It Was Never About The Money, Stupid: The Similarities Between Copyright Monopoly Madness & Boston Tea Taxes

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"You are just spoiled brats who don't want to pay", said the copyright industry as people shared culture and knowledge online. "You are just spoiled brats who don't want to pay", said the English after the Boston Tea Party. The underlying mechanisms are basically the same.

With every new breakthrough, old scarcities are turned into abundances, and new scarcities appear around the new abundances. When households were electrified, household food cooling became abundant, the icemaking industry went out of business overnight, and electricians came on stage. When electric lamp posts arrived, the lamplighter profession went obsolete, and again, more electricians were needed. When e-mail arrived, the postal service and mailmen went largely obsolete, but sysadmins were needed instead.

When computers allowed us to manufacture our own copies of culture and knowledge from what we observed firsthand online, the copyright industry – which held a monopoly on such duplication, keeping culture and knowledge scarce – went obsolete, and in the face of the new abundance of culture and knowledge everywhere, new scarcities appeared. For example, when you have more or less all the world’s music on your hard drive, it becomes tiresome and laborious to sort it into listening to what you want.

When the music service Pandora was launched, it did exactly this: it solved the new scarcity, the ability to sort out the abundance. I am paying subscriber number 110 out of today’s 20 million or so (and I’ve also been paying for ways to circumvent the silly attempt to lock the service to the United States). This is easy to verify.

This is notable because pirates aren’t unwilling to pay for culture and knowledge services. However, pirates (and by “pirates” I mean the younger 150 million Americans, 250 million Europeans, and roughly the younger half of the rest of the world’s population) are unwilling to pay for obsolete services, such as duplication. Pirates are early adopters.

Let’s take that again, because it is key to stopping parroting this ignorance of “don’t want to pay” about the situation with people happily sharing culture and knowledge online:

Pirates are early adopters. If you put something new and shiny in their hands, they will throw money at you. Conversely, they will be among the first to identify a stale market and abandon it. Further, they will not – ever – accept laws that lock them in to a service they haven’t asked for, especially not when they can do the same thing themselves at practically no effort, such as manufacturing copies of movies, music, games, or software from their own raw material and labor.

Obviously, this means you can’t morally oblige pirates to pay for manufacturing their own copies using their own labor and materials, even if the law says you have the right to tax and fine them for doing so. That comes across as extremely heavy-handed and repressive.

This has happened many times before, and these situations tend to resolve in about the same way. One of the more famous occasions resulted in a huge tea party on the docks of Boston. This is despite the fact that those people didn’t seem to have a problem as such paying the tea taxes; it simply wasn’t about the money, as it never is.

You can dismiss pirates as just being greedy and surely able to pay if they wanted, just as you could dismiss the colonist tea drinkers as greedy bastards who surely could afford to pay the tax on their English tea. And in doing so, you’d be missing the point entirely, choosing to grotesquely mischaracterize a situation in order to stay comfortable but ignorant.

“But the Boston Tea Party was about taxation without representation!”, some would say. “The copyright monopoly issue is different!”

Is it, really?


Let’s review the facts at hand. The copyright monopoly laws were constructed to benefit the public, and the public only. In the U.S. Constitution, we can read clearly that the purpose of the copyright monopoly is “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts”. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is important to note this, as the purpose of the monopoly (“exclusive right”) is not and was never to allow somebody to make money on a particular activity. In particular, its purpose was never to allow somebody to keep making money the same way they always had, even when technology had changed the landscape and their offering didn’t add any value anymore.

The copyright monopoly is a balance, but it is a balance between two competing interests of the public: the public’s interest in promoting new science and arts, and the same public’s interest in having access to that science and arts. The copyright industry is not a legitimate interest in this legislation.

This is where the problem begins. For when we look at how the copyright monopoly legislation has been written and re-written in the past decades, it has been entirely tailored to the wishes of the obsolete middleman industry, increasingly upping the penalties for circumventing their monopoly deadlock. The interest of the public – the only legitimate stakeholder – is not, and has not been, considered at all. Simply put, the public isn’t represented.

So if a law that forces people to pay something unnecessarily and involuntarily isn’t taxation, then what is it?

And if their interests aren’t being represented in that legislation… well…?

This argument may come across as esoteric and outlandish to those who defend the copyright monopoly, but I guarantee those people two things: First, that the “you only want things for free!” parroting comes across as just as outlandish and reality-defiant to those envelope-pushing entrepreneurs who understand technology and society, and second, that the “taxation without representation” call after the Boston Tea Party would come across as exactly as outlandish to those who were the self-declared nobility of that time.

I don’t want to hear the “you just don’t want to pay” ever again. We are manufacturing our own copies from what we observe firsthand with our own labor and materials, and we have every moral, philosophical, ethical, economical, and natural right to do so. We reject an obsolete industry’s legal right to enact private taxation on us for our own work. If you want to be part of the future, at least try to understand the bigger picture.

Here’s to hoping the debate in 2014 will be just slightly better than in all the previous years since I got involved in this debate, which was in about 1987. It’s up to all of us to force the debate to go there.

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at focuses on information policy.

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