The 16th Century Religious Wars And Today’s Copyright Monopoly Wars Have More In Common Than You Think

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People in power have always tried to prevent the common folk from obtaining knowledge that threatens their power. This happened in the 16th century, and it is happening now.

copyright-brandedInformation advantage has always equaled power.

The group in society that can control what the other groups know and don’t know will rise to power in every other aspect. Therefore, information technology has always been policed and even militarized to some extent, by any group that obtains the ability to control it.

It has been the case since the dawn of civilization that some group has told everybody else what the world looks like, how it works, and what happens in it. (Usually, that group is placed at the center of that particular world view in one way or another.) This continues today, with governments all over the world trying to put their spin of events on the newsflow, putting themselves in a good light to literally get away with murder.

The quest for the net’s liberty is not a fight for some silly right to download free music. It is much larger than that: it breaks a hegemony that has stood for millennia.

This is why the old guard is terrified of the Internet. It’s not that you can copy and spread their propaganda without asking – heck, that’s what they want, and have always wanted. What they fear is that you can fact-check it and publish your findings without asking anybody’s permission. Or worse still, you can start communicating your own view of the world, rather than relating everything you think to their image of the world.

All of this has happened before.

When the printing press was invented, it wasn’t a revolutionary invention as such – it was a revolutionary combination of four other inventions: metal movable type, block pressing, oil-based inks, and cheap cloth-based paper. It revolutionized society by its ability to distribute information cheaply, quickly, and accurately.

At its invention, Gutenberg pictured the Catholic Church using the printing press to distribute its bibles better and faster, being able to get a more consistent interpretation of Christianity out to the smallest village. But that’s not quite what happened.

Rather, a new movement emerged, one that was much better at using the new technology, and which used its superior ability to distribute information in getting the upper hand over the Catholic Church. It was called Protestantism and it differed from Catholicism in one crucial aspect: It printed bibles in people’s own languages.

The power to interpret the bible from Latin had been shattered, ruined, destroyed – and with it, a large amount of the power of the Catholic Church. They tried every trick in the book to put the cat back in the bag and sabotage this technology – up to and including the death penalty, which was instituted in France on January 13, 1535, against the crime of using a printing press at all.

It didn’t work. The cat was indeed out of the bag. People could publish and distribute their own ideas. The hegemony fell, but not without some 200 years of horrible wars. On the surface, they were about minute details of Christianity – about how you should go about worshipping a particular god.

Looking closer at the situation, a bloody war between Catholicism and Protestantism seems odd and puzzling. They are two branches of the same religion that worship the same god, using the same instruction manual. Only the language of the instruction manual differs – one branch has it in local languages, the other branch has its instruction manual in Latin. Why was this worth 200 years of warfare across the entire known world at the time?

The differences are indeed superficial, but the consequences of those differences are not. In one branch, it means that those who know Latin – the clergy and academics – get the ability to tell everybody else what to do, and it was ruled in a strict religious top-down hierarchy. In the other branch, that power of interpreting the instruction manual (the bible) rested with the people themselves.

The religious wars were never about religion as such. They were about who held the power of interpretation, about who controlled the knowledge and culture available to the masses. It was a war of gatekeepers of information.

Does this narrative feel familiar?

Interestingly, one of the methods used by the people on the Catholic side of the fight was to suppress dissent by censoring the printing press. While criminal and harsh penalties didn’t work, commercial incentives to kill freedom of speech worked flawlessly. Mary I of England gave a printing monopoly to London’s printing guild, the London Company of Stationers, on May 4, 1557. This monopoly gave them exclusive rights to printing in all of England, in exchange for allowing the Queen’s censors to prevent any threatening ideas from seeing the light of day.

This monopoly was very beneficial for the new gatekeepers – the printers – and the ruling class alike, with every member of the public losing their freedom of information from it. But how would those members of the public know what ideas were never before their eyes, and understand their impact to society?

This monopoly stands to this day. It was the copyright monopoly that started like this.

Yes, that means that you can view today’s copyright monopoly wars as a logical continuation of the 16th century religious wars. There is nothing new under the sun.

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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