What’s wrong with DMCA, ACTA and all that?

The name on the box doesn’t matter if the contents do something else

I’m no freeloader. I don’t have an iPod full of bootleg tracks. I don’t have much time for the shenanigans of either Big Content (“the web is eating my lunch”) or Big Technology (“copyright is breaking the web”). Or freeloaders. If I represent anything besides myself it’s artists and their rights, and consumers and their rights.

We’ve heard a lot of noise from both sides of the Big Web Content battle and seen a lot of legislation and legal activity too. Big Content has been suing everyone it can think of and Big Technology has been facilitating infringement in as many ways as it can. The impact on artists and consumers is what concerns me.

“I have confused things with their names, that is belief.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Yes, it’s my old favourite. I’m not saying Jean-Paul would come down on the same side as me but I think he had a point. Behind the rhetoric are vested interests—actions speak louder than words. I simply don’t trust the motives of the record industry or the Internet lobby. We have seen what they say and we have seen what they do. It doesn’t add up.

The DMCA provides a safe harbour for web sites that (ostensibly without knowledge) host infringing material, on the understanding they will remove it when they know. DRM (from SDMI through the Sony rootkit fiasco and beyond) was intended to safeguard digital copyrights. More recently we’ve seen SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and many other proposals kick up an almighty row leading to no solution at all. And I’m sure there will be more (some variant of 3-strikes under ISP police is popular at the moment).

I support the record industry taking copyright infringers to court, whether or not it made sense they were entitled to do it. On the other hand the damages they claimed (in one case more than the annual earnings of the USA) were ridiculous. And their preference for settling overblown amounts without testing them in court wasn’t right. They had a righteous cause but treated the accused as if they were guilty, without trial.

Likewise the Internet lobby had a reasonable case for DMCA, it sounds rational, then we saw how Google, Grooveshark and others used it. The man in the street can’t get material removed from YouTube, even a journalist on The Guardian can’t get infringing material removed from Grooveshark. Google keeps record labels sweet by taking down their material on demand—even when it turns out not to be theirs at all. But what good is the DMCA for you and me?

When Big Content brought ACTA forward I didn’t trust them because we see how they use DMCA. ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, sounds like a good thing but we already had an international IP treaty, WIPO. Shouldn’t IP trade sanctions refer to that?

Where has all this legal noise got us? Is copyright better protected? Does the Internet offer us a great music experience? No and no. And while old and new vested interests wrestle each other for control of web content their propaganda is echoed by media pundits who take one side or the other. The debate is a classic establishment puppet show—self-serving outrage and mumbo jumbo.

If that debate mattered much I’d get stuck in, but I don’t think it does. This whole mess is being resolved slowly by events, not the pipe-dreams of big business academics and bureaucrats. Both sides are quite mad and they are both losing the war. Increasingly what matters is a new music economy with no big business champions or media voice, one that grows while the others shrink.

4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with DMCA, ACTA and all that?

    • I know what you mean. At least I think you mean “how can an artist be part of such an economy?”

      Well, in the old days 99% of traditional record industry signings (who flopped) might ask the same question. And speaking as one of the millions of others who never even got signed I know I asked that question back then.

      I could give a long, incomplete list of names of pro and semi-pro artists who have no label and do their own thing. The one thing they have in common besides making a noise people like is they don’t share any model or formula that can easily be copied.

      In the bad old days there was only one model: get signed by a label and/or publisher and cross your fingers, or keep gigging until it happened. Today every artist has their own system (these aren’t models because they can’t be followed like a prototype).

      One big barrier has fallen—we can all record and distribute—but other barriers remain, notably finding your audience. The tools to assist that, and for your audience finding you, are very weak at the moment. Today, many musicians (and I think you are one of them Rod) can justifiably be frustrated but on the other hand many others find their own formula. And that independent sector is growing while the old recorded music mainstream shrinks.

      Anecdotally I guess the semi-pro share is bigger than it used to be simply because it is more feasible to do that these days (and as the traditional biz declines it takes some pro opportunities with it). In some ways there is no “making it” any more but more musicians do find a niche that works.

  1. I think “making it” is being redefined to a whole range of things. For some it will still only ever mean the fame and trappings and there will only ever be a very small number of people who achieve this. But for many more it will be everything from simply being able to play, record and share their music to those who live solely from it. It’s a continuum rather than a state now.
    I reckon…
    Going back to your main point, about ACTA and the like, my concern around this is how much we lose along the way if this stuff gets through. Not just from a music perspective but in terms of freedom of speech and anti-competitive practice from the incumbents.

  2. Indeed. Although governments spin these changes as “modernisation” they are lobbied by big business on both sides. The technology firms want more stuff free and fewer licenses, and big content providers want better terms and an edge over independents.

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