Copyrights are the new Colonialism

The late 16th Century was the dawn of the British Empire. England had triumphed on the seas, and had set its eyes on colonising the New World (before its enemies did). Patents were issued, companies were founded, and flotillas of ships dispatched to every corner — known and unknown — of the planet in the name of Queen/King and country. Colonies were born out of determination, slavery, and blood extracted from those too weak to defend themselves from British will.

In time, a phrase was born: The sun never sets on the British Empire. Great Britain’s influence extended far beyond its native shores, its power unquestionable. A few thrived under the colonial system, but the majority — the people living under colonial rule — were marginalised as being little more than the ignorant masses; significant numbers suffered horribly.

It’s really no wonder that the Empire collapsed under its own weight.

Flash forward now to our present, a world where corporations, not governments, run the world. Oh, sure, we see the laws passed by governments in the interests of its people, but it’s not the governments creating them. It’s lobbyists, working on behalf of the corporations. It’s the corporations funding political careers through donations (legal or otherwise). It’s the corporations funding large-scale advertising campaigns placing candidates more friendly to their needs into office.

It is these corporations directing the current colonialism: copyrights. Think of these not as the legalese that they are — instead, think of them as land claims, which were a significant part of the British Empire. A land claim meant you had title to earn money from people who worked your land, and the power to treat them however (un)fairly you wished. If anyone tried to take your land, you were obliged to defend it with as deadly force as you could muster.

Copyrights have been with us — and have been a controversial topic — ever since Thag copied Zog’s cave painting, and Zog hit Thag over the head with a rock. Interestingly, that form of retribution hasn’t changed much in the roughly 45,000 years since. It’s been a battle for recognition of ownership, of artistry, and for “what’s right”.

One of the biggest problems is that copyright enforcement hasn’t been particularly consistent over the years, either. Zog was lucky enough to avoid a complex judicial system. Until the early 1990s, we had to rely mostly on physical presence (namely, you had to buy an actual piece of art). Software copyrights existed, but were poorly enforced, even within large law-abiding corporations. The advance of technology broke the physical barrier, gave people the ability to access materials on their behalf … and shortly afterwards, gave corporations the ability to know who was breaking their rules.

We saw the first signs of the new colonialism at the turn of the 21st century, when one of the corporations — the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) — launched what would be come the first of many public and painful lawsuits. Metallica brought the battle into the public eye when they effectively offended the then-denizens of the internet, decrying the “fair use” belief held by many (the legality of said perspective notwithstanding). It was the first shot fired in the new independence, the first time that people showed to the world that they wanted things on their terms, not someone else’s.

The weapon wielded by groups like the RIAA and the MPAA (Motion Picture Assocation of America) was not a battle axe or a howitzer, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the DCMA. This law, enacted in the United States of America, implemented two of the treaties agreed upon by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) in 1996. This is how we came to know DRM (Digital Rights Management). They used it to guilt us to not copy, and then slaughter us when we did. The corporations had found legitimacy for their battle through governments.

In theory, this should have worked entirely to the corporation’s wishes. Within their own borders, the laws were clear, and things went (mostly) according to plan. But they weren’t so effective in the international reality. Not all countries recognised, or even seemed to care, about other country’s laws — and certainly not about the ones that enforced copyrights. Governments were engaged again to help enforce the corporations’ will.

When you have to go up to the biggest kid in the schoolyard and ask for your toy back, all you can do is whine. I imagine “aw, come on!” was heard a lot when the United States asked China not to copy software, movies, or CDs. But China opted to give only a token of acceptance — sort of like giving back only one of the wheels from the Tonka truck. China can do that, because it owns a huge portion of the United States debt, and provides the United States with cheap imports.

Where were the WIPO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in all of this? Someone’s got to run world court, right?

But the rules started changing. In the last two years, Canada had to improve its own copyright legislation, also based on DCMA, and driven by the industry — the corporations — and not by the people whom the government should represent. The sledgehammer just fell on Costa Rica: fix your copyrights, or the United States will stop importing sugar (note that coffee and bananas were excluded from the ban). Lo siento, Costa Rica, but CAFTA/TLC won’t help you here — remember, the United States wrote the core of it to benefit themselves.

Costa Rica and Canada are not alone. Dozens of countries are now working on ACTA — the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement — a virtually secret pact designed to do only one thing: enforce a DCMA-like mandate worldwide. Governments don’t want to talk about it. The corporations? They’re smiling like buddhist cows.

Colonialism was best defined when the powerful centre took after its weaker neighbours and opponents. You either fought them, or you joined them. The colonists in all of this are us, the people. We’re the ones being handed the royal decrees without benefit of democracy, the ones getting taxation without representation. We’ll be the ones held in stockades, heads put on pikes, and held up as terrorists to the state (covering for the corporation).

Now lest anyone thing I’m against copyrights, I’m not. I respect the creativity needed to make something new, and the need for that artist is duly compensated for their efforts. But I’m against the inappropriate use of copyrights (and patents, for that matter). When copyrights are flaunted by corporations and not by the artist, it becomes a debate of what’s more important — stockholder dividends, or protecting the artist’s needs?

‘Cuz from what I’m seeing, another war for independence is coming. But this one will cross nearly every border, involve almost everyone, and probably install a new form of class structure in the process. Suddenly, that remote cabin in the mountains looks a lot more appealing…