As I was explaining the need for copyright monopoly reform in Dublin this week, an elderly gentleman red-faced with rage exclaimed in the Q&A session that the copyright monopoly was absolutely crucial for freedom of expression. It surprises me that some monopolists still have things this backwards: the monopoly was always a gag on freedoms of speech and expression.
When Queen Mary I created the copyright monopoly on May 4, 1557, it was a purebred censorship mechanism: in exchange for a lucrative monopoly on printing, the London Company of Stationers agreed to let anything printed first pass by the royal censors.
This was the norm for a long time in England, and the monopoly has been used to prevent freedom of speech since, with the exception of 1695-1710, as the monopoly did not exist during those fifteen years.
The examples are plenty of how the copyright monopoly has been used as a bludgeon against freedoms of speech and expression. From the landmark court case in 1765, when the Entick vs. Carrington case determined that authorities had no right to quell free speech unless the method used is specifically enabled by law, right up until modern times when the Finnish oil company Neste Oil disgracefully used the copyright monopoly to kill a legitimate Greenpeace protest site against the oil company (by threatening to sue the Internet Service Provider, to boot, and not Greenpeace directly).
The fact that the copyright monopoly is a limitation on freedom of expression, and therefore an interference with fundamental human rights, has even been confirmed recently by the European Court of Human Rights.
And yet, when you outline this very clear picture, some dinosaurs will insist that the freedom of expression only covers “your own” expressions, and not “other people’s” expressions, in an attempt to defend the legitimacy of the copyright monopoly. This is hogwash of the lowest conceivable quality. There is no such thing as “other people’s expressions” that aren’t covered by freedom of expression when I repeat them in a message of my own.
When I sing “Happy Birthday” to somebody, that is quite obviously a message of my own aimed at somebody having a birthday, despite my singing that song being an illegal violation of the copyright monopoly. It is therefore trivial to see how the copyright monopoly is an illegitimate limitation on freedom of expression.
Oh by the way, the Q&A session in Dublin ended well: after the elderly enraged gentleman had tried to “correct” my highlight of the need for copyright monopoly reform by reciting the entire arsenal of commonly-debunked arguments of the copyright industry, a younger professional took the microphone and calmly explained how pretty much every view I had expressed was perfectly in tune with his generation’s values. Everybody in the room took careful note.