a thing like the Red Flag Act to be a good idea. It wasn’t just in the United Kingdom that an automobile-killing law was created, and to be frank, the UK law requiring somebody to walk in front of a car waving a warning flag was one of the more sensible incarnations.
For once this kind of industrial protectionism (“IP”) laws are wrongly imagined to be good for the public, just because they are good for an obsolete industry, everybody lines up in a race to the bottom to save the old obsolete industries at any cost against the threat of everything new and disruptive.
There is a word for this: neophobia. It means “fear of the new”, and is very often seen in politics in general, and in lobbying in particular.
My favorite example of how the Red Flag Act spread in a mass psychosis is its appearance in Pennsylvania, 1896. (That’s thirty years after the initial law – don’t think that people see a horrible idea for what it is anytime quick, if there are financial interests to prop it up, the public interest be damned.)
The bill proposed in Pennsylvania stated that any driver of a car, when he or she sees cattle or horses up ahead on the road, must immediately take three actions in order: the driver must a) stop the vehicle, b) disassemble the vehicle completely, and c) hide all the parts in the nearest shrubbery until the animals have passed.
That crazy bill passed both legislative chambers in Pennsylvania. Unanimously. In retrospect, that’s what I’d definitely call a mass psychosis. To us, today, it’s obvious that the law was not just a bad idea, but asylum-worthily catastrophic.
That’s where we are with copyright monopoly enforcement today. Saving the old, obsolete industries at any cost, defending the copyright monopoly and obsolete distribution models against the future, and seeing legislators taking part in this neophobic race to the bottom is a clinical mass psychosis.
The future will not be happy about these events, rightly laughing at them. But the good news is that we know we can build a better future than the equivalent of Pennsylvania’s car laws (three strikes, ISP liability, DMCA, InfoSoc, domain seizing, culture-sharing bans in the first place, the list goes on) – we, the people aware enough to read this article and understand the ridicule of everything proposed and enacted to defend the copyright monopoly today.